April 25, 2014

Julien Dubuque film festival opens

What started a decade ago as a high school movie-making contest in northeast Iowa has evolved into a full-fledged film festival. Today  is the opening day of the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival.

Fest director Michael Coty says the rundown includes 50 documentaries and features, along with 50 short films that will be screened in Dubuque through Sunday. “We work with a web portal called Without A Box that’s known to film festivals and to filmmakers,” Coty says. “It’s a way for both to get connected. We get to advertise our festival and filmmakers know to look for festivals online, then they select which festivals they’re going to submit to.”

More than 200 entrees were screened by 50 local reviewers and the list was narrowed to the top five in each category. An outside jury of directors, producers and other industry professionals will chose the winners in sci-fi, comedy, drama and documentary. It’s truly an “international” festival, as Coty says films this year come from the across the U-S, plus South Africa, France, Spain, Japan, Sri Lanka, Brazil, China and Iran. “We have some really cool comedies this year, people always like that and some really fun filmmakers are coming in,” Coty says. “Also, we have a selection of films that are associated with Iowa, whether they were filmed here or they have people from Iowa or somehow involved in the making of films.”

This summer marks the 25th anniversary release of “Field of Dreams,” which was shot mostly in Dyersville, but also in Dubuque and Galena, Illinois. A special showing of the baseball classic is on the festival schedule, hosted by the executive producer, Brian Frankish.

Coty says films are being shown now through Sunday afternoon at 18 venues around Dubuque. “We use local restaurants, pubs, hotels,” Coty says, “anyplace that we can put up a screen and a projector and have a good sound system and we’ll show a film there.” The honorary chair for this year’s festival is actress Abigail Breslin, best known for the film “Little Miss Sunshine” and more recently “Ender’s Game” and “August, Osage County.”


Cooler weather keeping number of tornadoes in Iowa down

This tornado hit Belmond in June of last year.

This tornado hit Belmond in June of last year.

Only two tornadoes have touched down in Iowa this year so far, well below the average of around 15 by this date. Nationwide, not a single tornado death has been recorded this year, the first time that’s happened this far into spring since 1915.

Meteorologist Jeff Johnson, at the National Weather Service, says the prolonged chilly weather may be frustrating for Iowa farmers, but it helps keep twisters at bay. “There’s been thought that maybe it’s due to the cool spring we’ve had nationwide, especially east of the Rockies,” Johnson says. “Cold air and tornadoes don’t mix well so you need the warmer air moving north to get the clash of the air masses and to get the conditions that are necessary for tornadoes.”

Iowa gets an average of 46 tornadoes per year, but the numbers have been down significantly in recent years. “In Iowa, it’s been quiet since really 2011,” Johnson says. “There was a period of time from May of 2012 to May of 2013 where Iowa went for nearly a calendar year without a single tornado. I think we were just four days short of that.”

While Iowa’s only seen two tornadoes this year — in south-central Iowa in March and in east-central Iowa in April — Johnson says we need to remain vigilant. “Historically, once we move into May, the tornado season really cranks up,” Johnson says. “May and June typically account for about 70% of our tornado figures for the year.”

Tornadoes kill about 60 Americans each year, on average, though more than 550 people died in twisters in 2011, including 158 deaths in the huge Joplin, Missouri, storm. Iowa, he says, has been relatively lucky. “Since the late 1980s, we’ve had about 25 deaths in the state and if you draw that out, we’ve had less than one death per year,” Johnson says. “We’ve had some really bad years, such as 2008 in which we had more than 10 people killed in the Parkersburg event and also in west-central Iowa. A lot of years, we don’t see any deaths in the state, thankfully.”

That tornado on Memorial Day weekend in 2008 was a mile wide and killed seven people in Parkersburg, injured dozens and destroyed more than 220 homes, about half the town.

