Buzzworm news briefs

Buncombe high school develops organic-farming career program

Buncombe Community School East is the county’s alternative high school for at-risk students. For a few years, the Swannanoa school has offered an organic gardening class as an elective — a basic course in how to grow a garden organically and why organics are a good option. Instructor Casey McKissick told Xpress, “The program has always been an excellent way to teach our kids a good work ethic and help build their interpersonal and technical skills.”

Building on that, this past year, the students built a roadside farm stand and began to market produce from the school garden, both to retail customers and to area restaurants. Reflecting broadened program goals, the class is now called The Youth Fresh Food Initiative.

McKissick continued, “For the past year, we have been attempting to expand the program to try to better serve our students’ needs.” This expansion has been accomplished with foundation grants and help from Quality Forward. Now BCSE is poised to become North Carolina’s first high school to offer Sustainable Agriculture as a career pathway. “We will be offering three sections per semester and paid summer internships to our students,” McKissick explained. The new curriculum will begin in January.

Last January, the program received a New Horizon grant from the Community Foundation of WNC to buy a new tractor and build a new barn/storage facility. “Having the new tractor has allowed us to expand our growing space and begin to work with real crop rotations,” McKissick explained.

The barn-construction project began in earnest in October, and on the first day of framing, Nov. 18, enlisted most of the school’s student population — not just the ag students. McKissick and his Warren Wilson College intern Meredith Leigh expect the barn project to be completed by early summer.

Leigh, a Warren Wilson senior majoring in sustainable agriculture, has worked with the school for the past year and a half. She has developed a farm plan for BCSE and helps instruct almost daily. “We are hoping to turn the classroom into a packaging and processing center by spring,” she told Xpress. “We’ll be able to wash, rinse and package produce to get it out to tailgate markets or restaurants.”

— Cecil Bothwell

Friends of the Smokies license plate raises half a million dollars

When the North Carolina Friends of the Smokies specialty license plate was launched five years ago, “we never dreamed we would have this much success,” says Stephen W. Woody, vice chairman of the board of directors of Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In fact, the Smokies plate has become the best-selling specialty tag in the state, with more than 11,000 sold so far. Of the extra $30 annual fee for the tag, $20 goes to Friends of the Smokies to support projects and programs on the North Carolina side of the park. The state transfers the money to the nonprofit on a quarterly basis, with the most recent payment of $48,420 bringing the grand total to $534,600 to date.

“That’s 25,000 different times that people have made a choice to buy or renew their Smokies plate and support the park,” notes Woody. “It really adds up, and we’re really grateful.”

The money raised has gone towards supporting such projects as the experimental return of elk to the Smokies; the new Appalachian Science Learning Center; the Parks as Classrooms program for local schoolchildren; protecting the park’s Fraser firs and hemlock trees from deadly exotic insects; and supporting air-quality analysis and education.

“Given the continuing expenses of the elk project, major improvements now underway at the Science Learning Center, and an ongoing and ambitious effort to save the park’s hemlock forests, the need for additional funds will not diminish,” notes Woody. “We still have so many great opportunities to make a difference [and] we hope North Carolina drivers will continue to help us help the Smokies.”

The Friends of the Smokies specialty license plate is available from any local North Carolina license-plate agency office. For more information, visit www.friendsofthesmokies.org.

— Lisa Watters

Eyes wide open

Recent Asheville transplant Gail E. Eisnitz joined the ranks of such high-profile animal-protection advocates as Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson last month when she received the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Award for outstanding achievement in the advancement of animal protection. The award is given by the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute.

Eisnitz has been investigating and exposing cases of animal abuse for 20 years. But she’s probably best known as the author of Slaughterhouse (Prometheus Books, 1997), which exposed grievous violations of the Humane Slaughter and Federal Meat Inspection acts inside plants inspected by U.S. Deparment of Agriculture staffers. Eisnitz wrote the book after years of crisscrossing the country, investigating slaughterhouses for the Humane Farming Association.

A lot of the problems stem from the high-speed production lines that are now the norm at many slaughterhouses, Eisnitiz said in a recent interview. “Because production-line speeds have increased so dramatically in the last 20 years … it’s [not] possible for workers to kill so many animals so quickly and do it in compliance with the Humane Slaughter Act.

“The workers I’ve talked to resort to brutality to keep the line running smoothly in order to keep their jobs,” she explained. “They admit to routinely dragging, strangling, beating, scalding, skinning and dismembering fully conscious animals to keep the line running.”

Eisnitz also talked about her struggle to expose these violations, saying she’s worked with investigative news shows such as 60 Minutes, 20/20 and Dateline, but the networks “always killed the story on the grounds that it was too disgusting and people would change the channel.”

In 2001, however, Eisnitz persuaded Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Joby Warrick of The Washington Post to write “They Die Piece by Piece,” a front-page expose documenting slaughterhouse atrocities throughout the United States. The piece generated more than 2,000 e-mails from readers — more than almost any other story the paper has ever run — Warrick told Xpress.

In the Post story, a representative of IBP, the nation’s top beef processor, said, “Like many other people, we were very upset over the hidden-camera video. We do not in any way condone some of the livestock handling that was shown.” The company spokesperson also suggested that the events may have been staged by “activists trying to raise money and promote their agenda.”

According to the Post, however, more than 20 workers signed affidavits affirming that the kinds of violations shown on the tape are commonplace and that supervisors know about them.

The high-profile story got the attention of Congress, which subsequently allocated $5 million in the USDA’s budget for enforcing a “law that had already been on the books for 40 years,” noted Eisnitz.

Other national media, including ABC, NBC, The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune, subsequently ran slaughterhouse stories.

A 2001 story in Meat Processing magazine, written in response to an animal-welfare petition calling on the USDA to enforce the Humane Slaughter Act, asserts that the meat-packing industry is more aggressively regulated and inspected than any other sector of animal agriculture.

“Beyond strict regulation, strong incentives exist to treat animals humanely,” said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute. “Humanely treated animals create safer workplaces and better quality meat products.” Boyle also maintained that studies by the USDA and Colorado State University had shown that welfare practices in meat-packing plants had improved over the past five years due to industry training and self-auditing.

Eisnitz, however, says that despite all the attention, not much has changed. “I don’t think things are getting better yet,” she observes.

— Lisa Watters

Anti-divination law repealed

A 50-year-old state law that outlawed divination (except when conducted on church or school property) has been repealed. It’s now thoroughly legal to get your palm read or have a tarot-card reading in North Carolina.

Local psychics contacted say the law was enforced selectively, if at all, and didn’t hinder most people’s practices. Asheville psychic Charley Castex, who’s been practicing since 1995, said the law has never affected his business. Aaron Hunt, who owns Mystic Journeys (a New Age bookstore that offers intuitive readings), had a shop in Asheville from 1995 to 1997 that also featured such readings. Yet he says he never had any problems with the law, which “was considered archaic and wasn’t really enforced.”

But North Carolina’s Wiccans and Pagans, many of whom view divination as a religious practice, report a different experience. Coven Oldenwilde has protested the law since 1999, maintaining that it violated their First Amendment rights. That year, the group performed tarot-card readings on the lawn of the Haywood County Courthouse to protest the local sheriff’s use of the law to put a Waynesville psychic out of business.

The protests continued in Asheville, where one tarot-card reader was arrested and others were threatened with arrest, according to Coven Oldenwilde’s Web site (www.oldenwilde.org). But after the American Civil Liberties Union fought on behalf of the person arrested, the charge was dropped. Coven Oldenwilde continued to perform free divinations at its Public Witch Ritual, held each year on Halloween (also known as Samhain, the Pagan New Year).

“We fought for six years, tooth and nail,” said Lady Passion, high priestess of Coven Oldenwilde.

— Megan Shepherd

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