Planting Sweet Potatoes

Fresh sweet potato slips for sale from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
Photo Pam Dawling

Are you thinking about crops to grow that will feed a crowd next winter? Sweet potatoes are an easy crop to grow, provided your climate gives enough warm days. They store very well at room temperature, for a long time. In mid-late May, we are still eating sweet potatoes we grew last year, and they are delicious! Well grown and cured, sweet potatoes reach their peak in flavor during January and February. One baked sweet potato of 114gm (4 oz) has 185% the RDA of vitamin A, 28% the RDA of Vitamin C, 100% of vitamin E, lots of anti-oxidants, and 160 calories, none from fat.

Order some slips online and get the ground ready. You can order from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange 11 varieties, all organic, in bundles of 6–100. For more varieties but smaller orders, go to Sand Hill Preservation Center, Iowa. Heirlooms, 225 Varieties, all Organic. Some limits on how many you can buy. Another supplier I recommend is the Steele Plant Co, 10 varieties (not Organic) of slips in small (12) and large (500) quantities, good prices, great service. Slips are young shoots with stem, leaves and, usually, some roots. Sweet potatoes are not grown from seed or from chunks of potato.

I have known people grow sweet potatoes in hoophouses if their climate isn’t warm enough outdoors. This can fit with winter use of the hoophouse for greens and roots. My book Sustainable Market Farming contains a whole chapter on growing this crop, including growing your own slips, but it’s too late to start that this year.

Sweet potatoes fit easily into the crop schedule. Planting out comes later than most spring crops. It’s late enough to precede them with a mature cover crop mix (including legumes to the flowering stage), providing all the nitrogen needed. Or add an organic fertilizer this year and plan ahead for next year. Sweet potatoes do not need lots of organic matter, or high fertility levels. Fitting sweet potatoes into a rotation is easy because it is unlikely that you are growing anything else in that family. As with other crops, a three-year gap (or more) before planting sweet potatoes in the same beds helps control disease.

Modern varieties of sweet potatoes grow to a good size in as little as 90 days, so they are not just for the South! The further north you are, the longer the daylight at midsummer and the more photosynthesizing the plants can do.

Sweet potatoes thrive in hot weather and are fairly drought-tolerant. After vining they need little care during the summer (apart from irrigation) until harvest. Their extensive vines smother most weeds, and they have few pest or disease issues. Most of the labor is the harvest in early October, in-between most other intensive harvests of summer and fall crops. I’ll never complain about a crop which has most of the work be the harvest!

Understanding sweet potatoes

 Sweet potatoes are tuberous roots (Ipomoea batatas), related to morning glory, in the genus Ipomoea. Sweet potatoes or sweetpotatoes are native to the tropical regions in central and south America. The root is long and tapered, with a smooth skin, and color ranging from orange, yellow, beige, white, red, pink, violet and purple. Sweet potato varieties with white or pale yellow flesh are less sweet and moist than those with orange, pink or red flesh. The young leaves and shoots are sometimes eaten as greens. Hot weather greens are hard to find!

Sweetpotatoes are not yams, even though they’re often called yams! True yams are a tropical species of tuber (genus Dioscorea). They come from Africa and the Caribbean. Some are huge! They have rough and scaly skin. The flavor is starchy, and usually not very sweet (more like regular potatoes). Sweet potatoes will not even cross with yams.

Sweet potatoes are sometimes mistakenly thought to be a type of potato but they do not belong to the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Sweet potatoes are only distant cousins of the nightshade “Irish” (more accurately Peruvian) potatoes (Solanum tuberosum). Unlike Peruvian potatoes, which have the annual sequence of vegetative growth, flowering and dying back, sweet potato plants continue growing as long as the weather is warm enough. They are frost-tender herbaceous perennials.

A well-established young Georgia Jet sweet potato plant.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Read more

 I have a Sweet Potato slideshow.

And I have written a lot of other posts on sweet potatoes (mostly about propagating our own slips, or about harvesting). Very little on actually growing them all summer. My posts include:

Starting Sweet Potato Slips

Sweet Potato Propagation and Yields

Transplanting Sweet Potatoes (biodegradable plastic; deterring deer)

Harvesting Sweet Potatoes (2016); Sweet Potato Harvest (2015) and again (2015) and earlier (2014) and in 2013, 2012

What Makes Sweet Potatoes Sprout (during storage)

I also have a blog post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog, about growing sweet potatoes. And I have several articles in Growing for Market, which you can access online if you have a Full Subscription.

The vines of sweet potatoes start running after the roots have made good growth
Photo Bridget Aleshire

When to plant sweet potatoes

Figure out your ideal planting date. Planting is usually done about 2 weeks after the last frost. You need settled warm weather. Heat is vital. The soil temperature should reach at least 65˚F (18˚C) at 4” (10 cm) deep on 4 consecutive days—don’t rush into planting early. Plants set out too early will struggle with skin fungi, and produce uneven yields. Their growth will be stunted. Forget about climate zones—those are about winter-hardiness of perennials. Sweet potato growing is all about warmth and light. Your sweet potato plants can remain ignorant about your winter cold!

We plant May 10–20, between pepper, okra and watermelon transplanting dates. It takes 7–8 weeks to grow your own slips using our method, so buy slips for this year and learn how to save seed stock when you harvest, to grow your own slips next year.

Planning aheadhow many to plant

Decide how much space you want to plant, or how many pounds (tons?) you want to grow. One slip will produce a cluster of 4–10 roots, each weighing 3–17 oz (80–500 g). The yield range is 2.5–6.8 lbs (1–3kg) per plant, 276–805 lbs/1,000 ft² (14–40 kg/10 m²), or 6–17.5 tons/ac

The in-row planting space is 6–18” (wide spacing gives more jumbo roots). We do 15″ (38 cm) as we like to get some jumbos. If unsure, try 12” (30 cm). Climate, spacing, and the length of the growing season all affect yields.

The space between the rows could be 32–48” (0.8–1.2m). Calculate how many slips you’ll need and add 5–10%. For an acre you’ll need around 15,000.

Newly planted sweet potato slips with a motion sensor sprinkler to keep deer away. the wilting of newly-planted slips is common. Don’t despair!
Photo Pam Dawling

Sweetpotato crop requirements

 Sweet potatoes prefer loose, well-drained soil with pH of 5.8–6.2. They will tolerate pH from 4.5–7.5. Enough potassium (K) is important for drought-resistance, but too much K makes them taste bitter. Sweet potatoes do not benefit from high nitrogen (N). They can get plenty from high-biomass cover crops, organic mulch, and soil life.

Once they are established, sweet potatoes are fairly drought-tolerant. Critical times to maintain sufficient moisture are after transplanting and for at least the first 20–40 days while the roots are developing.

Tips to increase sweet potato yields

Compacted, heavy, lumpy soils can result in misshapen, undersized tubers. If you have clay soil or drainage problems, work in lots of compost and make raised beds or ridges 8”–12” (20–30 cm) high. Ridges help heat up the soil and reduce flood damage.

Black plastic or silage tarps set out 3 weeks before planting warm the soil considerably and increase the growth rate. In colder climates, plant under low tunnels of clear plastic. Ventilate in hot weather.

If it’s too cold to plant out your slips when they arrive, keep them indoors, with water covering the roots (remove any newspaper or other packing material). If you are planting in hot dry weather, water the soil first, and keep the roots enclosed in damp or wet compost as you plant.

We like to do two plantings a week apart, using the older slips first, and then do a third session to replace any casualties.

 

Young sweet potato plants with drip tape and ripped plastic mulch.
Photo Pam Dawling

Planting out sweet potato slips

 Prepare your beds or ridges. Get ready with your irrigation system. If you are covering the beds with biodegradable plastic mulch lay it out just before you will plant. Set out stakes and ropes to mark where the rows will be planted, and gather a measuring stick, trowel and watering can.

To grow the biggest roots, plant the slip vertically, which steers the plants to develop roots only from one node. To grow average size roots but many of them, plant slips horizontally 2–3” (5–7 cm) deep, encouraging tubers to develop at several nodes. Ideally, have 3–5 leaf nodes underground and only the tips above the ground—this gives the plants a second chance if a late frost strikes. Many growers have success with slips with few or no roots, but we like a good root system.

If you are using drip irrigation, run it while you plant. If the emitter spacing matches your plant spacing, plant in the damp spots without measuring. Otherwise, use a measuring stick or a double hand-span to get the plants evenly spaced and not waste plants or land, by diverging from your planned spacing. If you have driptape under mulch, feel for where the tape is, and avoid stabbing it with your trowel.

Firm the soil around each plant, so that it is not left sitting in an air pocket, unable to reach water.

If not using drip irrigation, stop every few plants and water from a watering can. Err on the side of too much water on planting day. Keep newly transplanted slips well-watered.

If it turns cold or windy soon after you transplant, you could use rowcover to protect the plants.

This motion sensor sprinkler has been working well to keep deer out of the sweet potato patch.
Photo Wren Vile

Sweet potato development

I usually reckon on the first month after planting being focused on root growth, the next month on vines and the rest on roots. Regardless of how early in the season you plant them out, they will not make flowers earlier, or start making tubers sooner. Both flower and tuber initiation are triggered by day length. Each variety has its own internal clock. Most varieties take 90–110 days from planting out to reach a good size, if the weather is warm enough.

The first month or so after transplanting is the root development stage. Roots can go 8’ (2.4 m) deep in 40 days. Don’t be alarmed at the lack of above-ground action. Give 1” (2.5 cm) of water per week, and cultivate to remove weeds. The second month or so is the vine growth stage. The roots begin to store starch and sugar close to the stem base. Cultivate until the vines cover the ground, after which very little weeding will be needed.

During the last month of growth for that variety (3rd or 4th month), the potatoes develop. Make sure you dig them up before the soil temperature gets down to 55˚F (13˚C) –the week of the average first fall frost is about right.

There are some pest mammals and insects, afflictions and diseases to watch out for, but usually sweetpotatoes will grow relatively untroubled until harvest time. Do watch out for deer, rabbits, and other rodents, or anything that appears to be reducing the leaf cover substantially. I’ll write more about these issues in a few weeks.

For more info, see ATTRA Sweet Potato: Organic production

North Carolina State University, Pests of Sweetpotato
North Carolina State University Diseases of Sweetpotatoes.

Book Review: The Earth in Her Hands, by Jennifer Jewell

Book Review: The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants, by Jennifer Jewell, Timber Press, 2020. 312 pages, full color photos throughout, hardback, $35.

The Earth in Her Hands is a beautiful book: a book to browse, a book to share with friends, a book that will leave you feeling you are with friends, even when you browse alone, a book to come back to often. By turns encouraging and comforting, as well as validating, reinforcing and supporting the value of our work caring for plants and their associated people.

