Archive for: September 2014

Inaugural Stargayzer Fest Celebrates Austin Queer Community

By Anna Daugherty, Emma Ledford and Alex Vickery

More than 100 LGBTQIA musicians, artists, drag performers and comedians from around the world took the stage for the inaugural Stargayzer Festival on Sept. 12-14 at Pine Street Station.

Zahira Gutierrez of Houston band Wild Moccasins sings during their Saturday set. Photo by Alex Vickery

Zahira Gutierrez of Houston band Wild Moccasins sings during their Saturday set. Photo by Alex Vickery

Despite the rainy weather, Austinites of all ages and orientations turned out to support the diverse range of talent within the queer community.

“We’ve got comedians and drag and performance art and we even have yoga and visual artists,” festival organizer Brett Hornsby said. “I think a lot of other pride events just kind of focus on one area alone, and so we just wanted to be as diverse as we could and show the broad spectrum that is being offered.”

Stargayzer has been years in the making, Hornsby said. Over the last five years, he was inspired by the diverse range of queer artists he met while touring with performer Christeene Vale.

“I think by [touring] I discovered how much incredible queer talent there is all over the world and how it’s kind of being overlooked,” Hornsby said. “I wanted to bring everyone together and make something that’s focused just on that.”

Photo by Alex Vickery

Two festivalgoers skip around puddles after the rain clears at Stargayzer Festival at Pine Street Station. Photo by Alex Vickery

Scheduling Stargayzer for the weekend before Austin Pride Week wasn’t intentional, Hornsby said, but it was good timing. The weather, though, was less than ideal, as rain soaked the festival grounds all day Friday and part of Saturday.

Pegzilla, from Toronto, poses with her "baby." Photo by Alex Vickery

Pegzilla, from Toronto, poses with her “baby.” Photo by Alex Vickery

The festival atmosphere, however, was anything but gloomy. Austin-based comedic drag performer Rebecca Havemeyer embraced the unexpected weather.

“I like how we have rain. We never have rain in Austin,” Havemeyer said. “The grass is growing and the ants are crawling.”

Tamara Hoover and Maggie Lea, co-owners of queer-friendly bar Cheer Up Charlie’s, said that Hornsby came to them with the idea for Stargayzer about six months ago. They jumped at the opportunity to see the Cheer Up community in a different element and location.

“Overall, this community has come out no matter what weather parameters they were given,” Hoover said. “It’s been a really awesome display of how supportive our Austin community is for each other.”

Lea agreed, adding that many festivalgoers didn’t just come for the headliners, but to support the lesser-known local bands and the Austin queer community as a whole.

When Hornsby began booking for the festival, he started with the better-known artists. He ended up getting so many submissions that he had to start turning people down.

“We discovered, on top of everything else, how much crazy stuff was out there, so going through it was really fun,” Hornsby said. “People are like, ‘Oh, you booked all the gay artists in the world!’ But that’s not true at all. There’s so many more.”

Regina The Gentlelady and her band Light Fires traveled all the way from Toronto for the festival. They played pride festivals before, but were attracted to Stargayzer because of the quality and diversity of the talent.

“It’s just a nice showcase of queer talent, and a really broad range of things,” she said. “There’s drag queens and then there’s bands that you wouldn’t even necessarily know are queer, or don’t have a queer agenda or anything, but they just are.”

"Have you ever seen a hairy bagel?" L.A. comedian Brad Loekle entertains a crowd on the main stage between musical performances.

“Have you ever seen a hairy bagel?” L.A. comedian Brad Loekle entertains a crowd on the main stage between musical performances. Photo by Alex Vickery

Though it had its share of challenges, Hornsby hopes the first Stargayzer Festival will create a foundation for the event to happen again next year.

“There’s a lot of groups to juggle and shuffle, but they’ve all been patient and really excited to be a part of something like this,” he said. “We want to make this happen. And whatever happens, happens.”

