Local, Organic Food Not Just for the Rich

Online Farmers Markets Increase Access to Good Food for All Income Levels

The argument that locally farmed, organic food is just for entitled snobs may not hold water for much longer.

A big, hairy criticism of the “buy local, eat organic” movement has been that it’s mainly for those with the means to shoulder the higher cost of organics. But the Internet may be changing that.

Consider Rural Resources, a farm-to-customer service in the hilly, remote regions of eastern Tennessee. They run the Mobile Farmers Market, an online delivery service that “connects farmers who need a market for their produce” with consumers looking for local produce. Their website prominently features the fact that they accept government-assistance debit cards—a pretty significant barricade to folks on a very limited budget.

The Carrboro Farmers’ Market is just one market in North Carolina that accepts EBT, or electronic food stamps.

The Carrboro Farmers’ Market is just one market in North Carolina that accepts EBT, or electronic food stamps. (Photo from North Carolina Health News)

Painted like a little red barn, complete with a white-trimmed horse door, Rural Resources’ produce bus brings locally grown food to its customers every Thursday, and has orders available for pickup on Wednesdays.

More and more options like this exist, where shoppers can go online and make a direct order from a local farm or co-op, similar to Giant Food’s Peapod delivery service. Customers sign up, order exactly what they want or need–with the corresponding ability to stick more closely to a budget–and have their food brought right to their door.

Farmer’s markets still have their place, too. It’s no secret that they’re a hot item—in many cities and suburbs, dozens of new markets have sprouted up, and continue to proliferate as people continue to beat the drum for kale from a mom-and-pop farm.

farm-market-produce

Like a good little government agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture keeps track of the total number of farmers markets in the country—as of the first week of August 2013, there were 8,133 markets listed in the USDA National Farmers Market Directory (whoops, Aug. 4, 2014 data release: now 8,268 markets.) That’s a 3.6 percent increase over the 2012 total, and a 78 percent increase from the number of markets in 1994 (1,755), when the USDA started keeping track. Oh, and happy National Farmers Market Week!

In American cities, markets are still a pretty new thing, but most are fairly accessible by a large portion of the population—in Washington, D.C. for example, the Washington Post listed 33 markets within city limits for the 2014 season. Many of them also accept food stamps or other government funds, an effort to expand accessibility to have-nots as well.

But what about those folks who live out in the middle of nowhere? Food deserts are as much a problem in rural America as they are in inner cities: areas with high rates of poverty have limited access to fresh food of any kind, let alone organic. Food insecurity is a major problem for a lot of people.

Let us not here belabor the point that convenience stores generally don’t provide many healthy options, but the reality is that a Quik Snak is what a lot of people have within a reasonable driving distance. Rural grocery stores are under ever-more pressure by bulk competitors and sheer cost of doing business, leaving residents precious few other options.

A farmer's market outside of Austin, Texas. (Photo from the Texas Observer)

A farmer’s market outside of Austin, Texas. (Photo from the Texas Observer)

There is a demand for farms, and farms there are – everywhere. Pop in a ZIP code at Local Harvest’s site, and you’ll get back a dizzying list of farms and farmers markets in even some pretty remote stretches of America.

Okay, a moment of honesty: residents of Mentone, Texas, the seat of the fifth least populated county in the United States, must still drive two hours to Midland or Carlsbad, New Mexico to get to their nearest farmers market.

Increasingly, rural farms also run community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, and more and more of them seem to be driving towards also accepting SNAP and WIC debit cards. Some do home deliveries of their weekly bag or box of produce, often organic and/or non-GMO (genetically modified organisms), along with other options like milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt and meats. In other programs, customers must go to a designated pick-up point – in the case of poor Loving County, Texas, home of Mentone, the 82 resident souls must still drive two hours to the nearest CSA, Porter Community Farm, to pick up their weekly bag of locally grown produce.

The upside of CSAs is that customers typically get a pre-loaded box of whatever is in season. Downsides include higher up-front costs—an early spring one-time payment in the hundreds of dollars is not uncommon. Also, you flirt with food rotting if you don’t know what to do with a glut of cabbage in June, and run the very real risk of not getting a full share if the weather or pests aren’t cooperating (refunds aren’t typically given for acts of God. But even more of these food vendors are allowing customers to pick and choose to suit their budgets and tastes.