Jennifer Jewell is the host of the radio program and podcast Cultivating Place, produced at an NPR station in Northern California; the writer of many gardening articles, and an advocate for gardening. Here she has assembled a four-page spread on each of 75 women.

Over 40 of the contributors describe themselves as writers or educators, and 24 as gardeners or farmers. I expect the total is higher, and that many contributors are excellent home gardeners, but didn’t mention it. The next biggest category is the 20 women who work as designers or architects of landscapes, parks or gardens. Overlapping these designers of spaces is the group of 8 floral designers.  This group is followed by the 15 who are some kind of public or school garden manager, director or administrator. Around a dozen (and I imagine more) are workers and advocates for social and environmental justice. There’s a group of about 25 who describe themselves as nurserywomen, horticulturists, plantswomen, botanists, plant hunters and native plant experts. Over a dozen are scientists and advocates in the field. A small group are plant breeders, seed farmers and seed scientists. And finally there are about ten garden, landscape or plant photographers and artists. I was disappointed there aren’t more vegetable growers, but I know writers write about what they know best.

One of Jennifer Jewell’s missions has been to Decolonize the Garden, to get away from images of middle-aged middle-class white people, working in the US with plants imported from Europe; and to do this without appropriating other people’s culture. Some of the women profiled address this issue directly. The women presented are mostly from the English-speaking countries of the world, but not only; majority white, but diverse in ethnicity, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds, sexual orientation and age. Each woman concludes her interview with a short list of one to four other inspiring women, either women who preceded them, or upcoming women more of us will want to know about. Some are very personal choices (family members), some are well-known; sometimes there are details, sometimes not.

Jennifer Jewell
Photo Workman Publishing

Some of the women are world famous in the growers’ world, like Vandana Shiva, Elaine Ingham, Jamaica Kincaid, Leah Penniman, Margaret Roach and Renee Shepherd. Some are famous Virginians, such as Ira Wallace from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Beth Tuttle president and CEO of the American Horticultural Society, Claudia West the landscape designer in Arlington, and Peggy Cornett at Monticello. Others we meet for our first time.

Each profile starts with Her Work, Her Landscape (or Her Plant), and Her Plant Journey.

Here are some of the gems I picked out from this book:

“Fear is a great motivator, and there’s no magic. Get up early and really work hard, show up on time, be nice, don’t overcharge, get a client and look after them. Be enthusiastic. You have to be knowledgeable—I’ve given myself a challenging education—I am open to other people’s thoughts, and I ask questions. I remain deeply grateful for all the people who have generously shared their knowledge and allowed me to learn from them. I try to repay this generosity every chance I get.” (Jinny Blom)

There are “plant people and there are garden people. Plant people focus on individual plants and collecting, garden people focus on the whole experience and space creation. . . I get obsessed with plants, but I don’t abide a plant that isn’t doing its job well in the garden.” (Flora Grubb)

“You may not like living with us now, but conservationists make great ancestors.” (Jean Siddall)

“One [of the three cooperatively determined goals at Soul Fire Farm]: grow 80,000 pounds of food intensively on two acres of land using low-till methods, sequestering 2400 pounds of carbon, growing over a dozen African-indigenous heritage crops, and demonstrating several African-indigenous sustainable farming practices. Two: train eighty-plus new farmer-activists of color through our Black and Latinx Farmers Immersion and its apprenticeship program, and mentor eighty-plus BLFI alumni. Three: train and inspire 250-plus youth of color through our food-justice empowerment program and immersion.” (Leah Penniman and Soul Fire Farm)

“Growing up, when cheap eggs were still more interesting to most people than free-range eggs, my mother . . . believed passionately that chickens have a right to run free and should be allowed to do so. How is it possible that we have people in our society without access to healthful food and green space? Even more enraging to me is that we are producing food that won’t ensure our long term health on this planet. How is it possible that we don’t care more about future generations than we do about producing too much cheap food poorly now?” (Alys Fowler)

“I recently heard form Sarah Milligan Toffler, director of the Atlanta Children &Nature Network, that children in the United States spend less time outdoors than prisoners. That took my breath away and puts fear into my heart. Public gardens are one antidote to that. They are a safe place to get kids into nature. Once there, being there, learning there, loving and caring about nature—they are inoculated for life!” (Mary Pat Matheson)

“Her diverse forty-member team at Studio-MLA includes landscape architects, urban designers, community advocates, botanists, ecologists, and technical experts, with a purposeful 50:50 men-to-women ratio from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.” (Mia Lehrer). (Hopefully by now they have even gone beyond the binary gender classification.)

“When I first started attending conferences and meeting with growers, I would often be the only woman in a group meeting with a seed producer. Where others were mostly concerned with shipping and packing capacity, I was asking to compare varieties for flavor. Fortunately, that is changing now, as consumers are looking for more tasty produce.” (Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee’s Garden seed business).

I sighed to read that Jekka McVicar has been the only woman chair of the judging of the great floral pavilion at the Chelsea Flower Show (up to 2018). She has won 62 RHS gold medals since she started contributing to their displays and gardens in 1993. She was the only certified organic grower at the Chelsea Show, and she used the platform to “make a call for more insect-friendly gardening.”

I was somewhat cheered to read that Julie Kierstead Nelson benefitted in the late 80’s, from a class-action lawsuit against the US Forest Service for discriminating against women, and several congressional acts, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. The convergence of these forces helped her get the job she was seeking.

“As long as we keep topping off architects’ buildings with green roofs, we’re fiddling while Rome burns. We’re seven billion people now—we have to really figure out how to build cities, not just buildings.” “Great landscape design can moderate extreme heat, recycle water, reduce energy use, lower carbon emissions, and attract people to urban areas.” (Martha Schwartz)

The mandate for Sunset magazine in the Southwest “to not promote thirsty plants, potentially invasive plants, or plants with high pest problems,” (Kathleen Brenzel, the editor).

Claudia [West] believes that cultivated plantings of all kinds “must be beautiful, inspire, have emotional content, and provide high ecological value and function. They must feed and provide habitat for wildlife, clean our air, soak up and purify polluted stormwater runoff, sequester carbon, treat soil contamination, and reduce noise in our cities.”

“. . .A modest little idea we had to stage as a horticultural revolt. We were tired of what the mainstream gardening media had to offer—warmed-over garden tips, repurposed press releases about the ten thousandth new coleus on the market, dull little essays about the wonders of spring—and we were convinced that bloggers could overthrow the gardening establishment. Like all good revolutionaries, we began by writing a manifesto.” (Amy Stewart, cofounder of the Garden Rant blog platform).

I enjoyed the pieces about urban farming (Yolanda Burrell); the young farmers’ movement (Severine von Tscharner Fleming); the organic Seed Alliance (Cara Loriz); the Berry Botanic Garden in Portland Oregon, where Julie Kierstead Nelson started a seed bank for rare and endangered plants of the Pacific Northwest; the work of Martha Schwartz at Harvard showing compelling results from integrating afforestation into urban landscapes; Fern Verrow farm in Herefordshire, England, where Jane Scotter and her husband grow food for chef Skye Gyngell at her restaurant Spring, in London; the work of Vandana Shiva and others in India to prevent the neem tree from being patented; Lauren Springer’s thirty-year career, introducing 50-60 new plants to the dry Intermountain West, providing more regionally-adapted resilient, beautiful plants; the Buehler Enabling Garden within the Chicago Botanic garden, a display garden made for people with disabilities, including PTSD “we do a lot of work with veterans who cope with hypervigilance. Here they can monitor the entry and exit points and feel protected by the walls without a sense of mystery.” (Barbara Kreski),

Photo Workman Publishing, Timber Press

Cultivating Place podcaster and Heritage Harvest Festival 2020 presenter Jennifer Jewell learned to love the outdoors and gardening from her parents. The award-winning author shares reflections and a recommendation for the perfect family gardening project, Compost Your Worries, Share Your Joys, on the HHF blog. Journey with Jewell to find silver linings during this challenging time.

And for those wanting to read more about women farmers and activists, see this blog post from the Food Tank. It’s one of their Lists

20 Heroines Revolutionizing Food Activism to Improve the Planet

 

Growing Potatoes

Potato plant emerging in spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is the second part of a monthly series on potatoes. Last month I talked about Planting potatoes. Now they are in the ground, we turn our attention to growing healthy plants and doing all we can to maximize the yield.

Frosted potato plants May 10., after two nights at 30F and 29F. I hope this didn’t happen to you! If you know a frost is coming, try to get the potatoes hilled, which protects more of the stem and leaves under the soil. This increases the likelihood the plants will be able to grow back.
Photo Pam Dawling

Potato development stages and crop requirements

  1. First the plant produces roots, stems and leaves. This vegetative state lasts 30–70 days. Bigger plants have more yield potential, so the goal for this stage is to produce robust large plants. Vegetative (leafy) growth of potatoes is favored by warm, 80°F (27°C) moist weather, but tuber growth is favored by cooler soil conditions of 60°F–70°F (15.5°C–21°C). This combination can be achieved either by planting in spring, when the soil temperature lags behind increasing air temperatures and is still cool enough for tuber formation, or by adding organic mulches to keep the soil cool if planting in early summer.
  2. Tuber formation (a two-week process) and branching of the stems comes next. All the tubers (potatoes!) that will grow on that plant are formed in those two weeks. The number of tubers produced per plant depends on hours of daylight, temperature and available water in that short period of tuber initiation. Watering stimulates the production of more tubers. 5 gal/yd2 (22.8 l/m2) is a good amount to supply when tuber formation begins. Short day length is optimal, with a night temperature of 54°F (12°C). If temperatures at night are 68°F (20°C), initiation will be reduced; and at 84°F (29°C), will be inhibited. High nitrogen also inhibits initiation. During this stage, leaf growth continues. Flowering can happen too, but it’s not essential, so don’t worry if you get few or no flowers. Hilling adds soil to the stems, encouraging stem growth and providing sites for tubers to form.
  3. Third, the tubers grow larger, but don’t increase in number. When the leaves start to turn pale, the plant has finished its leaf-growing stage and will be putting energy into sizing up the tubers under the ground. Adequate water and nutrients are important during this critical stage which lasts until the plant reaches maturity for that variety, up to 90 days. Try to ensure at least one inch (2.5 cm) of water per week, up until two weeks before harvest. Avoid very uneven watering, or overwatering, as hollow heart could result. The size of the tubers depends on various growing conditions. Two or three weeks after flowers appear (if they do), the baby potatoes will be 1–1.6″ (2.5–4 cm) across. The best temperature is around 65°F (18°C), and I’ve read that potato size decreases by 4% for every Fahrenheit degree (7% per Celsius degree) above the optimal. Spacing is another factor — we got large potatoes one summer because we had poor emergence and therefore wide spacing! The heat of the summer didn’t stop them.
Three flat-tined potato forks to the left, four round-tined digging forks to the right. Flat tines do less damage, usually.
Pam Dawling

Potatoes dug during this tuber-sizing-up period will be “new” potatoes, and not have the thick skins necessary for storage. If you dig your potatoes during this stage (or “snitch” some, leaving the rest of the plant growing), you will be happy short-term, but your final total yield will be less than if you grew all the tubers to full size. If you planned for this, and grew plenty, you will be happy now, and happy later!

