Ice Farming in America: The New Dream

The Ice Farmers of Ouray

There’s a new kind of farmer making their way through the world of agriculture.

This kind of farmer isn’t making his money out of traditional crops, he’s not struggling to predict weather systems or haggle prices with food manufacturers. This man is an ice-farmer, his ‘farm’ is based in a small mountain town called Ouray, in Colorado, which is home to one of the biggest ice climbing parks in the world.

Ice climbing has been a popular hobby in the US and and mainland Europe for the last 50 years or so, branching out of the heady days of exploration and adventure that succeeded the partition of conflict that World War II had enforced upon the world. Once borders began to open up and international flights became more accepted amongst consumers, more and more intrepid hikers, skiers and ice-climbers made their way to the mountainous regions of the Alps and Rockies to develop the tradition that has continued to this day.

For those fledgling years, climbers were feeling their way through the sport. Most people who attempted ice-climbing already had some form of climbing training, so they understood the basic mechanics of pulling themselves up a sheer cliff, but they had yet to practice on sheer walls of ice. Back in these early days, the only to practice was by doing it out in the wild.

That was, at least, until the advent of the ice climbing park

Ouray Ice Park first opened in the 90s, a natural gorge sprayed with water during the Winter months to form huge walls of thick, climbable ice. The ice farmers, as they became known as, start their work in November, running water from the nearby city water overflow supply down onto the rock with the use of dozens of shower heads. By manipulating the position and strength of these showers, these farmers can create huge walls of thick, blue ice – a bit like free-form ice sculptures.

It often takes around a month for the farmers to create ice climbs that are safe to climb on. Once the Winter climbing season is in full swing, however, there’s no beating Ouray for the sheer breadth and variety of ice-wall challenges on offer. Each season, between seven and eight thousand visitors flood the tiny one thousand strong population of Ouray, bringing thousands of dollars into the economic infrastructure of a town that had previously struggled to attract tourists during Winter.

Since the Park opened in the 90s, it has been free to climb in Ouray.

Ice Operations Manager Dan Chehayl, who has worked at Ouray for over six seasons, leads a small, dedicated team of ice farmers to ensure that the Park is constantly growing. Each year, during the off-season, the farmers are kept busy with maintaining the Park. They need to keep the rock clear of vegetation during the warmer months, so that the ice can form cleanly in the Winter.

Today, Ouray Ice Park is one of the most popular climbing destinations in the world and with new climbs being added to it every year, there’s plenty of room for more climbers…should you wish to have a go! 

Duncan Napier: Godfather of Scottish Herbalism

Ask anyone outside of Scotland about Napiers the Herbalists and they’ll probably answer you with a blank expression.

In the 21st Century, Homeopathic and Herbalist treatments are the source of much derision.

Despite these treatments coming under close scrutiny, the industry is still a thriving one, turning over an excess of $100 billion a year across the world.

Back in 1860, when Duncan Napier opened his first shop in Edinburgh, the use of herbal medicines was seen in a much different light. At the time, Victorians had a much greater respect for herbalists. Their advertisements pasted the walls and clung to the pages of magazines, newspapers and journals, giving them legitimacy by pure dint of being in print. The buying public were by no means stupid, they simply accepted the purported efficacy of these medicinal treatments with little persuasion.

As you can probably guess, there was a fair amount of charlatans operating at the time, all too happy to abuse the trust of the British public – luckily for the good people of Edinburgh, Duncan Napier wasn’t one of them.

Abandoned by his mother at an early age, Duncan was adopted by a publican who put him to work in his establishment at every opportunity. The young Napier (a surname he took from his adoptive father) was beaten by his step-mother regularly, however, this abuse did not go unnoticed by the patrons of the pub. A local farmer and regular at the pub befriended Duncan and persuaded his foster parents to allow him to stay with him for the summer periods, these months of respite from city life allowed him to develop a fascination with plant life.

By the time he reached age 14, his step-mother had passed away, freeing him from daily work in the pub and allowing him to pursue his childhood interest in plants.

His first job came as a gardener, but a year later he had found a new career as a baker and was soon to discover a new drink that would transform his life forever: water.