Better living through Internet.

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A monarch needs your help.

When I was in the 7th grade, I found a treasure. It was bright blue, like a robin’s egg, but unlike any egg, this particular parcel was one of nature’s enduring mysteries: the chrysalis of a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

ImageI brought the pupa case, branch attached, in to my science class, and we put it in a jar near a window. Over the course of some days, the chrysalis darkened, showing clearly identifiable butterfly parts within. Eventually, a dark incised line appeared near the top of the pupa case, and when that line finally encircled the top, a very weak and wrinkled adult butterfly struggled out. Once dry, it climbed out of our jar and launched itself straight out the open window.

This was in Utah in the early 1990s, and around the same time, one of the small trees in our front yard was completely inundated with monarch butterflies. Migrating southward, it would seem, just a quick stop along its jaunt from Canada to Mexico. I’d never seen anything like it before, and if you’ve seen any of the news lately, you may not have many chances to see it again.

In last winter’s survey (2012-13) of the butterfly’s overwintering grounds in several Mexican forests, only 1.19 hectares, or just about 2 acres, were found to be hosting significant colonies of the migrating species. Compare with with the high of 18.19 hectares (almost 45 acres) in 1995-96. Numbers have generally been on the decline every year since then, with fluctuations up and down, but never to the point where they are now.

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Forest Area Occupied by Monarch Butterfly Colonies from 1993-2013, from MonarchWatch.org

North American Leaders Urged to Restore Monarch Butterfly’s Habitat, nudges today’s New York Times (Feb. 14, 2014).

Monarch butterflies deserve executive attention, proclaims an editorial yesterday’s Boston Globe (Feb. 13, 2014)

Carlos Slim! Mexican billionaire tycoon throws in a not insubstantial amount of his own funds to rescue this iconic butterfly species (Feb. 10, 2014).

Why?

To put it dramatically, the butterflies are running out of food. Literally starving. This is a result of a two-fold problem: harsh climate fluctuations and a diminishing food source.

Putting aside the issue of the increasingly hot North American summers that kill the fragile monarch larvae before they hatch, a more controllable issue for gardeners and butterfly-lovers is the plants on which these butterflies’ larvae feed. Monarch larvae rely on members of the milkweed family (Asclepias), known to kids and non-gardening types for their glossy puffs of wind-blown seed. Farmers, however, don’t find these plants charming at all, especially growers of corn and soy. Corn and soy acreage has exploded in the last 20 years, in part thanks to genetic modifications that make the cash crops resistant to herbicides like Roundup (glyphosate). Thus freed to spray weeds with abandon without danger to their crops, farmers have unleashed chemical doom on beneficial native weeds and other plants alike, resulting in fewer and far more fragmented feeding zones for the ever diminishing hordes of monarch butterflies.

It’s true, milkweed is, well, a weed. It reseeds freely and blows willy-nilly in the wind when the pods ripen in late summer. But folks, can you forgive the plant if it’s gorgeous? It’s easy enough to deadhead when it’s done blooming, right along with other perennials you wish to avoid spreading about. It surely deserves a place in anyone’s garden. Have a look.

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Butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa

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Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

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Showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa

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Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca

Selections and cultivars of swamp milkweed and butterfly milkweed are probably the easiest to find in any nursery that offers any native plants, but mail-order outfits like Prairie Moon and Plant Delights carry one or more species of milkweed. They’re long-blooming, tough plants; my own swamp milkweed was absolutely covered in bees and butterflies virtually all summer long.

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Swamp milkweed in my own perennial garden (back left), the first year I planted it.

You might laugh, or outright scoff at the idea of planting a weed. But remember, a weed is defined as a plant out of place. If you want it, it’s not a weed anymore–especially when it’s serving not only an aesthetic purpose but an ecological one, as well.

Find a sunny, sort of soggy (or well-mulched) spot for a milkweed in your yard or garden. The monarchs will thank you.