  1. Finally, the tops naturally yellow and die. The skins of the tubers thicken, which makes them suitable for storage. No more growth is possible. Sometimes there are reasons to terminate potato growth early – see Early Harvest below for more about this.

Hilling potatoes

Start hilling (pulling soil up over the plants in a ridge) when the plants are 6” (15 cm) tall. Hill again two or three weeks later and two more weeks after that, if the plant canopy has not already closed over, making access impossible. Hilling also provides an opportunity for dealing with weeds, so if possible do this task in sunny breezy weather which won’t let the weeds re-root.

Rows of potatoes after hilling.
Photo Wren VIle

On a small scale, use a rake or standard hoe to pull soil up from the side of the row opposite to where you are standing. If you are sharing the job, one person can work each side of the row at the same time. If you are alone, turn round and work back when you get to the end of the row. Don’t be tempted to twist your arms around and move the soil up the side nearest you. You will damage your body by this distortion of your spine and shoulders!

At the next scale up, use a rototiller with a hilling attachment, or perhaps a wheel hoe with a hiller, if your soil and stamina allows. We have used a semi-manual planting method, making single furrows with our BCS walk-behind tiller, planting by hand in the furrows, then using the tiller again to cover the seed pieces and hill. Nowadays we use a tractor-mounted furrower that can make two furrows in each pass, and disks turned inwards in pairs to ridge the soil.

Alternatives to hilling potatoes

If you can’t hill, you can increase the effective depth of planting by covering the rows with thick straw or hay mulch. This is easiest to do immediately after planting, before the plants emerge. We don’t mulch our spring-planted potatoes because we want the soil to warm up some from its winter temperatures.

Potato plant emerging through hay mulch in early July.
Photo Pam Dawling

When we plant in June, we cover the seed pieces, then hill, then unroll round bales of spoiled hay immediately, like wall-to-wall carpeting. We choose this method to help keep the soil cooler through the summer. In warm conditions, deeper planting, hilling and thick organic mulches all help keep the plants cooler, as does irrigation.

Weed control for potatoes

Potatoes are sometimes said to be a “cleaning” crop, as if they did the weeding themselves. Not so! Any cleaning that takes place is a result of cultivation. As with many plants, the initial growth stage is the most critical for weed control. Hilling in sunny weather can deal with lots of weeds in a timely way, especially if the machine work is followed up by the crew passing through the field hoeing. Organic mulches also reduce weeds. Potatoes later in life produce a closed canopy that discourages more weeds from growing until the tops start to die. Mary Peet reports that potato yields were decreased 19% by a single red root pigweed per meter of row left in place for the entire season.

Flame weeding can be used for potato plants while they are small, as well (as for carrots and beets before emergence as we see here).
Photo Brittany Lewis

In wet weather it can be impossible to hill when you’d like to, and this is where flaming can save the day. Flaming is not an alternative to hilling, but it can be a way to buy time and deal with rampant weeds if the soil is too wet to hill. Potatoes may be flamed at 6″–12″ (15–30 cm) tall. Beyond that, flaming is not recommended. See ATTRA for more on flame weeding. Flaming when the potatoes are less than 8” (20 cm) tall is also an effective control measure for Colorado potato beetles (More on pests next month). Choose a warm sunny day when the pests are at the top of the plants. Flaming can kill 90% of the adults and 30% of the egg masses, according to ATTRA.

Early harvest of potatoes

Sometimes there are reasons to terminate potato growth early. If you need storable potatoes, cut, flame or mow the tops of the plants, and wait two weeks for the skins to thicken up. To test for storability, dig up two potatoes and rub them together, or rub them firmly with your thumb. If the skins rub off, wait a couple of days before trying again. If the skins are strong, go ahead and harvest. You might do this if you have a fast crop turnaround after spring-planted potatoes, such as we used to do when following our spring potatoes with our fall cabbage and broccoli. Another time I’ve brought potatoes to a rapid end was in England, when we got Late Blight. We cut and removed the diseased tops (so no spores went down into the soil), and were able to salvage the potatoes two or so weeks later. Back then, the recommendation was to burn the green tops. This would probably not be recommended these days. It made for a smoky fire we kept going for several days. Terrible air pollution!

For the earliest possible crop in a dry climate (but not the highest yield), plant “old” seed (ones with lots of hairy sprouts) in early spring, hold off on watering until the tubers are marble size, then give a single good watering at 5 gal/yd2 (22.8 l/m2).

While it’s tempting to dig up potatoes early, the yields will be higher if you wait till the tops die.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Next month I will write about potato pests and diseases.

Root Crops in May

A tidy bed of young carrots in May. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Root Crops to Plant in Central Virginia in May

Potatoes: It’s OK to plant any time in May: See my post on planting potatoes

Sweet potatoes: We generally plant sweet potatoes around May 10, 16″ (40 cm) apart, with 4-4.5′ (1.2-1.4 m) between ridges, allowing 5’ (1.5 m) space at the edges of patch. We install drip irrigation on the ridges when using plastic mulch. It is ideal if the soil temperature is 65°F (18°C) for four consecutive days before planting.  Plant 2-3” (5-7 cm) deep, with at least 2 nodes in ground, and at least 2 leaves above ground.  If the slips are long, plant them diagonally or horizontally, rather than going into a deep vertical hole, where the soil will still be cold. See my post on sweet potato planting

Carrots: We direct sow our sixth bed of carrots in mid-May. We sow our first carrots in mid-February, and then sow every 2-3 weeks after that. Our soils are cold in February, but the seed comes to no harm in the ground, and it’s a job we can get done early. May is our last month for sowing carrots that we know will be sweet. If we need to, we also sow once a month in June and July, but the hot weather impairs the flavor. Our big storage carrot sowing in early August will taste good, because the weather cools as they grow.

Here in central Virginia, zone 7, on a sandy clay loam, we grow Danvers 126, a sturdy open pollinated variety suited to high production of bulk carrots. In the past I have grown Chantenay Red Core (65 days), a blocky variety with a blunt tip, 5″ (13 cm) long and 2″ (5 cm) at the shoulder. It resists splitting, and can deal with clay.

Any decent soil will grow some carrots, but the best ones grow in deep, loose, and fertile sandy loams with good moisture-holding capacity. Old books warn against using manure before carrots as it will make them fork. This refers to uncomposted manure, not to compost. Compost will increase yields, and even reduce the culls with some varieties. (Research by Daniel Brainard at Michigan State University.) Compost not only increases the organic matter in the soil, but also suppresses some diseases and nematodes (which can cause forked carrots).

Thin carrots promptly to get good yields.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Sow carrots whenever the soil is below 95°F (35°C), so long as you can keep the surface damp. Aim to sow 30 seeds/ft (1/cm), 0.25-0.5″ (0.6-1.2 cm) deep. Some people sow in single rows 8-10” (20-25cm) apart. Others sow in bands 2″ (5 cm) wide, at 8” (20cm) apart, with one length of drip-tape serving two bands in one 16-24″ (40-60 cm) bed. Carrots do well on raised beds, because the soil stays loose and the roots can easily grow deep. Hard rain in the first 3 or 4 days after planting can dry to a crust which could stymie the emergence. To prevent this, if you get heavy rain, irrigate for half an hour each day afterwards until the carrots emerge. Some people use shade cloth to help keep the soil surface moist. There are precision seeders which save you from thinning, but most growers I know use an EarthWay seeder, and then thin. Some people mix inert materials with the seed to help get a spaced stand. Sand at 1 quart (1 liter) to 0.5 teaspoon (2.5 ml) seed per 25’ (8 m) of row, is one recipe, although I worry that sand will destroy the plastic parts of the Earthway seeder before long.  Some people bake old carrot seed to dilute the good new seed.

Carrots do very poorly with competition, so try to start early carrots in a bed that had only light weeds the year before. Later sowings can make use of the Stale Seedbed Technique, where the bed is prepared ahead of time, and one or more flushes of weeds are germinated and flamed or hoed off. We flame weed our carrot beds before the carrots emerge. See the Special Topic below.

Carrots thinned to 1″
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Get to the initial thinning as soon as you can, spacing to about 1” (2.5 cm) apart, weeding at the same time. We usually have someone with good eyesight and hand-eye co-ordination hoe between the rows the day before the hand-weeding. If you are in an area with Carrot Rust Fly (Carrot Root Fly), you will want to remove all thinnings and broken foliage from the field, so you don’t lure the low-flying pest with the wonderful smell of the broken leaves. We do a second thinning, to 3” (8cm) at the stage when the baby carrots can be used for salads. If we get more weeds, we might do another round of weeding before harvesting the full size carrots. If carrots are spaced too widely, they will be more likely to split, and the overall yield will be reduced.

Flats of celeriac seedlings.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Celeriac: An eye-catching winter storage root vegetable. Celeriac is sometimes called “turnip-rooted celery”. Its flavor is starchier and sweeter than celery, with hints of parsley, and a nutty taste. Celeriac is slow growing, but easy to care for once established.

If you have a long growing season, you could direct sow celeriac 6-7 months before the first fall frost date, for a late fall harvest. Perhaps put a board over the seed row to keep the soil damp and cool until the seedlings emerge. For most of us, we don’t have that much time. So if you didn’t already start some celeriac plants, May is too late for this year. Plan to order seed next winter.

Transplant celeriac when plants are 2.5-3″/6-7.5 cm tall, once the weather seems settled and warm, after your last frost date. If the weather is cold, just wait. Falling apple blossom is a phenology sign that conditions are suitable. We transplant celeriac around May 7 (our last frost is expected April 28). Use rowcover if a cold spell arrives after you have planted them out, or if you know cold weather is likely to return.

Celeriac gets 12”/30 cm spacing, with 4 rows to a 4’/120 cm bed –  that’s about 10”/25 cm between rows. We found closer spacing doesn’t work in our humid climate, as poor air-flow encourages rot. The Virginia climate is actually on the warm side for this crop, it prefers cooler areas, but we have good success if we pay attention at a few critical times. Celeriac requires long steady growth, so the task of the grower is to prevent checks to growth (such as weeds!). It can tolerate frost quite well, so there is no hurry to harvest in the fall. It can benefit from side-dressing with compost during the growing season, or giving seaweed as a foliar spray. A pH of 5.8-6.7 is ideal.