Up until the age of 16 Duncan had never drunk water. Like many Victorians he had consumed beer for the entirety of his life. Public drinking water back then was rife with disease and beer was guaranteed to be free of anything harmful, whilst still providing enough hydration to keep a hardworking baker going. Whilst in the midst of baking a batch of rolls, the young Napier was informed of the damaging effects of alcohol and within a year he had enrolled as a member of the British Temperance League and vowed to never again taste tobacco or alcohol.

With the aid of his new found mentor, Duncan enrolled in evening classes so he could learn how to write and was soon enlisted in a Scientific Botany class. A new found interest in healthy living and a chronic cough, likely caused by the flour dust that he had spent his working life surrounded by, led to him developing his first herbal remedy, a cough syrup using lobelia as an active ingredient. Within half a year he had cured his illness and formulated his first product for sale, a product that continues to be sold to this day.

Despite trading for well over 150 years, Napiers have not expanded beyond their two locations in Scotland – the Glasgow branch has been selling variants on Napier’s form of Herbal Remedies since 1874, making it the oldest surviving herbal shop in Scotland.

In recent years the company has suffered from financial issues. Napier went into administration in 2012 after a downturn in the retail sector led to a drop in sales. Thankfully, after some downsizing, the company that Duncan Napier began back in 1860 continues to develop, produce and sell herbal remedies, providing relief to thousands on a daily basis.

Herbal remedies may be derided by the scientific community today, but the work that Duncan Napier undertook in the 19th Century laid the groundwork for many of the medicines that exist today.

His gravestone can be found in Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh, obscured by an overgrown yew tree, an intrusion that I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.

Scotland’s Renewable Energy Push

Is Biomass the answer to Scotland’s Energy Plans?

At the start of this year, the Scottish government made headlines by announcing that they intended to massively cut their use of fossil fuels.

By 2030, the Scottish National Party hopes to be sourcing half of all it’s energy from low-carbon providers.

Whilst the country has already made great progress in terms of renewable electricity (60% of the country’s power is provided through the use of windfarms and other such means) they still have a long way to go in terms replacing the use of fossil fuels which is being used by motorists and homeowners.

At the start of the year nearly 50% of the country’s total energy use was sourced from petrol based products – mostly pulled from oil rigs off the North Sea. This might not sound too bad, but it’s worth remembering that another 27% of this total is made up of home-grown and imported gas that heats thousands of homes throughout Scotland.

Setting these Green goals are admirable, however are they realistic, considering the country’s dependency on this form of energy as well as their prolific production of it?

Ever since the 70s, Scotland has been one of the biggest producers of oil in Europe, producing well over 40 billion barrels of the stuff – with another 24 estimated to by lying under the UK Continental Shelf.

Since then, extraction methods have vastly improved, leading the rate of production to be increased alongside it. With over 200,000 people employed in this massive industry, it’s not about to disappear any time soon.

Although the politicians can set goals and limit the way the country imports undesirable forms of energy; if the country is going to reach this ambitious target then the consumers will need to change their behaviour. Homeowners in Scotland, who have become dependent on gas and oil, will need to change their habits if these targets are going be met  – something they are not likely to do, unless they are given a reasonable alternative to switch to.

One option, yet to be fully embraced by consumers, comes from the world of Plant Science . This option could prove to be the intermediary between traditional energy and renewable production that Scottish homeowners would be comfortable with adopting: biomass.

One of the most common and practical forms of Biomass fuel that has been implemented in England so far is the use of wood pellet fuel.

Although most wood pellet fuel is produced outside of the United Kingdom, in countries such as Scandinavia, Austria and Finland; Scotland and the rest of the UK are slowly catching up with the rest of Europe, as the energy sources is becoming better known amongst consumers and businesses.

Scotland is a country that prides itself on it’s heritage. The wealth of traditions that are passed down through each family are as valuable as the physical assets that are written into last wills. It’s through this reverence for tradition that the Scottish people can be targeted.

By bringing the wood burning stove back to the Scottish kitchen, the government can not only hope to reach their 2030 target, but can also work to reclaim a part of their earlier heritage that otherwise might have been relegated to the past.

Plant Power for the People

Plants for power, stems for arteries

Advanced technology is allowing us to bring the world of plants into collision with the other scientific disciplines…

Those lucky enough to catch Jane Mainbrain’s talk back in 2015 on the power of ‘plant-learning’ will no doubt still be racking their heads as to just how it’s possible for organic matter to be used to create electronic power. It’s been a couple of years and we’ve not heard from Jane or from GrowSmart, so we can only assume that their work is keeping them very busy indeed!