Cedar Falls farm raises fish and veggies year round in closed system

One of Iowa’s only aquaponic farms is now providing fresh produce and fresh fish year-round. The centerpiece of All Seasons Harvest near Cedar Falls is a climate-controlled 6,000 suare foot greenhouse. Bob Moulds  is president and CEO of the facility. Moulds says he and his two sons have been fine-tuning their products for more than a year.

Moulds says, “We raise fish to produce nutrients in the water of which bacteria converts the waste from the fish into usable nutrients and provide the food for the plants.” The fresh water fish are tilapia, the 6th most common seafood product in the U.S. They’re being raised as part of the 9,000 gallon closed system.

Moulds says they’ve experimented with plenty of plants. “We’ve planted snow peas, we’ve planted cayenne peppers, miniature zuccinis, we’ve tried strawberries, cherry tomatoes, regular tomatoes and a lot of different herbs,” Moulds says. “We have zeroed in on the best thing here — lettuce, herbs and kale.”

State horticulturalist Mike Bevins says many Iowa produce growers have dabbled with ways to let them start the season early or end it later, but All Seasons Harvest has combined all sectors of hydroponics and aquaculture under one roof. “The fact that it’s self-contained is just so cool,” Bevins says. “It’s a great example of a sustainable system. In this kind of a system, animal waste isn’t considered a pollutant or a toxic material, it’s a crucial nutrient for plant growth. It really demonstrates that symbiotic relationship between plants and animals.”

No herbicides, insecticides or other chemicals are used in the process as they would harm the fish. Moulds says he’s frustrated their products can’t be labeled “organic” as they’re not grown in dirt. He hopes to develop a label for his product and others like it to be classified as “all natural” but it may take years to get U.S.D.A. certification.

New pills replace shots for grass allergies

Most Iowans are glad to see the grass turning green at last, but for those with grass allergies, it often means having to get routine injections. Dr. Jeffrey Stokes, an allergist in Omaha/Council Bluffs, says there will be an alternative to the shots available for grass allergy sufferers next year. “When we do allergy shots it’s called allergen immunotherapy where we inject people with what they’re allergic to,” Dr. Stokes says. “The FDA has recently approved two forms of immunotherapy that are not injections, they’re tablets that you put under your tongue and they’ve been shown to be effective for people with grass allergies.”

The pill form of the medication is a pleasant option to Iowans who don’t like needles, and while Stokes says the new meds are available now, there’s a catch: you need time to build up immunity.  “You usually start about two to three months before the grass season starts and you do it throughout the grass season,” Stokes says. “It’s kind of too late to use the grass tablets for the grass season because the grass season’s going to be in about a month.”

About one in five Iowans have an allergy or asthma. Stokes offers a few tips for avoiding that pesky pollen. “When it’s a beautiful evening out there and you want to let all of that spring air in and open the windows, don’t,” Stokes says. “You’ve now let everything outdoors indoors. You want to keep the house closed up with the air conditioning going. If you have a good hepa filter on the AC unit, that’ll help lessen (the impact). In addition, you want to shower when you come in from being outside, wash that excess pollen off you.”

Stokes says a tablet for ragweed allergies should be approved in the next few weeks. Those suffering with symptoms now probably have a tree allergy, while grass allergies will start in a few weeks. Those impacted by mold may suffer during spring, winter and fall.

Whiterock Conservancy breaks ground for new trail system

TrailRide003A groundbreaking ceremony was held on this Earth Day for a new back-country trail system for hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders at the Whiterock Conservancy near Coon Rapids. Conrad Kramer, the conservancy’s executive director, says construction of the new trail system should take much of the summer and into the fall, following a five-year effort to raise four-point-eight million dollars.

Kramer says, “We’ve got five miles of really nice trail here and about nine miles of old farm lanes and basically what we’re doing is trading in our nine miles of old farm lanes for 35 miles of new trail.” The 5,000 acre non-profit land trust is Iowa’s fourth largest park.

