March 1st, 2014

cooperkristi2_final (1)Oh My Goodness! I am amazed at the flurry of GMO conversation in social and news media. If you are blissfully unaware of what I am talking about, GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms. GMO, my definition, is the code word for everything that is bad in the food chain right now.

I read almost everything I see about GMO’s and am acutely aware of my emotionally reactions. Sometimes I am hopeful for new findings, disgusted with the amount of energy it takes to discern accurate information, terrified by extreme words and behaviors.  Sometimes I develop new fears of my food.  I don’t want to be afraid of my food. I don’t want to be afraid of my social media ‘friends’. I don’t want to be afraid of asking questions about GMO for fear someone will ‘peg’ me in one ‘camp’ or the other. Food is critical to our survival so anything that seems threatens the safety, quality or supply triggers strong emotion in people.

When we decided to put Food and Genetic Engineering on the docket for the Eco Family Virtual Conference, I was optimistic that we could find some credible information and have a calm conversation about it.  I listened to geneticists, biology professors, interviewed food scientists, organic farmers and researchers. I read reams of scientific studies that were over my head scholastically.  I scoured the web for opinions and thoughtful dissertations.  I cut out every newspaper and magazine article I ran across. I asked my university colleagues for information.  I submitted Ask an Expert questions through . I visited a corporate research farm and talked with the seed scientist. I watched GMO OMG movie. I ate meals with folks in industrial agriculture and in organic agriculture.  I listened to public health experts and alternative medicine practitioners.  And I tried to listen to my own head and heart.

I discovered that this is a complex issue. There are real issues with environmental factors, human factors and the economic factors of genetic engineering and food.  These three domains or factors are the foundation of sustainability.  Sustainable communities, food systems, economic systems, and social systems are interdependent.  The GMO discussion is more than decision making, it is discernment. Discernment is considering the sustainability factors of environmental health, human health and economic health.

If this were a pregnancy, I would say we are having contractions. Painful contractions. And although I am not sure the science nor discussion of it has developed ‘full term’ I think it is getting close. I know I am ready to talk about finding common grounds and values.  I am ready for my social media feed to stop the flow of denial, blame and shame. I am ready to have some real conversations with real people about the concerns we have, what we really know, and don’t know about genetic engineering and our food. I am ready to not be afraid of my food.

Sign up for the Eco Family Virtual Conference Food & Genetic Engineering module.  View the resources we have gathered so you can learn what I have learned. Then join us for the online conversation on Thursday, March 6, 6:30-8:00 pm.





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N-R-G Savings

December 31st, 2013

ceee_energy_leftnavA few years ago we had the utility company come out and do an energy audit of our home.  We came away with lots of great suggestions for improving the efficiency of our home.  After adding more attic insulation, caulking electrical outlets and switch plates, installing efficient appliances and changing out all the lighting to high efficiency bulbs, we are still saving money everyday!  We also replaced the windows to improve the ‘envelope’ of our 1979 home.  No more drafty window sills!

In just 3 days (January 2) we will have our first 2014 Eco Family Virtual conference online gathering! Families have been looking at the resources and taking action to conserve energy in their home.  You can too! Join us for 6 months of great sustainable living topics!

Conserving energy saves money on utility bills and reduces our impact on the environment.  Renewable energy is produced by methods that can be used over and over again, unlike fossil fuels (natural gas, oil, coal) that are burned once and done.  Clean energy is a term that is used for energy production like wind and solar that do not pollute the environment in the process. In Iowa about 20% of the electricity produced is from wind power. Solar doesn’t make the charts yet in Iowa, but the technology is already being used in commercial applications all over the state.  Even residential settings are getting into the act.  If you buy electricity from Alliant, in Iowa, you have until midnight tonight to take advantage of solar rebates and tax incentives for solar installation. There are also some federal and state tax incentives for solar. Fairfield has made the most progress of any town in Iowa with solar energy production. Farmers Electric Cooperative, near Kalona, Iowa, is a small town cooperative doing its part to supplement the power it distributes with on-site generation from renewable sources. The new Facebook Data Center going up near Altoona, Iowa will be powered by 100% wind power.

We had a solar assessment done for our home and it is a good renewable option for us.  We are saving the money to do the installation in the next few years.  Hopefully, costs will decrease as the technology improves.  I have friends who installed solar this year and they had fun watching their meter run backwards during the summer.  Even winter months produce enough to offset electricity costs most days.