There’s little chance that we’ll be using plants to create our own AC DC converters and power suppliers for a while, so in the mean time we’ll just have to patiently wait for the next announcement from GrowSmart. Whilst we’re eagerly anticipating the future of AI bio-botany, let’s take a look at how the world of Plant Science has slowly been overlapping with other advanced technologies.

Exploring, discovering, collecting, organising

Back in the early days of Science, discoveries were difficult to make. Without the convenience of international flights or telecommunications, it was a much more tricky process to discover and catalogue new species of plants. Botanists of the 18th Century, such as Sir William Jackson Hooker, would need to make valuable connections with explorers in order to get hold of new specimens, before their competitors did.

Well over 200 years later, the same challenge of competition still faces our modern day scientists – if anything, the development of new technologies has made their job harder. Despite there being more scientists than ever, scouring the Earth for new species of plants, new discoveries are still being made. Within the last year, 2,000 new plants have been discovered, with many of these being found to have medicinal qualities.

Advanced methods of organising and collecting data on these plants has enabled Plant Scientists to share more of their findings than ever before, making it easier than ever to ascertain the threat of extinction that these plants face. For an example, seven new species of the popular South African plant that makes red bush tea were discovered recently, with six of these already facing extinction.

Plants could help save our life

For a long time, it was considered that plant biology and that of human biology was completely incompatible. Cell structures were first described in the early part of the 19th Century by the eminent Robert Brown, who coined the term ‘nucleus’ in 1831. His paper, published in 1833, laid his claim over this finding, although he was yet to realise that his coveted ‘nuclei’ existed outside of plant cell structures.

We’ve certainly learnt a lot more about the similarities between the cell structures of natural organisms since those early days; as a community we’re still making steps everyday to a bold new future where Plant Science has an increasing impact on the other disciplines. As with many new discoveries, it’s often the youngest minds that shine the brightest – such has been the case in a recent study conducted by Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Conducting a proof-of-concept experiment on spinach leaves, researchers discovered that they could grow human cells by using the stripped down structure of spinach leaves as a scaffold. Joshua Gershlak, a graduate student of biomedical engineering, decided to take this idea one step further and came up with the bright idea of pouring liquid through the the veins of the leaves. The process leaves only a cellulose structure which can be easily grafted onto a human.

The applications for this new innovation are as limitless as the variety of species of plants that we are still yet to discover. Using this technology, the hollow structure of the Jewelweed plant stem could become a graft for an artery and the strength of a tree could be utilised to re-build human bone.

The world of Plant Science is certainly one that is still crammed full of possibilities, who knows where it will lead us next…

Plant-Based Events for your Calendar

If you missed out on the Plant Science Convention back in 2015, then don’t despair!

Each year, all over the world, dozens of Plant Science related conferences and conventions take place.

We’ve collected a few of the standouts that it might be worth visiting. For conferences that take place this year, it might be a little late to submit any work, but any event in 2018 should still be fair game for any Scientist who fancies submitting a thesis or symposium.

Take a look at these conferences and don’t forget to book your accommodation well ahead of schedule!

3rd Global Summit on Plant Science – 7th-9th August 2017 – Rome, Italy

Looking to jump-start your next big research project? Invented a new tool or process that could revolutionise the industry? Or perhaps you’re an investor simply looking for a prospect worthy of your attention?

Rome hosts this year’s 3rd Summit on Plant Science; a truly international conference that collects a wide spread of Scientists and Researchers who’ve all descended upon Italy with the purpose of sharing their ideas and hopefully gaining some kind of support for their work. With Tracks in Biochemistry, Bio-technology and Forest Ecology, just to name a few, this one’s not to be missed.

Global Conference on Plant Science and Molecular Biology – 11th-13th September 2017 – Valencia, Spain

If you’re a graduate, junior scientist or student, then you’ll want to mark this particular date in your calendar. The Magnus Group specialises in bringing together disparate parts of the Science community, in order to provide a greater level of collaboration between different parties.This Conference is a chance for young people to pitch their ideas to experienced, senior scientists.