Root Parsley: A less well-known member of the umbelliferae family, also known as Parsley root, Hamburg parsley, Dutch parsley and turnip-rooted parsley. The flavor is a cross between carrot, celery and parsnip.  Like celeriac, it is slow to germinate and slow to grow. 70-90 days to maturity from direct sown seed.

Root Crops to Harvest in Central Virginia in May

Young beet plants
Photo Wren Vile

Beets: We like the long Cylindra/Formanova/Forono ones which are 6’’ (15 cm) long, very tender and are easily cut into regular slices, for pickles or cooking (55 days to maturity, OP). Among round ones we like Ace (50 days to maturity, F1 hybrid), and Detroit Dark Red (60 days, OP). Detroit Crimson Globe is said to maintain better flavor in hot weather than most others, which can develop off-flavors.

Young bunched beets can be stored for 10 days at 32°F (0°C) and 95% humidity. Mature beets can be stored for 6 months or more at 32°F (0°C) and 95% humidity. Trimmed beets keep well in perforated plastic bags under refrigeration.

Carrots: Our first carrots (sown in mid-February) will be ready to harvest in early May. Harvesting carrots barely needs describing. You need to loosen the soil to the depth of the carrots, pull them out, trim and wash. Some growers remove the tops first, but then it can be harder to remove the roots from the ground. Some people store them without washing, but then cleaning them is harder than if done before the soil dries on them. Carrots store very well in a refrigerator, in a perforated plastic bag. If you have lots to store, it is best to sort them, ensuring no scrawny ones or damaged ones get stored. Don’t store with apples or other fruit, or large amounts of cut flowers, or sprouting crops. The ethylene these crops give off can spoil the taste of carrots, removing the sweetness and leaving them tasting a bit soapy.

Harvested kohlrabi.
Photo McCune Porter

Kohlrabi: An unusual vegetable, sure to attract attention and be a discussion piece. It is tender with a flavor between a cabbage and a turnip. This tasty, crunchy root-like vegetable is easy to grow and doesn’t wilt as soon as you harvest it. It is actually the swollen stem, rather than a genuine root, but it behaves like a root vegetable. It can be eaten raw (sliced or grated) or cooked. The kind most commonly grown is a pale green or purple globe with long-stemmed leaves. When the leaves are cut off leaving stubs it resembles a sputnik. In addition, the leaves are also edible.

Conditions for growing kohlrabi are much the same as for other brassicas. It does best in cool weather. In our zone 7 climate, kohlrabi, like other brassicas, can be grown in spring or fall.

Harvest when the kohlrabi are 2-3” (5-7.5 cm) in diameter or even up to softball size. If left growing for too long the swollen stem becomes woody. Cut them from the ground with a sturdy knife. The base of the globe can be quite fibrous, so cut either the wiry root just below the soil surface, or cut higher, leaving a small disc of the globe behind, attached to the root. Snip or lop off the leaves, perhaps leaving a small top-knot if the kohlrabi will be sold immediately. We harvest in spring from around May 10 to June 30, and in the fall from October 20 to November 15.

Kohlrabi stores well in perforated plastic bags in a walk-in cooler, offering flexibility about when it is used, which is always an advantage.

Radishes: Early May brings an end to our spring radishes. Our last sowing is April 10. After then it is too hot for radishes where we are. In July or early August we sow winter storage radishes, including daikon.

Turnips ready for harvest.
Photo Wren Vile

Turnips:  A reliable root vegetable in the brassica family. They are among the fastest growing crops other than leafy greens. In zone 7, we sow a small crop of turnips outdoors under rowcover March 15, or earlier if spring is mild. Although they grow best in cool weather, turnips have no trouble germinating at high temperatures, as when grown for a winter storage crop.

Turnips are also available in gourmet varieties, to be eaten small, young and tender, 35-50 days after sowing, up to 2” (5 cm) in diameter. The delicious F1 hybrid Hakurei, 38 days, a smooth white flat-round shape, with crisp sweet flesh, and hairless leaves, is the most famous of the gourmet varieties. Although best harvested small, they do retain quality for a short storage period.

Young turnips can be pulled, banded, washed and sold with tops intact. Prompt cooling is important to keep the leaves from wilting. Small spring turnips can be pulled by hand, without digging – ours are ready May 20, and we clear the last of them in early June, refrigerating them till mid-July if we have enough.

For manual harvest, loosen the roots with a digging fork as needed, then pull. Trim tops and tails in the field (or move to the shade if it’s hot). All foliage should be removed for successful long term storage. Cut cleanly between the leaves and the root. Then wash, drain and store. Prompt washing before the soil dries on the roots will make them easier to clean.

Storage in perforated plastic bags under refrigeration works well for us. Turnips will keep for about 4 months at temperatures close to freezing and humidity of 90-95%. Higher humidity will make them rot.

Cut and damaged roots do not store well. If you haven’t enough humans to feed them to, but you have milking animals, you could chop them (to prevent choking) and feed them to your livestock. Even moderate quantities will not flavor the milk.

Other Root Crops Tasks in Central Virginia in May

See my post next week on growing and hilling potatoes, including alternatives to hilling for wet conditions. Flamers are intended to kill small weeds, not big ones, but we successfully used our wand-type flamer to kill weeds in the potato patch one spring when it was too wet to hill the potatoes.

Special Root Crop Topic for May in Central Virginia: Flame-weeding

When we sow carrots, we sow about 12″ (30 cm) of beet seeds at one end of the bed – these are “Indicator Beets”. When the beets germinate, we know the carrots will be up the next day and today is the time to flame weed the carrot beds. Flame-weeding is a great way to get rid of millions of fast-growing weeds and leave the field free for the slow-growing carrots. We still have to weed and thin once or twice as the carrots (and weeds) grow, but it is much easier to see the carrots, and they grow better if the first flush of weeds has been flamed off.

Soil thermometer in a beet bed.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

As well as beets, I use a soil thermometer and a chart of days to germination of carrots and beets at various soil temperatures. The table shows that beets are always a bit quicker than carrots in germinating. This information is in Sustainable Market Farming, Knott’s Vegetable Growers’ Handbook and Nancy Bubel’s New Seed Starter’s Handbook.

Days to Germinate 50°F (10°C) 59°F (15°C) 68°F (20°C) 77°F (25°C) 86°F (30°C) 95°F (35°C)
Carrots 17.3 10.1 6.9 6.2 6.0 8.6
Beets 16.7 9.7 6.2 5.0 4.5 4.6

Figure out which day you will probably need to flame. As soon as you see the red loops of the indicator   beet seedlings breaking the surface, flame the carrots. (But look for carrots too, just in case). In summer we flame carrots on day 4 after sowing, because we have found that carrots can emerge on day 5 in summer temperatures. One snag we hit once was that the carrots were mistakenly sowed an inch deep, instead of near the surface. Of course, this delays emergence, so by the time the carrots made it through that inch of soil, many new weeds had sprung up too.

Once you get over the hesitation about using a fiercely hot propane burner, flame weeding is quick and easy. And boy, it saves so much hand weeding! We use a Red Dragon backpack flame weeder (without the backpack frame).  We use the hand-held flamer attached to a propane cylinder that is in a wheelbarrow pushed by a second person behind the first. This person also acts as a safety monitor, looking out for unwanted things (like hay mulch burning). Some growers mount the propane on a backpack frame, and work solo, but we prefer to include a second person (and in this picture, a third!).

Flame weeding a carrot bed.
Photo Kati Falger

The operator walks along the aisle between beds, and wafts the wand diagonally back and forth across the bed. It takes about 10 minutes for a 100’ (30 m) bed. Flame weeding can reduce hand-weeding to one hour/100’ (30 m). Flame weeding plus stale beds 3 or 4 times can reduce hand weeding to 6 minutes/100’ (30 m).

Finca Marta Agroecological Farm, Cuba

Terraced vegetable beds at Finca Marta, Artemisa, Cuba
Photo Pam Dawling

In early January 2020, I was part of the Organic Growers School Agroecology Tour of Cuba. I have already posted about a couple of the places we visited. Click the category Cuban Agriculture. Here I will tell you about Finca Marta in Artemisa.

After breakfast at the casa particulare where we stayed, we gathered at 9 am to ride our bus to Finca Marta, a wonderful agroecological farm.

Finca Marta Apiary sign.
Photo Pam Dawling

Fernandito Funes Monzote provided a talk on agroecology  in Cuba and a tour of the farm. Finca Marta is a very tidy, productive, well-organized, sustainable, beautiful farm. The terraced stone-edged vegetable beds grew many kinds of lettuce, kale, mustards, arugula, mizuna. [I wonder why callaloo isn’t grown in Cuba, as it is in Jamaica].

Farmer Fernandito Funes Monzote showing us the vegetable beds, terraced on contour, at Finca Marta, Artemisa, Cuba
Photo by Pam Dawling

Finca Marta has 720 hives of Italian/Spanish honeybees, which produce 10 tons of honey each year. Because there is no cold weather, bees fly all year, and they are not troubled by Colony Collapse Disorder. Also no Varroa mites, or tracheal mites. Their hives spend several months at the coast, gathering mangrove nectar. They spend several months in the mountains, gathering nectar from a kind of morning glory, then the winter on the home farm. We were encouraged to gear up and look in the hives they were inspecting, and observe the honey house and the van they use [as a mobile workshop?]

Beehives at Finca Marta, Artemisa, Cuba
Photo Pam Dawling
Honey extractor and frame storage at Finca Marta, Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

Finca Marta has a stone barn for two mares, 4 cows and geese. The livestock are closed in every evening. In the morning, the barn is washed down, and the manure goes out a drain into a temporary holding pond. After stirring the manure, a gate is opened, letting it into a closed tank. The resulting methane is piped into the kitchen as a cooking fuel, and the slurry continues to settling tanks, later becoming fertilizer for the gardens.

Seedling house at Finca Marta, Artemis, Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

They have greenhouses and hoophouses covered with shadecloth or insect netting, not clear plastic. One is for seedlings in 13 x 20 Speedling-type plug flats. Others were growing tomatoes and cucumbers.

An overview of the vegetable beds at Finca Marta, Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

Mostly greens are being grown in the outdoor beds (it was winter when we were there). They sell to restaurants. They have some drip irrigation, but also spend 2.5 hours each day hand-watering. They also grow cassava and taro.

We had lunch at the farm, at our own expense. 20 CUC. 1 CUC=$1 US.

Our lunch spread at Finca Marta, Cuba

The centerpiece was a leg of pork which had been roasting in an earth oven since 8 pm the day before. There were many vegetables grown on the farm, fruit juice, wine and beer. This was a particularly good meal.