How are you conserving electric energy in your home this year? Tell us about it in the comment section of this blog!


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What’s Under the Tree?

December 2nd, 2013

girl behind treeI’ll bet you have the cutest, smartest, most talented child in your life – He/she may be your child, grandchild, niece or nephew, God-son or daughter and because you love them you want the very best for their life.  Am I right? Of course I am!

Well, gift giving is right around the corner and you can wade through all the advertising and ask them to give you a list of the stuff they think they have to have OR you can choose to give of yourself and a connection to Nature.  Huh? You also want to get the award for being the coolest mom, Grammy or uncle, too?

Okay- here’s the scoop – kids who spend unlimited, unstructured time outdoors in the natural world are more creative, have better visual spatial skills and are physically more healthy. They are better problem solvers, learners and more compassionate than kids who don’t get the nature connection.

So here is my list of the best Nature ‘toys’ for the most amazing kids in your life:

You get the idea – electronics are fine and have a place in our children’s lives, but the connection with you and the natural world are essential for developing young brains and bodies.  Be the coolest – give the gift of nature!

What’s under YOUR tree? Tell us at the Eco Family Blog or the Eco Family Facebook page





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Gratitude & Green

November 28th, 2013

Iowa Valley Food Coop order (2)I am grateful for clean wind generated energy that lights up my home.

I am grateful for organic food from my local CSA to feed my family.

I am grateful for bees and other pollinators that keep my plants happy.

I am grateful for rainscaping that keeps my drinking water clean.

I am grateful for friends and neighbors who share their love and resources.

Join me and others in the Midwest for more conversations about living green in 2014.  The 2014 Eco Family Virtual Conference classrooms open next week and we would love to have you explore with us! Register by Saturday November 30 for the early bird rate!

Happy Thanksgiving!


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November 27th, 2013

goldlocks-powerpoint-300x298“Enough!” when my kids heard that they knew Mom meant business.  That meant they had better stop what they were doing and pay attention! That meant that I had had too much of the teasing, bickering or that someone had gone past the point of regular kid-sized conflict resolution. I find myself saying this to other things in my life nowadays – Enough is enough – to war, pollution, violence, economic disparities, cable TV and sensationalized news, bullying at many levels, and negative self talk. I have had enough – actually more than I can tolerate.

Then I think about ‘more than enough’ – excess – too much of anything creates waste – or ‘waist’ if it is too much food  combined with too much sitting around. In my worm compost bin – a steady supply of enough food scraps produces more compost and enough worms to keep the process going sweetly.  Too little causes the little guys to die off and composting ends;  too much creates a stink – literally.  Growing up, my father would loudly and proudly announce that he was “full as a tick” after a meal.  It was meant as a compliment to the cook and to share his pride in feeding his family well.  However ‘full as a tick’ is too much – more than enough – for healthy living.

I am sad about a few things we do not have enough of – kindness, respect, honesty, empathy, hope, connection, and awareness to name- quite a few. I hear that Black Friday has now become a week long event and that the excess – more than enough- creates a scarcity (not enough) focus – “get it now before its gone!” mentality. What are we looking for?  Are we afraid of not having enough?  of what?

I am reading Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brene Brown and she states that the opposite of scarcity (not enough) is not abundance, but is enough. Enough means the right amount to satisfy our needs- like the story of Goldilocks – not too much and not too little – JUST RIGHT.  I learned this week at the Iowa Organic Conference that globally we already produce enough food calories to feed 14 billion people – twice the world’s population. The problem of feeding the world is a myth. There is enough food.  Let’s focus on that.

Globally, there is enough energy.  Yes, our fossil fuels are finite resources, but we have more than enough sunlight and wind power to meet our needs.   We don’t need to go to war, kill our natural habitats and pollute our water supply trying to get more.  We have enough to meet our needs. Let’s focus on that.

Join me and many others in learning to live with enough. Live green in 2014 through the Eco Family Virtual Conference – food and energy are just 2 of the 6 topics we will explore together with kindness, respect, honesty, empathy, hope, connection, and awareness!  Register by Saturday, November 30 for the early bird discount!

Which parts of your life are enough (Just right)?