Read more about milkweed and monarchs here:

U.S. Forest Service: Milkweeds and Nectar Sources

U.S. Forest Service: Milkweed Species Beneficial to the Monarch Butterfly

Slate: The Missing Monarchs

MonarchWatch.org: Monarch Butterfly Survey Points to Lowest Numbers in 20 Years

Oil Companies in the Water Business?

oil-on-the-water

Here’s nifty new take on an old idea: water polluters being on the hook for cleaning up their own messes, but using newer, cleaner technology that gets more of the ick out of the water. Some new green tech is taking a look at using oxidation to convert organic toxic byproducts of drilling and fracking projects into their basic components — nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen.

Forbes Magazine’s Ucilia Wang writes:

Some of the strong interest to recycle water comes from shale gas companies in the United States. A recent report pointed out that three-quarters of the close to 40,000 oil and gas wells drilled since 2011 sit in fairly dry areas, and 55% of them are in regions that face drought. Hydraulic fracking can use up millions of gallons of water for one well.

High time, I say.

Check it out: Methane Digesters

So, I’m writing for EHow.com now, and this is one of the better ones I’ve written lately. Pretty cool stuff.

Cow power!

The Process

Strictly speaking, the animals on a farm are the methane generators, since it is the breakdown of their waste that produces this gas used to generate electricity. Well-established farm technologies, combined with a groundswell of interest in innovative energy sources, have led to the development of several systems that can harness the passive power of escaping gases.

Anaerobic decomposition, or bacteria breaking down materials in the absence of oxygen, generates volumes of methane. Historically, these and other waste gases have been allowed to merely evaporate into the atmosphere. But by collecting animal waste into covered lagoons and gathering the resulting gas, the waste can fuel a heat-powered electric generator. Excess energy not used for farming purposes can be sold to the local electric utility company and distributed out to the electric grid.

One Lancaster, Pa. farm, which recently completed a methane collection system, houses 1,400 head of dairy cattle and 250,000 broiler chickens. By converting collected gases, the farm produces 4 to 5 megawatts of electricity every day, most of which is sold back to the grid. This amount of electricity can power up to 200 homes per day.

How it Works

Barns are outfitted with flush tanks, which collect animal waste, which is then flushed to collecting tanks in a buried or covered pit, known as a lagoon. The lagoon complex usually includes one or more overflow pits per lagoon; this helps keep lagoon volumes and rates of gas production consistent. Waste breaks down best at temperatures between 40 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, so concrete-lined pits in colder areas may be equipped with insulation and heaters to keep the temperature consistent throughout the year.

Bacteria present in the animal waste begins to break down the solids, releasing carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen sulfide, known collectively as biogas. An alternate design, called a plug-flow system, has concrete tanks with an agitator, which prevents solids from crusting and evenly distributes solids for uniform decomposition.

Waste gases are collected through an outlet tube at the top of the tank and are then fed into a generator system. Most engines generate power by burning the methane via internal combustion, which produces electricity. Since the hydrogen sulfide gas byproduct is corrosive to combustion engines, it is removed either through microbial pit filters or scrubbers in the generating plant.

Once biogases are removed, the remaining solids either continue to accumulate for later removal or are piped out and dried for use as fertilizer. Many of the leftover solids consist of nitrogen, phosphorous, copper and zinc, and with minimal treatment may be spread over cropland as a fertilizer.

Costs

Costs for installing a biogas collection and combustion system can be prohibitively high for small farms, which take much longer to recoup the costs than a larger farm. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, which operates on a grant by the US Department of Agriculture, estimates that a 150-head pig farm might build an anaerobic methane generator system for $25,000, though a 5,000-head dairy farm system could cost upward of $1.3 million. Depending on the amount of electricity generated and sell-back rates, these systems can take three to seven years or more to realize a profit.

The US Environmental Protection Agency, in conjunction with other federal and state agencies, provides grants and other financial assistance for farmers interested in building a methane collection and electricity generation system.