My lunch at Finca Marta, Artemisa, Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

After lunch we worked for a short time on a service project. We harvested hibiscus flowers (aka Roselle, Jamaica, Sorrel) from pruned off branches. These get dried and sold for tea (think Red Zinger).

The wash-pack area at Finca Marta, Artemisa, Cuba
Photo Pam Dawling

A question by a reader prompted me to look on the web, where I found a slideshow in English. If you can read Spanish, there is more info online.

Click to access Finca%20Marta.pdf

And a video

Book Review: Going Over Home: A Search for Rural Justice in an Unsettled Land, by Charles Thompson

Book Review: Going Over Home: A Search for Rural Justice in an Unsettled Land, by Charles Thompson, Chelsea Green Publishers, September 2019. 243 pages, 33 photos, $18.

This engaging book is both a farm memoir and a discussion of racial disparities, wealth inequalities, and their effects on rural folk, mostly from 1959 to 1997, with a 2015 update. In his lifetime, Charlie witnessed the demise of every farm in his family. Working by turns as a farmer, a student, an advocate and a teacher, Charlie uncovered why small family farms have struggled so much.

The happiest parts of the author’s childhood were spent visiting his grandparents’ farms, particularly his paternal grandparents in Endicott, SW Virginia. He observed how hard they worked and how little money they earned from farming. This came into focus when he went with his grandpa to sell eight steers at auction in Roanoke. Only much later did Charlie find out how his grandpa ever managed to afford to buy land.

Click this link to see a video with the author reading from his book:

Charlie Thompson Reads from Going Over Home

In 1940 there were 30 million people living on farms in the US (one-third of the population). Today it is a mere 1% of the population, and there are more people in prisons than on farms. During the 1980s American Farm Crisis, the bulk of Charlie’s parents’ generation moved off the farms to manufacturing jobs offering more pay.

In 1971, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, uttered the now notorious advice to farmers to “Get Big, or Get Out”. Black farmers were particularly poorly treated by the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), which was set up to help beginning farmers and people of limited means (Black and white) get settled into farming. Black farmers were routinely turned down. In 1983, Charlie (who is white) had his own run-in when refused a loan to start Thompson Berry Farm.

In 1972, in High School, Charlie was excited to find a school greenhouse and a Hort 101 course. Most of the other Ag students were poor boys in the Vocational Agriculture program, not expected to do much academic work, but to learn farming and a manual trade, because they couldn’t earn a living solely from farming. Charlie discovered organic gardening and subscribed to Mother Earth News. He had found his tribe!

Charlie started his own garden, dreamed of a small farm. His grandpa owned some mountain land with an abandoned cabin. Charlie planned to move there, but his parents said he should finish high school and college before moving up there. Meanwhile Charlie and his cousin, as teenagers, worked on restoring the cabin, grew a garden, and enquired into the past of the place now named Woolwine Cabin. He read Thoreau’s Walden Pond, and saw through his initial romantic notions, realizing that Thoreau did not own the land he stayed on. He was a privileged guest and free to leave whenever he chose. Thoreau had access to hot meals, baths, laundry services provided by his family. The family who had lived at Woolwine Cabin had no alternative. “Deprivation, unlike simplicity, is not exactly something to celebrate.”

In 1975, Charlie went to Ferrum College, staying with his grandparents on their farm, 3 miles away. He studied art and Blue Ridge culture, and came to realize that living in the woods, growing food and making art for a living would not be enough. He needed connection with others, and to put effort into achieving justice for mountain people (and everyone). After giving thought, he applied to transfer to Emory and Henry College, whose curriculum emphasized community service. Rural justice had become more important to him than farming. This is one of several pendulum swings Charlie makes in his life between farming and doing political work for justice for farmers. He worked hard and volunteered at a campaign to prevent construction of a dam that would destroy a farming community. From there he became involved in other political action for social justice, and took a Politics of Appalachia course. He realized that Appalachian people had been exploited, victimized and then blamed for their situation. Being part of a community is not a passive act – it requires action.

The summer after graduation, he volunteered in the garden at Koinonia Farm in Georgia, a community committed to radical love of all people regardless of race. He was surrounded by poverty, and learned about the lives of former sharecroppers, who gave their lives to agriculture but owned no land to pass on to their children, and often died in debt. Even those who got “40 Acres and a Mule” couldn’t compete with the Big Ag farmers helped by USDA Price Supports. There had never been any “good old days” for most Southern farmers. Charlie’s summer garden work did not satisfy his need to reduce agricultural inequalities. But some of the other work at Koinonia addressed this directly, helping poor people afford housing (this became Habitat for Humanity). “Those who have power must be quiet and listen to those who do not have it.”

In 1979, Charlie got a job with the non-profit HEAD Corporation, organizing community gardens in the coalfields of West Virginia. But he missed farm country. He read Wendell Berry and went to a farming conference at the University of Kentucky. It was all white people. He pondered why the Back to the Land movement was divorced from the social justice cause.

The next year, Charlie got a job as garden caretaker and a member of the farmer-educator team at the Rural Advancement Fund (RAF) Graham Center – a demonstration organic farm in North Carolina, close to the South Carolina border. RAF advocated for racial justice. He worked there for a year and met his future wife Hope Shand. But focusing on organic farming failed to address the farm emergency around them, so they decided to fight the root causes of farm loss rather than teach organic methods. Farm loans to Black farmers were fewer and smaller than those to white farmers. Farmers “needed more help on how to raise hell than how to raise tomatoes.”

In 1982, Charlie applied to do a Master’s degree at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (a historically Black college) in Greensboro. NC A&T is an 1890 School (it got Federal support from the second Morrill Act to establish a “separate but equal” land grant university for people of color.) The 1954 Brown vs Board of Education declared this division was far from equal, and NC A&T was relabeled as the school for small farms, while NCSU was relabeled as for commercial farmers, rather than for white farmers. Inequality and segregation continued.

Charlie saw no other white people on campus. He found he was eligible for a full scholarship through the Federal Minority Presence Grant! Clearly the scholarship money was another form of white privilege, but Charlie reckoned that his contribution of a year as a volunteer with RAF made it fairer. And that the money would just sit there if he didn’t take it. He committed to two years of agricultural research there, becoming the horticulture teacher-in-training at Pittsboro’s Northwood High School. He questions his effectiveness as a teacher, but he learned a lot, and was conveniently near Hope, who worked fulltime for RAF, now in Pittsboro.

Charlie learned about Black land loss, in particular the problem of heirs’ property. When African American farm owners died without making a will, it has to be sold unless all the heirs agree to keep the land in the family. It usually ends up outside the family, often with a white farmer or a developer. During the Great Migration (1916-1970), young Black Southerners moved to northern cities. Some became unfindable, most had little interest in farmland. Charlie learned more about farm loss when he got a side job as a driver for Betty Bailey, the leader of the Farm Survival Project at RAF (she had a broken arm). She had started a Farm Crisis Hotline which got all kinds of calls, from those seeking information to those contemplating suicide or murder.

After graduating from NC A&T, Charlie got a job with RAF as a rural educator, and helped staff the Hotline, as well as visiting farmers, helping train them to support one another as farmer advocates. Unfair laws and credit policies encouraged farmers to go too deeply into debt. He started facilitating local meetings for women and men of all races to unite. Loan officers doled out loans in installments (“supervised loans”) to Black farmers, but deposited the complete loan upfront into the bank accounts of white farmers. Charlie hoped to unite the diverse farmers on common issues, but for Black farmers, the issue of racism was paramount. How to convince white farmers of the importance of dismantling racism? He had some success with this and with getting some of the leadership roles filled by women farmers.

In 1983, Charlie helped start the United Farmers Organization (UFO), a multi-racial, multi-gender farmer group. UFO called for a moratorium on all FmHA farm foreclosures nationwide (because of the inequities). Congress supported the call and prevented foreclosures for two years. This involved attending a lot of meetings. Some white farmers worried that their political activity might jeopardize their farm loans. Some Black farmers wanted faster change and refocused on saving Black land. UFO disbanded. In 2010 (under the Obama administration) payments were finally made to 34,000 African American farmers who had waited 25 years.

Charlie Thompson Photo by Fred First         Charles Thompson Jr.’s Website

In 1984, the author continued his work advocating for and helping farmers stay on their land and making a living farming. He and his fiancée Hope applied for a Beginning Farmer loan to buy a farm. Near Pittsboro they found a 22-acre parcel of a worn-out tobacco farm with a decrepit house. The loan request was rejected by the FmHA, despite a carefully crafted farm plan. Charlie wrote a 5-page appeal, which he hand-delivered to the new county supervisor, asking for reconsideration, along with a revised 8-page plan and supporting letters from farmers and the extension agent. He got a second rejection, and appealed again, adding more allies and endorsements. He had been denied based on the opinion that his plan was “unusual” but this is not valid grounds for rejection. He went to Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh, and stressed how well-prepared he was to start farming. After another month, he got a letter reversing the decision of the county committee, but it did not guarantee that a loan would be approved if he reapplied! Charlie did reapply, this time directly to the loan officer, who admitted to the unfairness and illogicality of the previous loan decisions. He could have got a loan for a large chicken farm, even though he knew nothing about chickens! This time he got his loan. Happily, the landowner had kept faith with Charlie for over 9 months, and refrained from building a trailer park on the land.

In 1985, Charlie and Hope married and moved to the land, Whippoorwill Farm. Both still had day jobs, but Charlie was working 14 hour days, starting the farm, and selling produce at the Carrboro Farmers Market. He also helped start more farmers’ markets in the area, to meet demand, and campaigned against the large Raleigh State Market that was not a growers’ market. After his Op Ed appeared in the paper, he started receiving threatening phone calls. Meanwhile many other farms in North Carolina were still struggling to pay their bills and the moratorium on foreclosures would soon end. Poor people did not have ability to buy food at the Carrboro prices. Charlie worked to incorporate WIC vouchers as a way of paying for produce.

Meanwhile the USDA Organic Standards allowed distant large farms to compete with small local farms, co-opting terms like family farm, natural, local as well as images of bucolic small farms. By focusing on small local organic farms, many foodies had stopped monitoring big corporate ag. RAF, now RAFI, revealed that agribusiness was merging with Big Pharma, and seed companies were bought by chemical companies. These changes squeezed out medium-sized farms, and reduced access of poor people to good food.

In 1986, Charlie (now farming full-time) needed more labor to pick his fruit. He got help from some Mexicans out-of-work from a chicken factory. He learned a lot about the struggles of farmers in Mexico, and reflected on the irony of local crops harvested by global labor! He came to see his deepest devotion is to farmers, not farming. “We as a nation have become dependent upon displaced farmers from elsewhere to do our hand labor in the fields. We eat because of their losses. US agriculture depends on the displaced. Indeed, it always has.”