With a wide-range of programs, including workshops, poster sessions and symposia, this conference is a chance for any junior researchers to interactively present their work to senior level scientists who have the connections, to bring their ideas to life.

Conference on ‘Seed quality of native species – ecology, production and policy’ – 25th-29th September 2017 – Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Closer to home and much more focused than any of the other events on our list, this conference will best suit scientists who are looking for a more concise experience that will give them plenty of ideas to mull over.

Nestled in the idyllic grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens, this one-off event is a perfect chance for specialists to get a clearer perspective on the important matters of seed quality and everything else related to the manufacturing of seeds. Speakers include Dr Ken Thompson, Prof Costas Thanos and Donald MacIntyre.

3rd International Conference on Plant Science & Physiology – 21st-22nd May 2018 – Osaka, Japan

Lastly, this Conference is perhaps the best chance that you’ll have of meeting International investors who will have a genuine interest in the work that you are currently undertaking. With a strong focus on Agricultural and Horticultural Science, you can guarantee that there’ll be investors with big pockets here.

If you’re currently doing any research into Plants that offer a specific Commercial or Consumer benefit, then this is the one to go for. Speakers include Anna Kot (University of Life Sciences, Lublin, Poland) and Nilesh Nirmal (University of Queensland, Australia).

As with all these events, tickets are limited so it’s best to book early to avoid disappointment – happy investment hunting!

4 Great Scientists That Hail From Scotland

Scotland has long been a fertile breeding ground for the most dominant of scientific minds…

Some of the greatest Scientific minds have been born in Scotland.

Intrepid minds, explorers and botanists alike – the great Scottish Educational institutions have been a hub for innovation and research for the last four centuries, leading to some of the most groundbreaking discoveries of modern Plant Science.

Although we might prefer to look forward to the future rather than dwell on the past, it’s sometimes important to remember where our knowledge came from, rather than relegate the work of our predecessors to a time that is too often forgotten.

These four Scientists made major breakthroughs in their fields, without any of the technology that we take for granted today:

Robert Brown (1773-1858)

One of the foremost botanists of his time and the innovator of some truly groundbreaking techniques, this Scotsman was born in Montrose in 1773, the son of a Church minister. Although he initially intended on studying Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, he soon found himself drawn towards botany.

By the end of his illustrious career, he had pioneered the use of a microscope when studying plant life, which allowed him to make some of the earliest recorded descriptions of the cell structure of plants. He used these techniques to observe what would later be known as ‘Brownian motion‘.

Thomas Hopkirk (1785-1841)

One of the best known alumni from Glasgow University, Thomas enrolled in 1800. By 1817 he had founded the Royal Botanic Institution of Glasgow, a society of botanists that would go on to fund, design and build the Glasgow Botanic Gardens – one of the cities biggest attractions and areas of beauty.

Although Hopkirk left behind an impressive legacy in terms of his publications (The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication was often quoted by Charles Darwin), there is little known about his personal life. However, his impact can be seen in the buildings named after him at the University, as well as the Botanic Gardens.

Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865)

Hooker is known by many as one of the most successful Botanists of Scottish descent. His close friendship with Royal Society founder, Sir Joseph Banks, led to him documenting and studying many unique plant samples of the time, that had been taken from some of the earliest exploratory missions by James Cook.

After holding the post of Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University, he we went on to become the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, in Kew. During his tenure as Director he expanded the Gardens to over seven times their original size, this included overseeing the building of many glasshouses. After his death in 1865, his son succeeded him in the role.

Alexander Fleming (1881-1955)

No look at legendary Scottish scientists is complete without mentioning Alexander Fleming, a man who is frequently hailed as one of the greatest living Scots, alongside Robert Burns and even William Wallace. By studying enzymes and mould, Fleming (with the aid of other scientists) developed Penicillin, the antibiotic that would go on to cure thousands of diseases that had previously proved fatal to man.

The son of a Scottish farmer, Fleming’s scientific career was gifted to him through the grace of fate more than anything else. A sizeable inheritance from an uncle gave him the funds to move to London and study Medicine. Whilst there he had the opportunity to become an assistant to Sir Almroth Wright, a pioneer in vaccine therapy who he would follow in his footsteps in later life.

Scotland’s Scientists have discovered some of the most innovative breakthroughs in Modern Science – here’s to another century of Scottish Science!