Concerns

Methane and hydrogen sulfide are also poisonous gases, and in sufficient quantities can kill a human by asphyxiation in only seconds. Should the gas collection system somehow rupture, these gases are more or less safe as long as they disperse into the air. However, if a system failure requires maintenance in a closed, confined space, workers must observe proper safety measures, including use of a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

Reference Links:

Additional Resources:

Article URL:

http://www.ehow.com/how-does_5839767_methane-generators-used-farms-work.html

Turn Off the Faucet. It’s Not Cheap, It’s “Green.”

When I was a kid growing up, my dad was a conservation cop.

He’d incessantly lecture us to turn off the faucet when we were brushing our teeth. We were only to use running water to rinse dirty dishes after soaping them, rather than leave the tap on. He’d constantly berate us to turn off the lights whenever we left a room, and my mother’s cold bones got no comfort from his habit of turning down the thermostat even in the winter (in Germany!).

But as far as I can tell, my dad wasn’t concerned about the environmental costs of running water or burning lightbulbs — he was concerned about the pennies that added up to become extra dollars owed for each month’s utility bills.

It’s funny, though, because now when I go to visit my parents, my dad isn’t much different. He still unscrews lightbulbs in the bathroom vanity (there are four, and usually two are unscrewed — even though they are the power-saving variety). He still opens the doors in the early morning to let cool air into the house to delay turning on the air conditioning, and still asks me to turn off the water a lot. Thankfully now that I’m grown up, he no longer sticks his head into the bathroom while I’m in the shower to growl at me to “keep it short.”

He’s still frugal, but now he has an additional defense. As he turns off the kitchen faucet in the middle of dishes, he’ll chirp, “It’s eco-friendly to save water!” My dad, an unwitting environmental pioneer before his time.

There are innumerable articles and analyses of the “green fad” — how buying Product X “using more post-consumer materials” reduces your personal carbon footprint, or my recent personal favorite, Ziploc brand’s new line of resealable baggies with “25 percent less plastic made with 100% wind power!” Now you can have guilt-free resealable glee.

I think it’s great that grocery stores are pushing the whole reusable tote thing. But I’m with my dad on this one: if they were really so concerned about the environment, they’d be giving them away rather than trying to stick you for a buck to buy one. I have no sympathy for high-end retailers who are being “forced” to drop prices to lure newly destitute shoppers to buy their wares:

Starbucks dropped the price of a medium iced coffee last week to just under $2. American Eagle cut out the ribbon from the inside waistband of its khakis and lowered the cost. Pottery Barn launched a new “Comfort Collection” sofa that starts at $999.99, which is $300 less than the “Basic Collection” sofa. Even Rock & Republic, whose trendy denim has graced the backsides of celebrities such as Victoria Beckham, recently unveiled a line of recessionista jeans selling for $128, a 29 percent reduction. (Washington Post, May 12, 2009)

I’m sure there exists a detailed, convoluted doctoral thesis on how America evolved from the penny-pinching Recession-era survival habits of our grandsires into a culture of shopping-therapy addicts. But it’s ironic that the ongoing fiscal crisis is forcing many to dramatically change their habits, engendering new behaviors that mesh rather conveniently with the talking points of the environmental movement.

One “green tips” website suggests cutting out meat on weekdays, limiting carnivorous activity to weekend cookouts. The argument is that it will not only save you money, but mollify your carbon-guilty soul.

Consider also the broader effect.

  • If more of us ate less meat, the big cattle and hog feedlots would inevitably feel the pinch.
  • Some would close, or reorganize into smaller units for quality rather than quantity.
  • Since we’d be eating more plant matter, more money will go towards farms and agriculture…
  • …requiring a concerted, concentrated effort support local, sustainable farms, thereby limiting exposure to huge commercial agriculture–which has its own set of problems that are separate, but equal, to those of the commercial meat industry.

We absolutely do vote with our dollars.

It’s a stubborn problem because it requires pervasive, permanent changes in behavior. As a culture, we’d much rather buy our way out — patronizing products with claims of environmentally friendly manufacturing, or cars with batteries, or cleaning chemicals that are “all natural.”