Researchers Buzz About ‘Bee-Friendly’ Plants

 

J. Tharladson shows a colony of bees pollinating a honeycomb tray at Round Rock Honey hive site in Round Rock, Texas. (Photograph by Alice Kozdemba)

J. Tharladson shows a colony of bees pollinating a honeycomb tray at Round Rock Honey hive site in Round Rock, Texas. (Photograph by Alice Kozdemba)

 

By Elizabeth Williams, Maria Roque, Katherine Recatto and Alice Kozdemba

Gardeners, beware—plants marketed as “bee-friendly” may be laced with pesticides that have been proven to harm the buzzing pollinators, according to a recent study.

The study, released by Friends of the Earth U.S. and the Pesticide Research Institute reported that 51 percent of plant samples advertised as “bee-friendly” contained harmful neonicotinoids, or neonic pesticides. The plant samples were purchased at major garden retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart from 18 cities across the U.S. and Canada, including stores in Austin.

The findings of the report fall in line with a study published by the Harvard School of Public Health in May, which linked the pesticides as a possible cause of colony collapse disorder, or CCD.

CCD is the phenomenon of worker bees disappearing from their hives. It has been reported in North America and Western Europe since 2006 after beekeepers were discovering their hives had been mysteriously emptied, with no trace of dead bees to be found.

“People are purchasing these plants with the idea that they want to attract bees and be helpful to bees, and instead they are unknowingly, in some cases, actually poisoning bees.” Luke Metzger, founder and director of Environment Texas 

The losses reported in 2006 ranged from 30 to 90 percent of beekeepers’ hives, according to the USDA. While some beekeepers are reporting a bounce-back from CCD in the last year, the causes still remain at large.

“We can use alternatives for these plants, and I think it’s especially concerning because, again, people are purchasing these plants with the idea that they want to attract bees and be helpful to bees, and instead they are unknowingly, in some cases, actually poisoning bees,” said Luke Metzger, founder and director of Environment Texas.

Without the bees’ pollination, foods like apples and onions would never make it to the dinner table. According to the study, approximately two-thirds of food crops rely on commercial pollinators, and more than 140 crops are grown with neonic pesticides, including corn, soy and wheat.

“When that happens to an entire hive, or happens to even hundreds or thousands of hives at one time, that causes a problem because that means that plants don’t get pollinated, fruit doesn’t result, and the entire food system can be compromised,” said Konrad Bouffard, owner of Round Rock Honey, a local beekeeper and honey producer.

Agrochemical businesses like Monsanto Co. and DuPont have said that neonic pesticides, which are used to soak seeds before planting, should not be present in levels that affect bees after the plant has flowered. The companies have cited mite infestations as a cause of dwindling bee populations.

While researchers have also noted habitat loss and disease as possible causes of CCD, neonic pesticides are a direct human intervention that has been proven to negatively affect bee behavior.

“It’s a combination of all these things coming together, and the straw that broke the camel’s back, or the one that stressed the environment to the point of breaking, is the neonicotinoids,” Bouffard said. “If you take out the neonicotinoids, then you don’t have the breaking point anymore.”

When crops are treated with neonics, the chemicals travel and are distributed throughout the entire plant, including areas like pollen and nectar. The pesticides can also be present in soil.

The pesticides are neurotoxins that can change the way bees behave, even when the pesticides are not at lethal levels said Nancy Moran, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Ingestion of these pesticides can also make bees more susceptible to disease and less able to fight off mite infestation.

“Bees have very complicated behavior,” Moran said. “They go to a flower, then they go back to the hive and do this special dance that tells the other bees where the flower is, and if they do the dance wrong because their brains are not working right, then the other bees will not find the flower.”

Neonic pesticides are a direct human intervention that has been proven to negatively affect bee behavior. 

Natural diversity provides bees with the healthiest pollinating opportunities.

“We don’t put our bees on the edge of farms, even organic farms,” Bouffard said. “There’s so much seed out there that has been touched by Monsanto and those places.”