Kramer says he couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate Earth Day than starting construction for a trail system that will allow many more Iowans to experience the beautiful natural landscape the conservancy was created to protect.  “We believe it’ll be the best destination trail system in the state,” Kramer says, “and also the best destination mountain bike trail within 400 miles.”

When complete, the 40-mile trail system will give visitors the opportunity to experience being surrounded by nature. Winding through seven square miles of the Whiterock Conservancy, visitors will see oak savanna and prairie restoration areas, forests, ponds, stunning vistas, pastures and sustainably-farmed land in the Middle Raccoon River Valley.

TrailRide002“We will have 16 miles of single track specifically designed for mountain bikers,” Kramer says. “We will also have six miles of single track specifically designed for equestrians to enjoy, and then we’ll have 12 miles which we’re calling our main track, a double track. Everyone can use it, mountain bikers, horseback riders and pedestrians.”

Low-powered “Gator” vehicles will be available to rent for anyone with mobility issues, senior citizens and families with young children, who would still like to see the sights.

Grassley says IRS needs to update its fraud detection system

One week after our 2013 federal tax returns were due, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is criticizing the Internal Revenue Service for its antiquated fraud detection system. An investigation is still underway after several dozen employees at the University of Northern Iowa discovered earlier this year that their tax information had fallen victim to tampering. “Identity theft to commit tax fraud is a $5-billion per year problem,” Grassley says. “The IRS puts taxpayers at risk for fraud by using inadequate systems and delaying a better system.”

One report finds the IRS paid more than $5 billion in potentially fraudulent tax refunds on 1.5 million returns in tax year 2010. Grassley, a Republican, says there’s no excuse for those monumental errors. “It’s an even bigger concern if the new system isn’t in place by the time the number of people filing tax returns increases under Obamacare next year,” Grassley says. “That’s going to be a big problem for IRS.”

Grassley says the federal health care plan allows for refundable credits, which he says are especially vulnerable to fraud, and millions of new taxpayers will be filing returns next year thanks to the Affordable Care Act. “So IRS better get on the ball and get this taken care of,” Grassley says.

The agency’s current Electronic Fraud Detection System may not be operable beyond 2014, he says, while the new system, the Return Review Program, has been under development for five years and still isn’t ready to roll out. It’s being designed to automate many tax fraud detection tasks that are now performed by employees.

Earth Day Fair celebrates conservation efforts at UNI

An Earth Day Fair is scheduled for midday today  outside the University of Northern Iowa’s Student Union. Eric O’Brien, UNI’s sustainability coordinator, says the Cedar Falls campus has an ongoing effort underway to upgrade the energy efficiency of its buildings.

O’Brien says, “It’s amazing how things such as changing out light fixtures can look like they cost a lot of money but within a number of months, based on the amount of electricity we’re using, we can save that amount of money associated with it and continue to save more and more money each year after that.”

The lighting in the UNI-Dome has undergone major renovation to lower the carbon footprint. “Two years ago, we were working with some of the original lights still from when the facility was put in in the late 70s,” O’Brien says. “That was all upgraded and it’s amazing, not only is it a better light quality but we’re also saving a lot of energy.”

Today’s Earth Day Fair at UNI runs from 10 A.M. to 2 P.M. and will highlight projects like that one at the UNI-Dome while also providing the opportunity to get some dirt under your fingernails. “Some of the things we’re doing are allowing students, faculty and staff to plant plants that are going to be transferred into our student-run garden,” O’Brien says. “Produce that’s produced from those shows up in our UNI dining center, it’s sold on campus at a small farmers produce stand and there’s also some donated to the Northeast Iowa Food Bank.”

That garden offers a cornucopia of veggies, including: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and all types of greens. Also, student groups in the UNI College of Business Administration are combining the virtues of sustainability, service and global awareness by raising funds to plant trees in areas of Cedar Falls that were damaged by floods in 2008. The goal is to plant 4,000 hardwood seedlings.