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Holiday Gifting

November 1st, 2013

strawbale with ribbonsI am in the stage of my life that I am no longer collecting holiday things – like angels and snowmen and and Santas.  I have a few, that, as I unwrap and place around the house, I cherish the memories of those who made or gave them to me.

I am more interested in the gifts of time with others and the practical things that will help me take care of myself and the earth. I think my favorite gift in recent years is the bat house that my husband made me.  Part of the joy was that he heard my request to support habitat in our yard and the other part was watching the ‘secret’ building process – can’t go into the shop, the kids were smiling secretively and I could hear pounding and sawing from the basement at all hours of the day. It is fun to create a meaningful gift for others. I certainly know what it feels like to receive one!

Here is a story from the Reclaim Your Holidays website that I can relate to.

Bale of straw?
Last year was my first winter holiday season with my fiancé’s parents. I knew they were keen on giving lots of gifts, so I asked my fiancé to talk to the family about simple gifts that were useful and meaningful. Though there were still a lot of gifts given, they took my request to heart–instead of the angel figurines and numerous outfits I wouldn’t wear anyway, I got a small radio for the kitchen and a few other useful items. My favorite gift, though, was from their farm: two bales of straw for mulching my garden. It got a good laugh from the rest of the family, but it will be one of my best-remembered and most appreciated gifts ever! – Iowa City woman

What’s on YOUR wish list this year?



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Juice of our Labors

September 30th, 2013

apple juice restingThere is NOTHING better than fresh homemade juice!!  It is more precious than the most expensive bottle of fine wine to me – now that I have made it by hand – kind of.  I mentioned last week that I was making apple juice.  This photo is of the freshly ‘juiced’ juice ‘resting’ in the frig.  It takes 24-48  hours for the particles to settle and then you filter the liquid by pouring it through a cloth.  I now have a much greater appreciation for the juice I buy in the store.

As I was washing and cutting the apples to put through the juicer, I was reminded of the days when the homemaker would have only had a wooden press to extract the juice.  I didn’t have to crank anything by hand.  I am grateful for electricity and the technology to make this process easier for me!

I also made grape juice for the first time this year. In August I picked 1 1/2 five gallon pails of concord grapes from a friend’s vines. He uses NO chemicals on them.  These are MY kind of grapes! After picking every single grape in the hot summer sun, stemming and sorting every single grape, washing every single grape, I pondered how casually I have wasted food! Every grape counts! When I cook too much at a meal, or take more servings than I can eat then I toss out those morsels of nutrition and the work it took to get it to my plate. After tasting the fresh juice and grape jelly, all the work cleaning, cooking, straining, resting, filtering, heating, and canning was definitely worth it!

The red wigglers in my compost bin are also very happy! They are getting fat on grape and apple skins.  I have had way too much for them to process so the outside compost bin gets the rest.  The bees have enjoyed that end of the fruit-cycle too! So I guess it is true that what goes around comes around. My apple juice and grape jelly were produced with good intentions, no chemicals which made it safe for the bees to pollinate the plants that were fertilized by the compost from last years’ garden scraps. That’s called a closed loop system. I love it when a plan comes together! I wonder if Welch’s composts their fruit skins?

What do you appreciate because you worked for it? What food loops could YOU close?


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Rooftop Fun 2

September 26th, 2013

libraryskullI estimated that nearly 500 people enjoyed the temporary Nature Explore Classroom on the roof of the Cedar Rapids Public Library September 7, 2013. We were celebrating the Family Connections Library Open House.

It was gorgeous weather for the farmer’s market and many took advantage of the day to find the 3rd floor green rooftop! We had hopscotch, a hollow log to crawl through, a labyrinth, musical instruments, dancing scarves, tree ‘cookies’, tree blocks, snake skins, bugs, and even a Percheron Horse skull!

IMG_4714My 7 year old friend, Devon, loaned his personal nature collection of fossils, a tree cookie and some cool rocks. It was fun to watch him share his wonder with other children and adults.

Every child and adult could take home a nature item to add to or begin their personal collection. Parents took home a sample of the Nature Explore Family Club materials so they could continue the exploration at home!

One of the favorite activities were the hammocks – Nature Explore tree house fabric tied to the railing, supplied with baskets of books.  Adults, teens and little ones sat, swung and read a new book cradled in the sturdy translucent fabric slings in 3 locations.

hammockYou can see what it looks like from inside one!