A paper published in 2004 by Dr. Phillip Payne for the Australian Association for Research in Education studied 42 families in the Melbourne, Australia area to determine how they constructed their environmental commitments and behaviors. One key finding: many families’ attitudes towards frugal, anti-consumerist lifestyle choices — which tend to align with “environmental” tenets — are shaped by early and frequent international travel, exposure to different cultures, experiencing tolerance for differences, home farming, and generous opportunities for outdoor discovery as children. Families who also tended to make lifestyle choices that limit overall income reported that these choices increased happiness and contentment.

So is frugality the essence of a lasting environmental movement? By keeping your dollar in your pocket and making do with what you’ve got until it’s gone — is it these things, not buying the latest “green” item, are what will make the long-term difference? Thriftiness doesn’t have to mean you’re poor anymore — it increasingly means you’re green, if the title is what matters to you.

As the Depression-era adage goes: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

Purple Prisms vs. Emerald Ash Borer

After another long kid-related hiatus, I finally have some time to write, and I have luckily also come across a subject that piqued my interest after a simple walk in the neighborhood.

The color purple was chosen for its wavelength--adult emerald ash borers (and other kinds of insects) are attracted to the color, and the smell of a bait oil the traps are doused with.

The color purple was chosen for its wavelength--adult emerald ash borers (and other kinds of insects) are attracted to the color, and the smell of a bait oil the traps are doused with.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a strange, three-sided purple whatsit hanging in a tree. I was mystified, but my best guess was that it was some local artist’s public display, since it makes sense for the kind of neighborhood I live in. Two weeks later, I saw two more of them hanging in a park well removed from my artsy locale, so I finally gathered my wits to figure it out.

Turns out, those purple prisms are baited, glue-covered traps designed to attract the emerald ash borer, a beautiful jewel of an Asian beetle whose larvae have a knack for slowly and very effectively killing ash trees. The traps don’t bring the ash borer to the area — evidently, the beetles spread very slowly on their own — but the traps draw any adults present in an area so state forestry offices can try to pinpoint the “leading edges” of existing infestations.

I mentioned that the bug doesn’t really get far on its own. As far as the people in charge of tracking the insect can tell, the two main methods of spread are from people bringing firewood with them from home when they go on a camping trip, and affected nursery stock being shipped to places where the insect wasn’t before.

The emerald ash borer made its first public appearance in the United States in Michigan around 2002, having stowed away in wooden packing material from Asia roughly 10 years earlier. Despite a federal quarantine on shipping ash out of the state, the borer showed up in Fairfax County in 2003 after a Michigan tree nursery illegally sold infested ash saplings to a Prince George’s County nursery, which were then planted at a Fairfax elementary school. The county briefly got rid of the borer by chopping down several hundred trees in the affected areas, only to have it show up again in 2008, putting Virginia solidly in the “affected” category. Other states with EAB infestations and quarantines include  Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Wisconsin, and parts of Canada. And on May 14, 2009, Minnesota discovered the insects for the first time in the St. Paul area.

Adult emerald ash borer.

Adult emerald ash borer.

The USDA’s Forest Service writes:

Ash occurs extensively in the natural and urban forests of the Eastern United States. In 2001, ash accounted for more than 149 million cubic feet of timber products nationwide. It is estimated that more than a billion ash trees are growing in the United States, and about 800 million of these occur in Michigan. As of 2005, at least 15 million ash trees have died from EAB in Michigan alone. This loss is especially noticeable in urban areas where ash, once considered a hardy shade tree, was used to replace American elm trees after their demise from Dutch elm disease.

According to Minnesota’s Natural Resources Division, the state “has one of the highest volumes of ash on forestland in the U.S. with an estimated 867 million forestland ash trees,” and is also used frequently as an urban street tree for its beauty and hardiness. Separately, a 2007 paper studying the economic impacts of a 100 percent loss of Ohio’s ash cohort (over 4 million trees) estimated that to cut and replace dead and dying trees would cost the state and its citizens between $1.8 and $7.6 billion –that’s just one state, and just one type of pest.

There are some efforts underway to figure out what to do with all the dead wood — as there will surely be. Benches, baby furniture and baseball bats are a few of the things I came across.

Wondering if you have any ash trees that might be affected? The main sign is defoliation at the edges of the tree, along with the presence of “D” shaped exit holes where the larvae-turned-adult borers dig their way out from beneath the bark.

