Weekly recap: End of August

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This week I visited one school-yard garden that had been set up the previous year by an oversight organization and is now entirely managed by the school. Although the visit went well, it reminded me that sometimes, even though I try to be clear and make things easy for respondents, I can’t control the data I get. In this case, the respondent didn’t know the amount of inputs they used and didn’t want to look them up.

Tomorrow I will finally be doing the surveys with the 7 school gardens that are being overseen by one organization through a training program. This set of surveys has been postponed three times so I was quite excited. However, this morning, after sending my third reminder email to all the participants about what information they needed to collect to fill the survey out, I got a reply that made me a bit less excited. The person seemed happy to take the survey but, again, was unwilling to take the extra time to go figure out the quantities and types of inputs they used.  I guess I expected it would be more difficult with private or community gardeners to get quantitative data, but I didn’t really expect as many road-blocks with larger organizations that have budgets and manage many gardens.

In other “bad” news, I found out that one of my collaborators from another university in the city had not had time to contact and fill-out the survey with the actors she thought she would. I thus have taken it upon myself to recontact and try and schedule a time to administer the survey with all those actors myself. In addition, the talk about my project I was suppose to give to a community group last week got moved to September. Also, as we prepare for municipal elections, one of the candidate announced that if he is elected he will suspend the planned compost center at the Saint-Michel site. Although I think there has probably been poor communication to the neighborhood and to the public in general about what good composting can and should look like and thus the need for better communication, this should not mean we back track on a necessary project. I am sad because a sustainable Montreal cannot keep sending its organic waste to the landfill and we need to think of the city as en interconnected system and not one electoral “problem” at a time. We have four universities and I believe we can all work with the city to ensure they create quality compost that can be used in UA (recycling P!) and doesn’t smell. I don’t think a halt on the project is the solution.

In good news, my field assistant who was doing her undergraduate honors thesis with my advisor submitted her report today. I learnt a lot through this mentoring experience. With her deadline being this week, we pushed a little on the West-Island farms where we had started surveys but had incomplete information. Although they didn’t all respond or respond completely to all requests, we still did get a few extra pieces of information. Again, I am surprised at record keeping practices at these larger farms and how much work it has been to make sense of it all and compile information to get the answers we need. Although I created the survey to standardize answers I often find myself needing to take what I can get and then make sense of it all. I am very lucky people have been open and willing to share information and I don’t mind doing compilation work. I guess I am just surprised because some of the data I collect I this would be useful records to have organized to improve practices over the years.

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information trickling in

IMG_3645It’s a slow trickle, thus not much to report, but information is still coming in. Follow-up calls and emails are being send, and for the most part I am waiting for responses. I had planned on doing surveys with 6 or 7 schools on Friday but that meeting has been pushed back a week so I don’t have any surveys on the books for the week (but that doesn’t mean I or one of my techs won’t do any as we are waiting for several call-backs). 

Thursday evening I will be giving a talk to a group of gardeners about phosphorus problems and sustainability and how that relates to their garden which will give me an opportunity to look at how the garden is growing and follow-up with the organizers who will be sharing final data in November. I really want this presentation to be engaging and interactive. I know my audience has no background knowledge and for many of them it is their first season in a garden. Instead of preparing a talk, I have decided to start with probing questions and take it from there. If it is nice outside we will in the garden so I will start from their practices and experiences in the garden and try to work my way up to where P comes from and where it goes after harvest and try to end with what they, as consumers and gardeners, can do to move towards sustainable management.

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On a related, but somewhat tangential note, I visited the Mosaiculture exhibit at the botanical garden over the weekend. It was pretty spectacular, but being the nerd that I am, I was most excited about where the exhibit ended: in the middle of the garden with beds of food, fiber, and medicine plants! I had visited this garden in late may and thinking of the before and after (see the pictures above to those at  the bottom for this post to see for yourself) and evolution.

IMG_3662Just as the gardens I have visited have evolved over the summer, so have my skills. It is amazing how much more comfortable I have gotten asking questions and giving the survey and I think I make people feel more comfortable than at the beginning of the season (or maybe its just that I am less apprehensive about going in to the meeting). I don’t have a natural facility calling people or going up to strangers, but this project has forced me to step outside of my comfort zone. I am not expert, but it was gotten easier. All along, the protocol, calendar, and spreadsheets have been really helpful to keep me going.

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Finally, another great dance-science link. This one is Merritt Moore, is a PhD candidate in Atomic & Laser Physics at Oxford University and a beautiful former professional dancer.