In 2013, the European Union banned neonic pesticides until 2015 to see if honeybee populations increase. In the U.S., Congress proposed the Saving America’s Pollinators Act in 2013 and President Barack Obama called on the EPA and other federal agencies to create a strategy that would take steps to protect bee populations.Several states including Minnesota, Oregon, New York, California and New Jersey have also banned certain strains of the neonic pesticides.

Metzger said that the best way to get truly bee-friendly plant options is to talk to the staff of garden stores and let them know that consumers want neonicotinoid-free plants.

“I think that kind of direct consumer pressure, as the stores see the public demand for them to stop using it, they’ll respond to that,” Metzger said.

 

 

Not Just a Fad: Austin’s Evolving Locavore Movement

By Sara Cabral, Jane Claire Hervey, Larisa Manescu and Olivia Starich

 

Banner Draft

Pop-up tents form the aisles of HOPE Farmers Market at Saltillo Plaza in East Austin. Photos/editing by Olivia Starich.

 

 

On Sundays, Plaza Saltillo becomes more than a plot of concrete park.

 

The community space, nestled between the railroad tracks and a public housing complex on the intersection of 5th Street and Comal Street, transforms into a mosaic of booths and tents showcasing some of Austin’s local vendors. Called the HOPE Farmers Market, the weekly four-hour event (rain or shine) gives farmers and artisans a chance to sell their homegrown and homemade goods.

HOPE, which stands for Helping Other People Everywhere, debuted as a farmers market in 2009, but it only represents a small part of Austin’s local food movement. Typically, urban areas have their own local food systems that focus on the production and distribution of local food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local food is “defined in terms of social and supply chain characteristics” and is “related to the distance between food producers and consumers.”

For Austin, the local food system includes five types of participants that buy and sell local food: small- and large-scale farmers; farm-to-table liaisons; local food retailers (farmers markets, restaurants and grocery stores); local food awareness organizations and local food consumers. In Austin’s 2013 Economic Food Sector Report, all of these participants contributed to the more than $4 billion expended on all food in Austin in 2011. Although the amount spent specifically on the production, distribution and consumption of local food in Austin has not yet been quantified, those involved in the local food movement can speak to its impact.

 

John Lash, the founder and owner of Farm-to-Table LLC., created his company to help bridge the gap between Austin’s farmers and food retailers. In 2009, he began buying produce from small- and large-scale local farms to sell to restaurants. According to a 2007 U.S Census, there are almost 9,000 farms serving the Austin area; Lash aims to serve as many of these as possible with the goal of helping restaurants access local food sources.

“More and more restaurants see it as their obligation to serve their customers food that is good and healthy,” he said. “For the most part, but with some exceptions, they can get better-quality food from local producers.”

However, supplying restaurants with local food comes with its own set of problems. Seasons, drought, freezes and other environmental factors can keep farms from producing year-round (or at all) and crop availability varies. Despite the large impact of the environment, Lash said that the biggest barrier to supplying locally-sourced food is distribution.

“The challenge is less being able to provide and how to get it from the farmer to the customer,” Lash said.

Lash coordinates with multiple farms each week to provide local food to his clients, which include low-price restaurants like P. Terry’s and more expensive establishments like Vespaio on South Congress. He either accepts deliveries or picks up produce from the farms himself. He also sells to seven Austin schools, so the cafeterias can incorporate fresh produce into the schools’ lunches.

“Hopefully, more and more schools will demand that, so that all of a sudden students are exposed to the idea and understand the [connection] between X and Y [farmers and food on the table] as they grow up,” he added.

Other organizations, like Austin’s Urban Roots, have tried to intercept local food ignorance by exposing the public to local food at a younger age. The non-profit, which had its beginnings in East Austin, offers 30 local youth paid internships to run a 3.5-acre farm every year. The project typically harvests about 30,000 pounds of produce per season to be sold at farmers markets or donated to local food kitchens. Max Elliott, Urban Roots’ executive director, said that the program aims to connect kids to agriculture, while teaching them the values of hard work and sustainable lifestyles.

“What we’re trying to do with Urban Roots is trying to provide young people with opportunities to really amplify their voice within the food movement and have the community celebrate them as youth leaders,” Elliott said. “For me, it’s about power. How do you ensure that there’s more diversity within the local food movement? Have leadership.”