Tip defoliation of young ash trees, and vigorous suckering at the lower levels of the plant.

Tip defoliation of young ash trees, and vigorous suckering at the lower levels of the plant.

Adults leave a telltale D-shaped exit hole.

Adults leave a telltale D-shaped exit hole.

Or wondering what an ash tree even looks like? Maryland’s Department of Agriculture has a useful identification site.

So today’s moral is:

Actual billboard in Ohio.

Actual billboard in Iowa.

Virginia Gets Progressive with Renewable Energy. Folks Still Aren’t Satisfied.

Several of the Mars Hill Mountain wind turbines in Maine.

Several of the Mars Hill Mountain wind turbines in Maine.

Imagine my surprise today, after seeing nary a published word regarding anything Virginia has done for the environment lately, when I stumbled across something that has passed Virginia’s General Assembly and only awaits Governor Tim Kaine’s signature to make it law: easier permitting for renewable energy power generators.

Mainly, this means wind farms, though the law provides the same guarantees for a more lenient permitting process for sources that include “sunlight, wind, falling water, wave motion, tides, or geothermal power,” and, on a smaller scale, electricity generated by biomass or municipal solid waste.

Opponents, though, say the law is only designed to provide a tax shelter for big electrical interests, and worry besides that it will allow for mammoth (read: unsightly) turbine farms on the mountaintops of western Virginia — since the law is aimed at encouraging creation of wind farms with a capacity of up to 100 megawatts, considered by legislators to be “small-scale renewable.” Biomass power plants would be restricted to a 20-megawatt production capacity. The main voice of opposition to the bill, University of Virginia scientist Rick Webb, also cites concerns about the environmental impact on wildlife by the turbines themselves.

A Jan. 30, 2009 story in the Augusta Free Press quotes a number of researchers and cautionaries who say the legislation is poorly designed and will have a whole host of unintended consequences. They stress consideration of one item in particular: that a facility with a 100-megawatt capacity can in no way be defined as “small-scale.”

A newsletter article by UtiliPoint, Inc., an energy industry consulting and research firm, spends some time exploring what, exactly, a megawatt is, and uses a wind farm’s potential capacity as an example:

A megawatt (MW) is one million watts and a kilowatt (kW) is one thousand watts. Both terms are commonly used in the power business when describing generation or load consumption. For instance, a 100 MW rated wind farm is capable of producing 100 MW during peak winds, but will produce much less than its rated amount when winds are light. As a result of these varying wind speeds, over the course of a year a wind farm may only average 30 MW of power production.

Okay, that’s nice. But how much acreage does a 100-megawatt wind farm occupy?

In Bangor, Maine, the First Wind company just celebrated the opening of their second large-scale wind farm, a 57-megawatt, 38-turbine farm along the Stetson Mountain ridgeline. The first project, comprising 28 turbines with a production capacity of 42 megawatts, opened several years ago on Mars Hill Mountain, so the two projects total about 100 megawatts.  While I couldn’t find even an estimate of the acreage required to build a 100-megawatt wind farm, an analysis of European wind farms by the World Resources Institute estimates that adequate spacing would demand anywhere from 270 to 810 hectares, or 650 to 2,000 acres.

(Another reason I love Google: to get an idea of a how big a 2,000 acre city is, I typed in “2,000 acres city” and came up with this story:  “TradeWind Energy Leases 2,000 Acres for Wind Farm,” Kansas City Business Journal, Sept. 15, 2008.) You could fit 2.5 of New York’s Central Park into 2,000 acres, for instance.

In Maine, they’ve situated the farms along mountain ridges that were previously cleared by logging activity, and are in close proximity to existing powerline transmission systems.

This could also be accomplished in Virginia; maybe even West Virginia could get in on the game by siting wind farms on mountains and ridges have already been cleared by strip mining or logging. I doubt that wind farms will just start sprouting in everyone’s back yards in the mountains — besides, the Virginia bill provides for hefty fines (from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars) for violations of permitting as well as environmental impacts, and still mandates a a public comment period before any permit is issued for a turbine farm.

Full text of the Virginia renewables bill is here (S.B. 1347) , for you legal eagles and masochists out there.