Summer is coming to an end

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I am entering the last two weeks of data collection with my field assistants (although the data season will extend into November for me). I am excited because that means that data collection is coming to an end but it also seems like the summer went by so fast and there is still so much work to do.

Today I got to survey an organization that manages a rooftop garden and two collective gardens on the ground, and one of my assistant finished our last community garden to attain our 10 borough goal. It is great to meet one’s sampling objectives (although we are still waiting on 1 survey in 1 borough as we only got 2 survey’s in one of the garden’s last week so I guess I can’t say the objective is 100% met just yet).

We have also been going over all of our surveys again to make sure there was no missing information. If there are any gaps or uncertainty with certain pieces of information the goal this week is to recontact those people. As one might expect, the surveys that were done earlier in the season seem to need a little more clarification.  I must say that my mini data processing activity a few weeks ago really forced me to look at every question for every survey in a different format (excel and equations instead of paper copies and online forms), making oversights or gaps evident and subsequently motivated me to do a second full check of the entries, even after we did a check right after I started processing.

We have also gone through the full list of stakeholders to see if we can recontact any of them who haven’t yet responded and try and get the survey’s done while I still have help. This means calling people that I called or emailed in the past and who didn’t respond, while I will wait to contact those who did respond in some way but haven’t filled the survey out yet (I know that for some it just makes sense to wait for the fall).

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Week (and a half) recap

IMG_3514 Over the past week or so I (and my two assistants) have made progress on a few fronts that I was worried about just a few weeks ago. I was able to do surveys in a few large organizations, we are now only missing three of the larger west-island farms (which I will try to do in the fall), and we are making some strides in community gardens and have met our 30 individual gardener objective.

We ended up reaching-out to some new contacts in 3 of the boroughs where we were previously unsuccessful getting into community gardens. We also contacted four boroughs we had yet to, in order be sure we would meet our objectives by the end of the summer. We should be rapping-up surveys in 4 gardens in the next two weeks.

Last Wednesday I biked 20km to visit a garden managed by a company that takes along young people to manage the gardens and learn about landscaping and agriculture. The site a visited was amazingly dense and productive, and I got the chance to present my work and talk about the importance of P to the group of young gardeners that were there. Such encounters are really pushing my science communication skills and I am very thankful for the opportunity. The project leader, with whom I was doing the survey, was wonderful because he has been teaching the group about gardening from a very scientific perspective. Not just telling them what to do to grow food, but really why at every step of the way. Central to these teachings are of course ecology, as the garden is an ecosystem, and the importance of soil (formation and management) as a little ecosystem, and the basis of the garden system as a whole. Although I do think of soil, I have been so focused on the role of P in gardens, it was great to talk about P within the context of the soil and how so many other components are key to productive and sustainable food production.

We have all been going out to the gardens and farms and thus not using the tablet-computer very much (and just doing the transcription online once we get back to our own computers). We have also had to supplement the survey form with separate excel sheets in some cases to be able to compile data into the value we need and keep a record of how we do it. This is mostly when respondents give us records of harvest, yield, or animal feed in the way they organize it internally, which doesn’t always match up with how I need it done to calculate a P budget.

In summary, data collection and processing seems to be moving along nicely, I now need to make sure that all follow-ups for data clarification or completion go well (along we of course continuing new surveys).

In news unrelated to field-work, but still important in thinking about changing ecosystems, food, and science communication, here are a few links:

The lab I worked in as an undergrad washing sediment cores and counting and identifying foraminifera has just published a wonderful paper in Science about the evolution of Cenozoic marine ecosystems and how they relate to our changing global realities in relation to anthropogenic climate change.  I really loved reading this piece because it uses lots of great data while also presenting such a clear story. I could visualize past and present ecosystem and how they change while reading. The article highlights so well how the past is key to the future and that we need to look at legacies on both short and long-times scales to help us understand the world we live in, and how to make sustainable resource management choices.

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Emily Cassidy et al. just published a nice piece in ERL examining crop allocation and how if we produced crops directly for human consumption instead of as animal feed and biofuels, we could feed our growing population. It’s a nice piece and relates so clearly to P sustainability and how dietary choices is an important driver (and thus solution) to P demand.  Both her and my piece in ERL highlight how diet is key, and how there are just so many synergies in reducing meat consumption to ensure a sustainable food production system.

A friend shared a great art-science (nature) project that funds artist. It’s called iLAND and is based out of NYC. Finding this site is definitely keeping me excited about continuing to explore my work through dance.

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