Our goal was to help families see how simple it is to provide focused activity areas that help children connect to nature and their wild side! Check out our Eco Family Facebook page for more photos!

Educators who want to learn how to design their outdoor classroom can attend workshops scheduled all over Iowa.   Check Nature Explore for one near you! Several Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Life Specialists are certified trainers.  If you don’t have one near you, contact us to get one scheduled!

What does your community have for outdoor learning spaces? Is there a certified Nature Explore Classroom near you?




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Abundant Apples

September 24th, 2013

applesI am up to my ears in apples! I am loving it! We have made apple tarts, applesauce, apple juice, dehydrated apple slices, frozen apples for pies and eaten lots of fresh ones! We are sharing our abundance with friends, too.

We have not done anything but spread compost and mulch and water our tree – no pesticides or fungicides used and most of the apples are blemish free! So I guess we have organic apples! I am very interested in keeping the soil and water clean, so we do not use any chemicals on our yard. This also means there is no residue in or on the fruit. I am giving credit to the neighbor’s new bee hives for the terrific pollination! No chemicals = healthy environment for bees = happy apple trees = happy ME!

Because we have so many apples, I am finding ways to preserve them so we can enjoy them all year.  When my adult children come home, they raid my pantry for home canned goods, so I am preparing a supply for 3 households. My husband is the master peeler! He can crank out a bushel of cored and peeled apples faster than I can stuff them in bags and jars! He discovered the dehydrator and has already dried 12 trays – he figures 3-4 apples per tray. I think he had a belly ache last week from eating so many dried apples. I noticed there are fewer missing from the bag this week.  :-)

When canning this month, I had one jar of applesauce that did not seal so I put it in the frig and we ate in in the next two days. When canning or freezing any fruits or vegetables, be sure to preserve the taste of summer safely so your hard work is not in vain. Answerline at Iowa State University Extension can give you expert advice on food preservation and safety as well as lots of other good info for home and family. You can call toll free 1-800-262-3804  (in Iowa),   1-800-854-1678  (in Minnesota),   1-888-393-6336  (in South Dakota) or email and Liz , Beth or Carolyn will get right back to you! They also have a blog that I LOVE because it is helpful with timely tips and covers a broad range of topics.

I also have a juicer, so I tested it’s fortitude with a 1/2 bushel. It came through like a trooper! I have several quarts of apple juice ‘resting’ in the frig.  After 48 hours I can filter the sediment out and process the juice.  Can’t wait!

What tastes of summer are YOU enjoying?



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Rooftop Fun

September 5th, 2013

rooftopI am so pumped for Saturday! We get to host a temporary Nature Explore outdoor classroom on the green roof of the brand new Cedar Rapids Public Library! We will have a 6 activity areas – a spiral labyrinth music and movement area, a special set of natural science collections loaned by area children, nature art Andy Goldsworthy style, a habitat building area, reading hammocks, as well as hopscotch and a hollow ‘log’ to crawl through! Kids will also get to take home a natural treasure to add to their personal collections.

My friends and co-workers have been so generous collecting, loaning and donating items for this event.  I even have the Linn County Child Development Center loaning us items from their certified Nature Explore Classroom for others to experience that day. I have been planning the design for over a month. By walking and measuring and observing the green roof space a few times, I think we have the right combination of books, materials and activities for children to connect with nature. They will use all of their senses to experience the wind, the sun, the view of the unique Cedar Rapids architectural skyline and the magnificent trees of Green Square Park.

My ultimate goal is for parents, grandparents, child care providers, teachers and others to see how simple it is to arrange an outdoor space with a few inexpensive ‘props’ and lots of loose natural parts. Combine that with unstructured, unlimited time and kids have the perfect learning opportunity.

Now, the rooftop has its limits.  No dirt digging or sand piles.  No water play or rocks. No walking on the real plants (really – they are not durable for foot traffic) so we have to enjoy them with our eyes and hands (at the edges of the pathways).

The coolest part is I was able to design the activities based on what is naturally available – wind, sun, and lots of sky! So we will have waving grasses, dancing scarves, and pinwheels. We will use magnifying glasses, colored lenses and kaleidoscopes to gain new perspectives on the natural world. We will beat on drums, shake the rattles, tip the rain sticks and sound the chimes to send music wafting down to the Farmers Market below.

Hope to see you on the roof!




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