Book Review From The Ground Up, by John D Wilson

Front cover of From the Ground Up

Book Review From The Ground Up, Columns from the Princess Anne Independent News, John D Wilson, Pungo Publishing, 2022. 124 pages, $15.00.

This slim volume is a treasure trove of short writings (600 words each, says John), from his first five years writing a farming column for a Virginia Beach local newspaper. Local newspapers and local farmers are all to be valued and supported. This collection of about 40 articles has been chosen and reorganized by topic, rather than date, to follow a path, making for a pleasant and thoughtful stroll through topics such as sustainability, healthy soils, gardening, nutritious plants and small-scale chicken-keeping.

John’s writing is concise, encompassing political and lifestyle passions, cheery humor, and poetic turns. It makes for easy ingestion, but not like marshmallows. We’ll be jolted into considering “heck, we do waste a lot of food in the US, and we really need to change that.” We need to do better in promoting and increasing every kind of organic, regenerative and sustainable farming practice, building up our soils, and being part of providing better food for everyone. That’s serious work. And then, it’s not every farmer-writer who thanks their washing machine!

John Wilson serves his community as a farmer, a consultant, a writer, and a volunteer board member on a couple of foodie and farming organizations. He describes his stories as “mostly personal with some science added.” That seems about right. John’s fascination with soil science, microbiology, soil food web, microbes, is infectious. We can have a voice in the world, and we need to stand up for what we believe in, even when we must step outside our comfort zone, as John has done by putting his thoughts into print.

The book starts out with a column setting out the benefits of a local food system, in terms of fresh food, support for local farmers, food security, and enjoyment of local chocolate cakes at the Fayette County Free Fair. There is a discussion about the travesty that is Industrial Organic Ag, and if you didn’t understand the “input switching” game, you soon will. This is where a farm simply replaces their old herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and all the other cides with Organic ones, but continues their same-old extractive, soil-destroying practices. Far better is to regard the soil as the valuable resource it is, and learn how to farm the soil in ways that help crops grow, by providing the right conditions and nutrients.

And if your appetite for science is small, right now you’ll appreciate John’s observation that “When you mow grass or anything, the smell you get is the nutrients going back into the atmosphere.” Your reminder to capture those nutrients for your next crop. We need to conserve our soil, our greatest national treasure.

John hastens to point out that he has the utmost respect for all farmers, even those making choices different from his. Farming is hard work, physically, mentally and emotionally, and it’s undervalued. We’ll need to tap into the vast experience of all farmers to manage the necessary transition to a sustainable system.

We all do wasteful things, we could all do better at recycling, making compost, not buying stuff we end up not using. Look to the soil, and see how everything eats and gets eaten, absorbs water and nutrients and then passes them on. Apparently we throw away 40% of the food we get. Considering how hard farming work is, how few Americans want to do it, and how our governments try to keep out immigrants who would willingly do the work, it’s clear this needs to change. “Farmland needs to be re-peopled” as Wendell Berry says. We need to help those who want to farm, and make farming attractive to more people.

Perhaps understanding the soil food web biology, and some history of farming (such as production of terra preta in the Amazon), and some back-yard experimentation making biochar, could lead more people to farming. You can read more about these things in this book.

John frequently points out the soil-saving (planet-saving) advantages of sustainable and regenerative farming, such as how it can prevent water run-off, soil loss and soil erosion. I was interested to read that the collapse of societies is related to soil erosion – when desperate farmers try to get more food from the land by using chemical fertilizers that don’t add organic matter, or fail to use cover crops or put organic material into the soil. See David Montgomery’s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization. Let’s appreciate steps such as the cost share program for growing cover crops. And the increase in research into sustainable farming practices. And, of course, the implementation of those practices by more farmers.

John tells us that the influences that formed his views include desire for optimum health and wellness for all; the hard work ethic from his childhood; soil science from recent research; joy in eating good food and appreciation of the beauty of a well-tended farm.

The author learned about gardening from his Grandpa, but took a detour while studying energy-efficient building and carpentry. By chance he was hired by Alan Chadwick’s horticulture program, and chose to trade his work for participation in the program. Later, after raising a family as a carpenter, he met George Leidig who sold compost turners and spading machines, and signed up for workshops, which inspired him to start a farm.

His first farm was a lease on 25 acres, for which he needed to borrow money and keep his day job as a carpenter for several years. He invested in farm equipment, and also in improving the soil, which was compacted and inactive (“grows too many buttercups”) when he started out. He saw positive changes even after simply sowing one round of buckwheat cover crop on 10 acres. Pollinators came back, and all manner of life-forms. And the water-holding capacity of the soil improved rapidly – no runoff.

John has become a worm farmer, with four home-made worm bins at the time of writing, producing enough worm castings and worms for sale. His other job in a micro-brewery provides his worms with a portion of the barley mash. Red wiggler worms consume food waste, and paper scraps, and John has no doubt we will make ourselves a worm bin after reading his article!

The days of cheap food are over. We need to reduce the damage we have been inflicting on the environment, and people’s health. The idea that farmers should “get big or get out” has cost us too much. Food systems need to be local and operated by people who understand the big picture of energy and global sustainability. Farmers need to earn a fair living for their work. Currently only 7 cents of the price of a loaf of bread goes to the farmer.

The injustices of cheap food affect African Americans particularly strongly. John refers us to Leah Penniman’s inspiring book Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. He heard her keynote address at a conference of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming. John says “We need to hear her messages about farming, society, justice and our future.” We owe it to Black farmers to give them credit for their work in sustainable agriculture (CSAs, raised beds, cover-cropping, pick-your-own farms, and growing hot weather crops). And we must recognize that the US food system is based on exploitation, on stolen land, stolen people and enforced labor. That’s why food is cheap. And why there are food deserts and diet-related illnesses mostly where People of Color live.

The author is also a beekeeper, and a couple of the articles reflect this. Beekeeping these days is complicated by the parasites and diseases honeybees are dealing with, as well as loss of habitat and forage plants, and deadly assaults from pesticides. France has become the first country to ban all five pesticides that kill bees. We need to care for pollinators, native and imported (as honeybees are). We can plant bee-friendly plants, plant only unsprayed shrubs, trees and annuals.

Regenerative agriculture includes steadily building up soil organic matter, maintaining plenty of soil microbes, getting the right bacteria:fungi ratio for your crops, increasing biodiversity above and below ground, improving water filtration and water-holding capacity, producing nutrient-dense food, and bringing in a good profit. John recommends Gabe Brown’s book, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture. The Brown family farm 5000 acres in North Dakota, with diverse crops, no synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, fungicides or pesticides. They use minimal herbicides and no glyphosate (RoundUp). They also raise livestock.

This brings us to the topic of managing livestock in a healthy regional food system. Some people believe that eliminating all animal farming is the best way to feed the planet. We can probably all agree that confined animal feedlots with cattle raised on corn and soy, and no grass, is not healthy or sustainable at all. The global percentage of greenhouse gases from livestock farming is 14.5%, although the figure is less in the US (maybe only because we produce higher percentages of emissions from other sources!). Some people have shown that holistic management practices used to raise livestock, especially ruminants in a responsible way, on integrated farms, can benefit the environment, the farm, and the diners. Soil organic matter can increase dramatically on well-integrated farms. White Oaks Pastures in Georgia, has succeeded in off-setting at least 100% of their beef cattle’s emissions, by using Holistic Management grazing practices.

Meanwhile, in the home garden, we can care for the soil by keeping it covered with crops or mulch as much of the time as possible. Never leave the soil bare over the winter, as used to be recommended before we understood the importance of soil organic matter and feeding the soil food web. John’s system for beds with no overwintering crop, involves pulling up or cutting down weeds and crop residues, spreading them over the soil, adding ½-2 inches of compost along with any needed amendments such as trace minerals. Top this with tree leaves, straw or hay. In spring, you can ease apart the mulch to pop transplants in without turning over the soil, which disrupts fungal hyphae, microbes and worms. This method also solves the problem of soils that are too wet to till or dig over in early spring.

John is making compost at the rate of 60 cubic yards per windrow on his farm. This qualifies as a “mid-size” compost operation. He uses a hot composting method, and pays close attention. Compost feeds the soil and its inhabitants, adding micro- and macro-nutrients for the plants. Soil microbes create pores in the soil, improving the structure, and welcoming larger soil-dwellers such as worms.

Food security is a frequently heard phrase. It means having access to enough nutritious food at a price we can afford. During World War Two, many people grew Victory Gardens and were able to get a lot of their diet from their own garden, or trade with a neighbor. After the war, Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSAs) became more widespread. People could see the sense in supporting people to grow their food right nearby.

The author includes a three-part series on starting a garden, which is a masterpiece of economy with words. As in many of his articles, he takes the opportunity to give a shout-out to creators of other resources. Here he mentions John Jeavons’s How to Grow More Vegetables, and Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower. He adds three points from his own experience: improve the soil, boost the organic matter, encourage biodiversity. In part two he covers deciding what to grow and how much of it. Choose the size, method and plant selection so that you will enjoy it. Plan energy-saving methods (like mulching). Consider extending the seasons with shade cloth or rowcover, so you can enjoy the products of your labor for longer. Feed the soil, let the soil feed the plants. In part three he addresses pest control and choosing suitable varieties for the local area. Healthy soil grows healthier plants, that grow healthier people. Create a healthy ecosystem, learn about pest lifecycles. If you run into pest problems, look for organic pest controls in Peaceful Valley, Arbico, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Seven Springs Farm in Floyd, Virginia. For locally adapted vegetable varieties, buy from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (good friends of mine). He does provide names of some of his favorites – get the book!

Plant trees on your land. Look for cost share programs from the local branch of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and look for young trees at the Virginia Department of Forestry nursery. Consider trees that provide fruit, nuts, flowers and nectar for pollinators. Grow yourself a windbreak. Trees sequester carbon, clean the air, hold water in the soil, and benefit bugs, birds, shade and anyone needing a rest.

Another article is about collards, a southern vegetable coming into new fame. Plant in the fall, eat them all winter. Plant some more in the spring, but don’t let them get big and bitter. You can eat collards from December to June. Season extension in the fall can provide a lot of extra food (not only collards), for not much more effort. Plan in August. Keep the summer crops as long as productive, by covering them with rowcover when it gets cold. After the first cold spell of fall, there is usually a few weeks of warmer weather.

Climate change is a hard-work topic.  John suggests we focus on working for the change we want, rather than protesting loudly about the things we don’t want. Find ways to address specific issues. Plant trees, grow a garden, travel less. Go to City Hall with constructive requests: ask for an ordinance permitting backyard chickens, or a local composting program for food and paper waste, or an urban farm.

And talking of backyard chickens, John has a couple of articles about those. He started 20 years ago with 30 birds, primarily for eggs, and for their benefits on the farm. He still raises hens for eggs and also breeds them to supply others with small flocks. He recommends chicken tractors, coops on wheels, to move around the farm, to spread their benefits. Go into chicken-keeping with your eyes open. The responsibility is bigger than that of growing vegetables. Chickens need food and water; they need adequate housing; they need shutting in at night to protect them from marauders. You, or someone, needs to be home every night and morning to care for them. John recommends Harvey Ussery’s book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.

John has a thoughtful piece on the wisdom of real experience. Keep an open mind, look deep and wide. He talks about a period in his 20s “following self-created trouble” when he lived alone in the mountains for a while. Contemplation of nature, and focusing on daily needs left him time to think. He also took seriously the maxim “Don’t believe everything you think.”!

And then, as recently as January 2022, John had a stroke. He got help from loved ones, friends and professionals, and learned more about gratitude. He took several months away from writing his column, and found two people to keep his farm going. He learned to accept help. He eventually sold New Earth Farm to Kevin Jamison, who grows ingredients for his oceanfront restaurant in Virginia Beach – Commune. The restaurant has a big commitment to using local ingredients as much as possible. 90-100% of their ingredients are farm-sourced at any one time. John has helped nourish the local food system.

Farmer John Wilson, the author.

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