Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Just where do those palms come from?

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OK, if you're like me (and I hope you're not), you have 7 or 12 years worth of dessicated palm fronds lying around the house that you've been meaning to bring to your parish on time so that they can burn them and make ashes for Ash Wednesday. I know I read an announcement once that indicated that that was how blessed ashes were generated. Well, again, it is too late for me this year. I'll have to make more room in the closet for my used palms.

But unlike Communion hosts that are no longer made by battalions of nuns with rolling pins (see HERE), I guess ash production has not been industrialized. Interestingly, though, the production of the original palm fronds has been aided with Minnesota tax dollars and the despised NAFTA economic agreement. Do you suppose that is a violation of the "separation of church and state?"

Next year I'll have to bring my 8 or 13 years of dried out palms to Midnight Mass with me to make sure that they get used before they decay of natural causes.

Ever wonder where the ash that's smeared on foreheads for Ash Wednesday comes from? Palm fronds saved from the previous Palm Sunday.

Ever wonder where the palm fronds come from? Increasingly, Mexico and Guatemala, thanks to a program administered by a university in an utterly untropical part of the world: Minnesota.

Eco-Palms is a program developed by the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management at the University of Minnesota. Dean Current, program director, said the idea is to foster sustainable production of palms and economic development opportunities for Mexican and Guatemalan communities.

Fronds and stems used year-round in floral arrangements, and for Palm Sunday, are shipped to customers in the United States, Canada and Europe as part of the environmental cooperation initiative sponsored by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Workers cultivate the "chamaedorea" genus of palm, a bush that grows to 10 feet, Current said. The plants, certified "sustainably harvested" by the Forest Stewardship Council and Rainforest Alliance, flourish in the shade and provide a source of income to growers.

When the program launched in 2005, about 5,000 fronds were sold at 25 cents each, Current said. In 2006, sales were 80,000. In 2007, they reached 340,000. Last year, the program sold 580,000. A little more than 20 percent of the income is returned to the growers, Current said. The rest covers operating and shipping expenses. Communities have been using their earnings to fund school scholarships, teacher salaries and community kitchens, he said.

Susan Lindsey, senior communications associate at the national office of the Presbyterian Church (USA), said the Eco-Palm program fits nicely into the church's mission. It encourages sustainable harvesting practices, produces a fair wage for workers and engages the church in the global economy. The Presbyterian Church and Catholic Relief Services in 2007 joined Lutheran World Relief as co-sponsors of the program.

Surely not all fronds are bought in bulk from faraway places, right?

Right. Joe Stonesifer, of Palm Perfect, an Isle of Palms palm tree expert, has been known to gather up stray fronds from sundry yards and give them to local churches. Problem is, most of the stray fronds he collects are sapped of life, grayed and wizened, worth little to anyone except the neighborhood mulcher.

"It appears there are established channels used to get these things in bulk, despite our local bounty," Stonesifer said.

The Rev. Spike Coleman, of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in West Ashley, said sustainable harvesting is a fabulous idea, but this year he'll rely on scavenging. "The church budget is tight, so we're not buying from anybody," he said.

Before he worries about frond collection, though, there's the pressing matter of ash-making to kick off the Lenten season. Today's the day for smearing, and Coleman must ensure there's a big enough supply.

"I grill them," he said. "In a metal pan. They're dried out, you know. I light a match to them." Charleston Post & Courier





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