By 1993, he and Hope had a son, and he was missing his extended family, needing a village and not feeling grounded at the farm. He had been asking his neighbors about the history of his land. It was once worked by a family of African American sharecroppers, who said the Black family before them lost the farm to crop failures and debt. Charlie realized he was working land where a silent racial clearance had taken place. He also found native American projectile points (“arrow heads”).

After seven years at Whippoorwill, he was rethinking farming, and wanted to pivot towards learning more, writing and making films. He wanted to amplify the voices of rural people, especially those forced to leave their land. He got a place at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Religion and Culture program, and decided to sell the farm.

His second focus was to try to understand his family’s agricultural heritage in the context of European exile, concentrating on his mother’s side. They were Old Order Brethren immigrants from Germany in the 1700s. Most German immigrants from the Palatinate region, like the author’s ancestors, were exiles from religious persecution. Few immigrants ever intended to remain working for others as humble renters or laborers. Before they could start their own farms, they had to do 4-7 years of indentured servitude. 4-7 years of making the wealthy wealthier. Thomas Jefferson mused about alternatives to slavery, considering employing landless immigrant German farmers as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. This is another ironic contradiction in Jefferson’s legacy – another unlanded people from another country to work the soil without owning the land.

In 1997, Charlie went with his grandpa to the Floyd Country Store for the weekly dance. It was to be grandpa’s last dance. During the journey, Charlie asked him how he ever made the leap from a family of poor tenant farmers to owning 150 acres and a house in 1930, as a young man. The big secret came out. He had hauled bootleg liquor in a convoy of cars to the coalfields of West Virginia. Most of the money went to the Big Wheels, but grandpa made enough for a down payment on his farm. He had not told the story for 70 years. It was not the American Dream that provided. It was ingenuity and risk-taking in an illegal business. Charlie fit this piece with other stories of hardship and making ends meet, and even wrote a book about moonshine.

In 2015, the author joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) “Moral Mondays” to call on elected leaders to do right by poor marginalized people. He and Hope got arrested, following a quote from Thoreau “If . . . the machine of government . . .  be of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” They knew they were not risking as much as the Black people whose jobs were on the line.

Charlie’s positivity about rural America has taken a beating, especially since 2016. We have been told that “rural America” voted for Trump hoping straight whites could rise again and blame troubles on everyone else. Fear won the day. Equality and participatory democracy are seen as problems rather than cherished ideals. Welcoming immigrants and caring for the environment are seen as weakness.

Will farm communities survive? Inequality will get worse if we are idle. We must push back against intolerance and join the oppressed in their fight for justice. We need to acknowledge that the loss of good jobs is real, coal and factory towns have suffered great harm, farm communities have been shredded. Hurt people sometimes lash out. We need to understand the roots of rural discontent, reflect back people’s fears in constructive ways. We must love our neighbors (the neighbors we have, not only those we choose), and plant seeds of hope and change for the next generation.

Charlie’s latest film, produced by Farm Aid in 2017, is Homeplace Under Fire. It discusses the 30 year history of farm advocacy as supported by Willie Nelson and others. Here’s the trailer:

 

Planting potatoes

Planting potatoes.
Photo Wren Vile

Planting potatoes

This is the first of a monthly series on growing potatoes, a dietary staple. Later parts will be

  • Part Two: Growing potatoes (May)
  • Part Three: Colorado potato beetle (and maybe other pests) (June)
  • Part Four: Harvesting potatoes (July)
  • Part Five: Storing potatoes (August)
  • Part Six: Planning to grow potatoes again (September)

I have a whole chapter about potatoes in Sustainable Market Farming, where most of this information can be found.

Potatoes are good food

Potatoes are a rewarding crop to grow, with a lot more flexibility about planting dates than the traditional instruction to plant on St Patrick’s Day might have you believe. As Carol Deppe points out in The Resilient Gardener (which I wrote about here), potatoes provide more carbohydrates per area than any other temperate crop, and more protein per area than all other crops except legumes. Many people are surprised to learn this. A 2,000-calorie all-potato diet contains considerably more protein than a 2,000-calorie all-rice diet. Potatoes contain 10.4 grams of protein per 100 grams dry weight, and are a good source of vitamin C and carbohydrates. Carol Deppe, has written a very interesting article The 20 Potato a Day Diet versus the Nearly All Potato Winter about the nutritional and gastronomic wonders of potatoes.  It will inspire you to grow and eat more potatoes!

The short version

Obtain your seed potatoes and set them to pre-sprout for 2-4 weeks. Then figure out where they’re going to grow and prepare the soil. Then plant and, before they emerge, figure out what to do next.

Potatoes emerging in spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Potato planting dates and temperatures

Potatoes are a cool-weather crop, but the tops are not frost tolerant. A good guideline for suitable spring planting conditions is three consecutive days with a temperature at a depth of four inches (10 cm) exceeding 43°F (6°C). Some growers wait for soil temperatures to reach 50°F (10°C) before planting. A traditional phenology sign is that the daffodils should be blooming. The spring planting is usually timed with the goal of having most of the shoots emerge after the frosts. A light frost will only nip the tops of the leaves and do no real damage (the plants will regrow), so a small risk is worth taking. It takes a temperature of 29°F (–2°C) to kill the shoots, and even then regrowth is possible.

The practice of hilling soil over most of the leaves once the plants are six inches (15 cm) tall will protect against frost. So if you have plants growing and a frost is predicted, a hilling that day may save them. In the fall, frosts will kill the foliage and growth will stop, so late plantings should be timed to get the tubers to maturity before the expected frost date. Some late varieties do not bulk up until the last moment, so if you are pushing the late end of your planting season, plant early varieties or fingerlings. (“Early” = fast-maturing)

Here in central Virginia, we plant our first crop in mid-March, about four weeks before our last spring frost, and plant a second crop in mid-late June, which allows three and a half to four months before our average first frost date. We could plant any time mid-March to mid-June and harvest mature potatoes. In summer, the ideal soil temperature is 60-75°F (15-24°C). It’s possible to pre-irrigate to lower the soil temperature in summer.  If we wanted to, we could plant a fast-maturing variety in July.

If you want to plant at “unusual” times of year, you may need to plan ahead, buy your seed when it’s available and store it in a cool dark place below 50°F (10°C), such as a refrigerator, until you need it. Many suppliers only ship in March and April. Growers in zones 8–10 may need to buy their spring seed potatoes in the previous fall. We buy our seed potatoes for the June planting in April, before local suppliers sell out of spring stocks. An advantage of summer planting is that the harvested crop need only be stored from October or November, not over the hotter months.

A grower specializing in many kinds of fingerlings might want to plant once a month during their season, for a continuous supply of fresh new potatoes. Growing in a hoophouse offers another option for growing for a late market, for example new potatoes for winter holiday dinners.

Planting seed potatoes by hand.
Photo Ira Wallace

Dormancy

Potatoes have a dormant period of four to eight weeks after harvest before they will sprout, so if you plan to dig up an early crop and immediately replant some of the potatoes for a later crop, it won’t work. Get around this problem by refrigerating them for sixteen days, then pre-sprouting them in the light for two weeks. Apples, bananas or onions will help them sprout by emitting ethylene.

Potato planting quantities

If using 10″ (25 cm) spacing, we buy enough to plant 16–17 lbs/100′ of row (around 1.2 kg/10 m). 12″ (30 cm) spacing is more common, providing bigger potatoes than at 10″ (25 cm), although yields may be lower. For 12″ (30 cm) spacing, the recommendation is to allow 10–12 lbs/100′ (7–9 kg/10 m). In practice, we need a higher seed rate, maybe 15 lbs/100′ (11 kg/10 m).

Varieties

The many varieties of potatoes are generally divided into four categories.

  • Early potatoes take 55–65 days from planting to harvest — the more famous ones include Yukon Gold, Irish Cobbler, Red Pontiac and Caribe.
  • Mid-season potatoes mature in 70–80 days, and include Kennebec, Katahdin, Desiree and Yellow Finn.
  • Late-maturing varieties take a full 85–120 days to mature and include Russet Burbank, Butte and Green Mountain.
  • The fourth category is fingerling potatoes, which are small, attractive and have a high market value. They are prolific and no harder to grow than other potatoes.

Farms that are not certified organic have the option of buying non-organic seed potatoes locally, which saves money on shipping. Be sure, though, to buy seed potatoes that are certified disease-free. Late blight is a disease not worth risking. Some growers buy “B” potatoes that are small enough to plant without cutting. For most growers, “B” potatoes are not available, and we settle for larger seed potatoes, which have fewer eyes for the weight than small ones do, and need to be cut into pieces before planting.

Pre-sprouting potatoes

Pre-sprouting, also called chitting or green-sprouting, is a technique to encourage seed potatoes to start growing sprouts before you put them in the ground. It’s not essential, but advantages are:

  • getting an earlier start on growth in the spring;
  • being less dependent on outdoor weather conditions;
  • giving the potatoes ideal growing conditions early on and so increasing final emergence rate;
  • bringing harvest forward 10–14 days;
  • increasing yields by optimizing the number of sprouts per plant;
  • making the cutting of seed potato pieces easier (the sprouts are more obvious than eyes);
  • enabling cover crops or food crops to grow longer before the land is needed for the potatoes;
  • giving you the chance to prepare and irrigate the soil as needed before planting.

To start the sprouting process, bring seed potatoes into a warm well-lit room, around 65°F–70°F (18°C–21°C), and set them upright in shallow crates or boxes, rose (eye) end up, stem (belly button) end down, for 2–4 weeks in spring, or 1–2 weeks in summer. If you have no space or time for chitting, warming the potatoes for a couple of weeks (maybe even just a couple of days) will be beneficial. Some people like to warm the potatoes in the dark for two weeks, then spread them out in the light for the last two weeks before planting. I don’t know if the two-part process offers advantages, because I’ve never tried it. In the light, the growing shoots will grow green and sturdy, not leggy and fragile. Make sure the potatoes have a moist atmosphere so they don’t shrivel while they are sprouting. At this point don’t worry if a few sprouts break off; more will grow later.

In spring, the sprouts will grow considerably faster with indoor warmth than they would if planted unsprouted in cold ground, where they could take as long as four weeks to appear. Once planted, chitted potatoes will emerge sooner, and more evenly, which is always reassuring, and the weed competition will not be as fierce. Fewer seed pieces will die before emerging. And if weather prevents soil preparation when you had planned, just wait and know that your plants are growing anyway.

For summer planting, encourage sprouting success by storing seed potatoes in a cool place like a refrigerator, at 45°F– 50°F (7°C–10°C) until two weeks before planting time, then sprouting and cutting them. This encourages the lower eyes as well as those at the rose end to sprout. For warm-weather planting, one sprout per seed piece is usually sufficient. Tubers with many sprouts can be cut into many seed pieces, which can save money.

Cutting seed potato pieces.
Photo Kati Falger

Cutting potato seed pieces

Before planting, cut the seed potatoes (unless already small) into chunks about the volume of a ping-pong ball and weighing 1–2 oz (30–60 g) each, with the smaller fingerlings at 0.7–1 oz (20–30 g). Within a reasonable range, the size of the seed piece has little effect on the final yield, so long as it doesn’t shrivel before growing, and has enough food reserves to get the stem up into the sunshine. Cutting large potatoes is more economical than planting them whole.

For cold-weather planting early in the year, aim for two sprouts per piece, which allows one for insurance if the first one gets frosted off after emergence. For warm-weather plantings, one sprout per piece is enough. Extra sprouts can be rubbed off when planting. Planting seed pieces with too many sprouts will cause only small potatoes to grow, as each stem is effectively a single plant and will be competing with the others for light and nutrients. Also, overcrowding can force tubers up through the soil, and they will turn green if they reach the surface.

Cutting does “age” the seed, leading to weaker sprouts, and the final plant size will be smaller and the plants will die sooner. The total yield will be lower (although earlier) than from “younger” seed. Young unsprouted seed potatoes can be cut and then held at about 50°F (10°C). We often keep ours at 65°F–70°F (18°C–21°C). Older seed should not be kept above 45°F (7°C). Since sprouting ages the tuber, temperatures should be lower for seed that has already sprouted.

We usually cut our seed 1-3 days before planting. Varieties like Atlantic and Kennebec have slow healing abilities, and are best cut ahead of time. Up to 14 days ahead of planting is OK for cutting pre-sprouted potatoes. Unsprouted potatoes can be cut as much as a month ahead, although my choice would be to sprout them for at least two weeks and then cut pieces. It is more challenging to cut unsprouted potatoes, because there’s no knowing which eyes will actually sprout. I think cutting immediately before planting only works in warm dry conditions, as the unhealed surfaces can rot in cool wet conditions. Delayed emergence and patchy stands are signs of planting the seed in soil that was too cold, too wet or even too dry. Erratic and slow plant growth interferes with timely hilling; smaller plant canopies offer less weed competition.

Cutting seed potato pieces.

Make clean cuts with a sharp knife, aiming for blocky pieces about 1–2 oz (30–60 g) each. Avoid cutting thin slices or slivers, as these may dry out and die rather than grow. The cuts should not be too close to the eyes. Reject any potatoes with no sprouts. Some people cut their potatoes a few days ahead of planting and put the pieces back into the crates to allow the cut surfaces to heal over. For large quantities you may need several layers deep. If so, use fans to keep a good air circulation. Relative humidity of 85 – 95% is needed to promote healing and avoid dehydration. Some people coat the cut surfaces with sulfur or bark dust to help suberization (toughening of the cell walls).

See the University of Maine Extension Service Bulletin #2412, Potato Facts: Selecting, Cutting and Handling Potato Seed for lots of details. These drawings come from their bulletin.

Seed potato pieces after pre-sprouting for planting.
Photo Kati Falger

Planting your potatoes

Potatoes need to have a good final depth of soil and/or organic mulch above the seed piece. All the new potatoes grow from the stem that grows up from the seed piece. None will grow below the seed piece, so be sure to plant deep enough and hill up and/or lay on thick organic mulch to provide plenty of space for your crop.

Row spacing of 32″–45″ (80–115 cm) is common, with in-row spacing of 10″–15″ (25–38 cm). In early spring, when the soil is cold — if you want fast emergence and can hill up two or three times — you could plant shallow: as little as one inch (2.5 cm) deep in the North and four inches (10 cm) deep in the South. This technique helps avoid Sclerotinia problems. When the chilliness of deeper soil is not an issue, plant deeper, especially if your chances to hill might be restricted (for instance, by too much rain).

Dig furrows (by machine or by hand) at the chosen depth, normally 4-6” (10-15 cm). Add compost if possible. Plant the potatoes, sprouts up. Take care not to bruise the seed pieces when planting. If you are planting by hand, have some kind of measure – your foot, a stick or the width of the crate. Cover with at least 2” (5 cm) of soil. Later more soil will be piled up against the stems, in the process called “hilling”.

Row of seed potato pieces aligned under a rope.
Photo Ira Wallace
Photo Ira Wallace

When plants are 8-10” (20-25 cm) tall, they need hilling. I’ll cover this more fully next month.

An alternative planting method for those with lots of organic mulch, is to set the potatoes on the surface of the (loose, not compacted) soil, and cover with 12” (30 cm) of loose straw or hay.

Potatoes can be grown in containers, such as drums, barrels, large bags. I don’t recommend stacked tires as these often contain too much toxic dust and particles.

Also see Harvest to Table How to Grow Potatoes

Spring potato rows, in need of hilling.
Photo Wren Vile

Cooking Greens in April

Cooking Greens to Harvest in Central Virginia in April

Out with the old! In with the new!

A bed of spring Senposai.
Photo by Wren Vile

Outdoors, collards, kale and spinach that have over-wintered will be coming to an end. Most years, the collards and then the kale bolt in mid-late March, and the overwintered spinach in April.

Fast growing crops like mustard greens and senposai from spring transplanting will be ready to harvest as leaves from early April; collards and kale from mid-April. Beet greens might be ready at the end of April, or it might be May before we get those, depending on the weather and our sowing dates.

From the hoophouse, we are getting the last of most of our indoor greens. The Russian kale, the chard and the Frills (frilly mustards) are bolting. We do have spinach we sowed in January, which will continue all this month. The Bulls Blood beet leaves no longer look very appetizing, but we could cook those up early in the month. The milder winter means earlier bolting this year.

Cooking Greens to Sow in Central Virginia in April

Bright Lights chard in our garden in July.
Photo Pam Dawling

Chard is our best summer cooking green. Chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla) is the same species as beetroot and, like beets, is a biennial. Hence it will not flower until the second year after planting, and can provide fresh greens all summer and fall, until halted by hard frosts. Even then, the root may survive and regrow the next spring. Leaf beet, also known as perpetual spinach, is a chard, with thinner stems and smaller leaves than most Swiss chard. It is the closest in flavor to spinach for growing in hot weather

Leaf Beet (Perpetual Spinach)
Photo Fedco Seeds

If you prefer spinach in spring, as we do, grow that first, and switch to chard for summer, sowing in plug flats or soil blocks three weeks before your last frost date. (We sow March 24-April 6)

If you want chard in spring, you can start flats earlier or direct seed outdoors two or three weeks before the last frost date.

We also use beet greens for cooking, although our main purpose is to grow beets. Our last date for sowing beets in spring is 4/15.

There are other hot weather greens you could sow in central Virginia and warmer climates.

In the hoophouse, it is definitely too late to plant cooking greens. Anyway, we are filling the tunnel with early tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and peppers.

Cooking Greens to Transplant in Central Virginia in April

Broccoli head after rain
Photo Wren Vile

Outdoors, we transplant our main cabbage and two sowings of broccoli under nets or rowcover within 6 weeks of sowing. Rowcover is our usual choice, because changeable weather and late frosts are more of an issue here in spring than bugs are. It is important to protect young cabbage and broccoli with 5-8 true leaves from cold stress (<40°F/4.5°C for a few days, or longer at 50°F/10°C). At this stage they are particularly sensitive to cold, which can cause early bolting (and very low yields). After a few weeks, when the weather is more settled, we move the rowcover to newer, more tender crops.

Mid-April: We use saved extra transplants to fill gaps in the broccoli and cabbage plot, at the same time planting out alyssum every 6’ (1.8 m) in the center of the beds. These little flowers attract beneficial insects (see more below).

Ruby Red chard.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Late in April we will transplant leaf beet and chard – it doesn’t take long for the seedlings to grow. Often we cover the prepared bed with hay mulch, then make two rows of “nests” in the 4’ (1.2 m) wide beds. We don’t space the rows evenly across the bed, but bunch them in close to each other in the middle. This saves the paths for us to walk down.

In the hoophouse, in very early April we use young spinach transplants to fill gaps only in the outer thirds of the beds, leaving the bed centers free for the tomatoes, etc. It would be better to have done this in late February and March, but this year we didn’t get to it. We won’t get high yields, planting this late.

Other Cooking Greens Tasks in Central Virginia in April

Early April: We move rowcover from turnips, senposai, early cabbage, kohlrabi and onions as needed for the broccoli and the maincrop cabbage.

Mid-April: We move rowcover from spring-planted kale, collards, mustard and early lettuce for the tender crops. We finish filling gaps in the broccoli and cabbage plot, at the same time planting out alyssum (sown March 3) one plug every 6’ (1.8 m) in the center of the beds. See the Special Topic for April below, for more on farmscaping, as this method of pest management is called.

Early spring cabbage with alyssum to attract beneficial insects.
Photo Pam Dawling

Late April: We move rowcovers from for the broccoli and the maincrop cabbage. With broccoli, the first weeks after transplanting are vegetative growth, adding leaves until there are about 20, when “cupping” starts — the leaves start to curl up, forming a convex shape rather than growing straight out. The cupping stage is usually10-14 days before harvest starts, depending on temperature. If the weather gets too hot — more than 80°F (27°C) — too soon, the broccoli may grow only leaves, and not head up.

In the greenhouse, we start to have less work, which is fortunate as outdoor work increases.

Special Cooking Greens Topics for April: Farmscaping for Brassicas

Farmscaping is the inclusion of specific flowers to attract beneficial insects. The pollen and nectar offer an alternative food source to beneficial insects when their insect prey is scarce. And if their insect prey is right by the flowers, what could be better?

Alyssum.
Photo Raddysh Acorn

We plant Sweet Alyssum in our spring broccoli patch to attract predators of aphids and caterpillars; Putting 5 percent of the crop area in plants that attract beneficial insects can seriously reduce pest numbers. Sweet alyssum, yarrow, dill, coriander (cilantro), buckwheat, mung beans, other peas and beans, black oil-seed sunflower, calendula and cleome all work well to attract a range of insects (especially ladybugs and lacewings) that eat or parasitize aphids. Pans of water and gravel will help attract aphid midges and lacewings. The gravel provides surfaces for the insects to land on while drinking. Farmscaping can make other insect control unnecessary in a good year. Beneficials will generally move up to 250 feet (75 m) into adjacent crops.

We also plant “insectaries” around the garden, usually at the ends of beds with crops that will be growing for several months. These flowers are planted inside rings sawn from a plastic bucket. The rings alert the crew that something special is there, not just a clump of weeds. Mix flowers to have something blooming all the time.

Insectary circle with sunflower, tithonia, borage, zinnia.
Photo Pam Dawling

Another method for incorporating farmscaping is to plant beneficial-attracting perennial flowers in areas that are too challenging to use for production: edges, slopes, tight corners, hedgerows, and field borders.

Other Pest Management for Brassicas

Using rowcovers keeps many pests off the plants while they are small. We have not had much trouble with aphids, perhaps partly because our overhead sprinklers wash them off and they can’t travel far. Insecticidal soap sprayed three times, once every five days, can usually deal with aphids. Our worst pest is the harlequin bug. For lack of a better organic solution, we handpick them. Ladybugs are reputed to eat harlequin bug eggs.

Sometimes we have had enough cabbage worms to make Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) necessary, but usually paper wasps eat the caterpillars. The action level threshold is an average of 1 cabbage looper, 1.5 imported cabbageworms, 3.3 armyworms or 5 diamondback moth larvae per 10 plants. Below this level you can do watchful waiting rather than spraying with Bt or spinosad. We are lucky enough to have the naturally occurring wasp parasite of cabbage worms, the Braconid wasp Cotesia species, which are found as small cottony white or yellowish oval cocoons in groups on brassica leaves. The Cotesia wasps like umbelliferous flowers, and overwinter on yarrow as well as brassicas. If you find Cotesia cocoons in the fall and your brassicas aren’t diseased, you can leave plants in the field over winter. Or you could collect up leaves with cocoons in late fall and store them at 32°F–34°F (0°C–1°C) until spring. Hopefully no one will clean out your fridge without checking.

Richard McDonald has good information in his Introduction to Organic Brassica Production. He reports that broccoli plants with six to sixteen leaves (just before cupping) can lose up to 50 percent of their leaf area without reducing yield. Moderate defoliation (20–30 percent) causes the plant to exude chemicals that attract parasitic wasps and predatory insects. If you relax and allow this amount of defoliation early on, you can encourage these beneficial insects to move in and begin foraging in the area. Once the plants cup, you want to prevent further defoliation by having the most beneficials and the fewest pests on site. If pest levels are above the action threshold, cupping is the stage to take action, and probably not earlier.

Broccoli side shoots offer harvest after the main head is cut.
Photo Nina Gentle

To float out worms and aphids after harvest (before cooking!), use warm water with a little vinegar and soak for up to fifteen minutes, then rinse.

Book Review: Whole Farm Management from Start-Up to Sustainability, Garry Stephenson

Book Review: Whole Farm Management from Start-Up to Sustainability,

edited by Garry Stephenson et al, Storey Publishers, 2019. 312 pages, 8” x 10” format, full color photos throughout, $26.95

This is an encouraging and inspiring practical resource for beginning farmers and those growing and maintaining a farm business. It uses examples drawn from twelve farms (16 farmers). Nine of the farms are in Oregon, with one each in Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. As for diversity, three of the twelve farms have people farming while black, one has an Asian-American family, and there is a range of family relationships, including single farmers. What this book is not: how to grow lettuce, how to practice rotational grazing, how to slaughter chickens, how to prune apple trees.

Whole Farm Management is based on the curriculum from the Center for Small Farms & Community Food Systems at Oregon State University. The course is available online, and focuses on small-scale organic and sustainable agriculture through the Extension Service Small Farms Program. Royalties from book sales will support OSU beginning farmer education.

“Operating a farm business requires managing dreams, crops, people, markets, money and reality.” Whole Farm Management blends advice and inspiration from experienced farmers with guidance from ag educators. Recognizing the Manage/Learn/Succeed cycle, one of the farmers advises “You can’t know it all at once. Growing is where it starts. You have to know you can grow something before you can figure out how to sell it. But once you grow it, you have to figure out how to market. And once you’ve sold a few things, then you’re in a position to ask: can I afford to keep doing this?”

The first one to three years of farming are about proving we can grow and sell. The next couple of years are more deliberate, less frantic. The next few years focus on how to make money. After that the question becomes “We can. Should we?” In terms of using the book, if you are in the first few years of farming, you know you can’t learn everything at once. You grab onto the bits of information you know you need. You skip over the things you don’t see an immediate need for. Learning is endless. How do you define success? Success can include the elements of social, operational, lifestyle and financial well-being.

The book follows the logical progression of training used in the OSU Growing Farms program and we can all benefit from following their well-traveled ten-year path. One or two individual farms are introduced in each chapter to illustrate particular points or aspects and the photos draw us in. There are six sections, each opening with a list of what you’ll be able to do after reading that chapter:

  1. Dream It – Strategic Planning. (Values, vision, mission; assessing your resources and needs; creating a foundation that matches your plan with your resources.)
  2. Do It – Farm Infrastructure, Labor and Energy. (How to put your resources – equipment, infrastructure, people, processes – to work.)
  3. Sell It – Markets and Marketing. (Developing a marketing strategy in line with your farm values, vision, mission before deciding what you will grow or raise.)
  4. Manage It – Business Management for the Farm. (Learning to be successful.)
  5. Grow It – Managing the Whole Farm Ecosystem. (Understanding the big picture and the basic principles and practices of sustainable agriculture.)
  6. Keep It – Entrepreneurship, Family Business Dynamics, and Managing Risk. (Planning for the long haul.)

These chapters are followed by appendices with 23 worksheets (also available online from Storey Publishers) and resources.

The arrangement of the book facilitates the learning style/stages the editor recognizes as the real way people learn. This is a book to browse initially, reading the farm profiles to get inspiration, and then return to more methodically learn specific information and skills, using the text and the worksheets. Thus fortified, you’ll be ready to assess what you need to focus on learning next. By clarifying priorities and direction, this approach helps avoid panic and the feeling of being over-whelmed.

In chapter 2 six of the farmers share their experiences about essential equipment and infrastructure, to help new farmers make a shopping list. Here is information about different systems of irrigation (although biased towards methods for Western soils). In Oregon, you can’t farm without Water Rights. For Easterners, it can be hard to understand, as can using glacier water, snow melt or getting only 9” of rain a year. I got lost on the explanation of water drawdown and pressure head requirements. A case of skimming or skipping what you don’t need to know!

In the chapter on Markets and Marketing, six of the farms discuss aspects such as envisioning the market that will meet your needs, overcoming challenges, keeping your focus on values and goals, listening to customers, adapting a CSA model, and evolving marketing strategies over time. This chapter also looks at agritourism, u-pick, farm stands, wholesale and retail markets, and pricing.

Garry Stephenson

Business Management will be vital, sooner or later in your journey. It is a process of continuous learning, continuous improvement. Here is a four-part cycle of planning and setting financial goals; implementing your plan; keeping records; assessing and analyzing your season, then round to more planning. If you want to earn your living from farming, here’s the help you might need. Consider expenses as well as sales, understand depreciation, calculate your profit (your earnings). Remember to include your management overhead time, such as making a new To Do List. Find out if it’s a better use of your time to make hay or buy it. Plan your cash flow month-by-month over the whole year, to make sure there are no avoidable dips into the red. Learn various ways farmers manage cash flow and get loans when needed. Here’s help choosing an accounting system and a record-keeping method. Here are explanations of all the accounting terms that might have left you with a sinking feeling. As Melanie Kuegler of Blue Fox farm says in closing the chapter, “So our highest value is making sure that we’re all taken care of while producing good product for people.”

Chapter 5 on Managing the Whole Farm Ecosystem starts by reviewing the key elements needed to create a successful farm business. This chapter helps you see the whole woodland, not just the trees. Here we look at planning, and contrast that with intervention (what you do when the plan doesn’t work out). For example, in sustainable pest control, the planning might include ways to create healthy crops/livestock to resist pests; making it difficult for pests to settle in and reproduce; boosting populations of beneficial organisms. Intervention includes what you do when pest problems happen. The best interventions include adjusting your plans for the future to avoid that problem. This chapter includes cycles of energy flow, nitrogen, carbon, water, all to help us come up with strong integrated production strategies. Reading the accounts of how various farmers dealt with problems and adjusted their plan contains food for thought for all of us.

The last chapter is guidance on keeping the farm over the long haul. Risk Management is exactly as it sounds. In farming there is always risk. There are so many variables, and some of them we don’t control. We seek the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference, as Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity prayer puts it. Also the skill to mitigate the impact of things we cannot control but may be able to change a bit. This chapter helps us understand business opportunities, legal requirements and options, and the challenges and rewards of farming. It helps us identify steps to address risk. Several business structures are compared, along with possible interpersonal dynamics. Planning for the long term future includes handing on the farm to the next farmers, whether those are family members or not. Licenses and certifications need to be attended to, and the farmers in this book explain how they tackle those regulations and use them to distinguish the quality of their business and farm products.

The text ends with a short section of challenges and advice from seven of the farms. Staying sane by separating farm work life from non-work life; avoiding burnout by having enough workers that no-one over-does it; taking a day off each week; giving some attention to the health of the farmers as well as the soil, crops and livestock; being really clear about why you are choosing this life; accepting results that are good enough rather than being a perfectionist; distinguishing your farm by doing something superb and/or unusual; paying attention, studying and reading, talking with more experienced farmers; enjoying the sense of satisfaction and pride.

Whole Farm Management is a valuable book to make farming sustainable for the farmers, who can then provide good food for people, and contribute to a better world.

New Page of Videos and Podcasts Added

 

This is a bonus blog post!

Like almost everyone else, I’m at home, under the Virginia Governor’s Stay-At-Home order. Our farm is closed to anybody coming in, except for pre-arranged deliveries.

More people with more time at home might need more sources of information, I thought. Of course, growing food never stops, and gardening and farming are so satisfying. Fresh air is good for our health.

I made up a new page (see menu tabs at the top of each page) with things that I have done for you to watch and listen to. Here’s the newest out:

Podcasts

Oliver Goshey, Abundant Edge, March 2020

How to produce fresh food year-round, even in cold climates! With Pam Dawling, author of “The Year-Round Hoop House”

——————————————————-
And news from ATTRA:  

Spring Update: You can now download any of our technical materials for FREE!

ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture Program

“ATTRA is a program developed and managed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). The majority of funding for ATTRA is through a cooperative agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service. We are also partially funded through sales and subscriptions of a portion of ATTRA materials and through contributions from friends and supporters. We are committed to providing high value information and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, Extension agents, educators, and others involved in sustainable agriculture in the United States.

NCAT strives to make our information available to everyone who needs it. If you are a limited-access or low-income farmer and find that one of our publications is just not in your budget, please call 800-346-9140.”

The information from ATTRA is reliable, thorough and farmable! Way back before the internet, they operated by phone and mailed out publications free of charge. Technology has changed, but ATTRA’s commitment to getting information and technical help in the hands of people producing our food has not wavered.

Their sustainable agriculture information is organized under these topic areas: