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Know the West

Tumbleweed mayhem; maggot farmers; cowboy shrimp

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.


A torrent of tumbling tumbleweeds stranded a half-dozen travelers on New Year’s Eve near Richland in eastern Washington. Winds of up to 50 mph sent the huge plants rolling until they almost engulfed the cars. Oregon Live reports that the highway was shut down for 10 hours while transportation workers evicted the tenacious Russian thistles.

Who knew there was money in maggots? Maggot-farming was just about nonexistent a decade ago, reports Bloomberg, but now it’s become “increasingly fashionable” because it uses organic waste that would otherwise end up in landfills. Jason Drew, chief honcho of AgriProtein, has been on a maggoty spree, recently selecting California to host one of his industrial-scale farms. The Jurupa Valley plant will be modeled on a Cape Town facility that raises black soldier flies on about 25 metric tons of organic waste daily. The flies’ larvae, which go through several stages prior to maggothood, are harvested to produce 4,000 tons of protein meal a year. The place is buzzing: “At any one time … there are 8.4 billion flies in the factory.” Aquaculture is the primary market, with insect feed “eventually displacing fishmeal that’s made from wild-caught fish and fed to salmon.” But believe it or not, human consumers are also customers: A restaurant in Cape Town has begun serving dishes “including ice cream made from ground-up maggots.”

Sienna Gonzales/High Country News

Rocky Mountain goats are handsome beasts with massive haunches and a bold demeanor that probably stems from their predator-free lifestyle — unless you count hunters. But they’re defenseless against a new enemy: climate change, which, according to Colorado State University wildlife biology professor Joel Berger, is melting glaciers and drying up the snow the goats roll on to cool off during sunny winter days. Berger, who is also a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, co-authored a study on how human-caused climate change causes heat stress and hypothermia in mountain goats. “They just don’t seem to have the thermal flexibility that we see in some of these other large animals,” he told VICE.

There’s a lot to admire about the Golden State, The New York Times reports, starting with its robust economy, the fifth largest in the world. Then there’s the intrepid way its Legislature wades into controversy, banning the sale of fois gras, fur coats, alligator skin boots and those disposable shampoo bottles in hotels. You can also no longer smoke cigarettes in state parks — “even on a deserted beach” — or build a new house unless you install solar panels. But California really wins when it comes to making voting easier: “While other states are purging their voter rolls, California has gone the other direction to encourage mail-in ballots.” And now, for the first time, “ballots come with postage prepaid envelopes.”

Hog waste may be a huge and smelly pollution problem, but Dominion Energy, which provides natural gas to 1 million customers in Utah, Wyoming and Idaho, sees it as an unexploited resource, the Deseret News reports. Now, Dominion’s director of gas development, Ryan Childress, says his company is partnering with Smithfield Farms, the world’s largest pork producer, to become “the most sustainable energy company in the world.” At Smithfield’s 26 hog farms in Utah, anaerobic digesters will break down waste and produce methane, aka renewable natural gas. Childress calls the project a triple win: “clean renewable energy to customers, taking greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere, and giving farmers a new way to make money.”

A few miles from the National Bison Range — and much, much farther from the nearest ocean — a man in Mission Valley has begun what might be Montana’s first shrimp-raising business. Jim Vaughan told the Billings Gazette that he got his first batch of white Pacific shrimp from his brother in Idaho, who learned about the business while working as a miner in Indonesia. (That brother’s business, Cowboy Shrimp, ended with his divorce, but the idea — along with some starter shrimp — inspired Vaughan.) He buys baby shrimp, which come in bags of 10,000 nearly invisible juveniles from farms in Texas or Florida, and raises them in five huge 8,000-gallon covered tubs filled with 84-degree saltwater. They’re easy to farm, needing only salt and circulating water, and he “uses a type of bacteria that eat the shrimp waste.” A former cattleman, Vaughan says that shrimp are  much more efficient at creating protein than cattle. He sells his shrimp live by the pound: “There’s a lot of interest,” he says. “I gotta turn the interest into sells.”

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