To maximize their impact, Urban Roots also takes young students on farm tour field trips, and the group plans to visit classrooms this year to spread local food awareness. Elliott said that although Urban Roots has had its successes, Austin’s local food movement still largely lacks accessibility.

“If you really look at where food is being consumed and being purchased, 99 percent of food is being bought in grocery stores, corner shops and restaurants. There’s not a lot of food that’s really moving through the local food community,” he said. “If we want to improve access, we’re really going to have to look at the bigger players, looking at the grocery stores, corner stores.”

Austin is also home to groups that try to promote awareness of local food among adults. Slow Food, the Austin branch of a national organization that considers itself a response to fast food, focuses on reconnecting people with the food they eat. The group hosts free, open educational events to teach the public about various food topics, such as gardening, seasonal food and the importance of food appreciation.

“A lot of our programs grow organically from either the feedback we hear from members in terms of educational topics or areas where we know there is a lot of need locally for fundraising or awareness,” Ashley Cheng, Austin Slow Food representative, said.

For HOPE Farmers Market manager Matthew Olson, local food system awareness and communication between farmers, citizens and the city are important for the survival of their market. For example, citizen complaints in December of last year concerning local, urban farms resulted in radical changes for Austin’s urban farm codes.

“What that’s been doing is burdening those farms, these small, urban farms in East Austin with having to attend city ordinance meetings, having to potentially pay legal fees for attorneys to help draft code compliance literatures,” Olson said. “In the big sense, it takes them away from being farmers.”

Raj Patel, a local food activist and author of the novel “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System,” said these conversations between farmers, the community, and local government are important for developing any urban area’s local food system. The more that grassroots movements such as small urban farms get people talking, the more inclusive the conversation about local food becomes, he said.

“There’s a dialectical relation between what the government does and what grassroots demand and how people demand it,” Patel said.

In this sense, the conversation which drives Austin’s local food system is expanding and local food is now incorporated into many of the city’s communities and institutions. Similar to HOPE Farmers Market, the Sustainable Food Center hosts multiple farmers markets in various Austin areas, from downtown to the Sunset Valley.

To provide access to various socioeconomic demographics, these markets offer the Double Dollar Incentive Program (DDIP), which allows families and individuals who receive SNAP benefits (which were formerly food stamps) to double the dollar amount that they can spend on fruits and vegetables.

Even the University of Texas at Austin has made a move toward local food, with the development of its own student-run micro-farm, which plans to provide the campus’ cafeterias with organic, locally-grown food.

No matter how Austin’s local food system manifests itself, the movement is bound to grow. In a recent report published by the USDA, consumers have shown a significant want for more organic, local food in their diets.

“People [in Austin] are ready to look out for one another and to take fairly unusual steps to be able to put their money where their mouths are,” Patel said.

But, as with any local food system, Patel said that the continuation of the movement goes beyond asking simple questions about local food’s production, distribution and accessibility. The true questions lie in making an urban area’s local food system a profitable part of the city’s economy.

“If the workers [in the local food system] are being paid properly, not only at Wheatsville [a grocery store], but also the people in the fields, it’s going to be expensive. So what do you do? Either you screw the poorest people in America out of money, or you pay more,” Patel said. “That’s something that I want to see the local food movement tackle. Because I think everyone should eat that way, and the fact that not everyone can is an indictment of the way we eat in America. What’s wrong with dreaming that big?”

Austin’s local food system has only gained momentum throughout the last five to six years and the direction and success of the movement is hard to pinpoint. However, community members within Austin’s local food movement, like HOPE’s manager Olson, believe that more people are bound to catch on.

“I think ‘local’ is the new buzz word and what you should be looking for if you are a conscious consumer,” Olson said. “You’re voting with your dollar. You’re supporting your local economy when you do that.”

Looking for local food on a night out? Check out this interactive map of Austin’s locavore scene, which includes UrbanSpoon ratings, prices, and website links: