Book Review: Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers

Greenhorns

Book Review: Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers

Edited by Zoë Ida Bradbury, Severine von Tscharner Fleming and Paula Manalo, Storey Publishers, 2012. 250 pages, $14.95.

This book isn’t new but deserves much more attention. It’s a collection of short pieces by farmers about things they learned as new farmers that they want to pass on, to save newbies (greenhorns) making those mistakes. Because it is personal anecdotes, this is easy to read, despite the seriousness. Greenhorns presents thought-provoking material, so you can usefully read one piece in a spare minute, and then think about it while you do a routine task. It’s a good companion volume to the more technical books on starting to farm.

There are fifty different short pieces, clustered into topics such as Money, Land, Body/Heart/Soul, Purpose, Beasts, Nuts & Bolts, Ninja Tactics, Old Neighbors, New Community. The resource section is a tad old, but still contains good stuff.

This book is written for the people who are willing to “jump high hurdles and work long hours to build a solid business” around the love of farming. Severine quotes Thomas Edison “Opportunity is missed by many because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Some of the messages are encouraging: you will get stronger with practice using a hoe and working outdoors all day, and you can learn diligence, courage and resilience. Don’t expect to be perfect from day one! Especially if you are making the big transition from an urban, less physically-active lifestyle. On small budgets of money and time, it is important to take care of your health, including sanity.

You do not need to struggle alone! Look for opportunities such as incubator farms, where experienced farmers are nearby as mentors, and you rent land, greenhouse space and some equipment. “I laugh every time I stop with a hoe in my hand to text the other farmers to see if a tractor is free”, says Meg Runyan. Beginner farmer programs are another source of support.

Some of the stories act as reality checks, including this from Jeff Fisher: “Cut, cracked, and bleeding fingers are just the start of the physical hardships of farming.” “At the end of each day I was left with aches, pains, cuts, cracks, blisters, infections, stings and sprains.” Not all of those, every day, I want to add! Farming is a very physical lifestyle, so invest in maintaining and strengthening your body for a long career.

“I feel so alone sometimes. It’s overwhelming to have every decision weigh on me. . . Why did I choose to farm alone? I just wish I had some company. Frustrated and full of self-pity, I finish the lettuce in a huff. . . As I work, my tantrum begins to subside.”

You need a sturdy sense of your own worth. How will you deal with a potential customer complaining about your prices (and by implication down-valuing your work? Will you get defensive? Crumple into tears? Go on at length about your own self-doubts? Admit you are new and slower than an experienced farmer? Such issues can lead to Imposter Syndrome (chronic self-doubt despite external proof of your competence).

It can be helpful to learn how to reframe a situation and celebrate the half-full glass. Learn to appreciate rural life. Learn to make friends with neighboring farmers, for what you share in common, setting aside the differences. Listen to their advice, accept offers of help when you can. Build community, a wealth of human connections. How important is it to you to look different? As Vince Booth points out, “This project of finding common ground with people who voice conservative ideals would be a lot more daunting if our agrarianism wasn’t an honest attempt to embody the most fundamental of conservative tenets: There are limits to everything. Given that, I believe local farming can be a rallying point for those on the left and those on the right . . .”

Josh Morgenthau shares his realization that reality can crowd out the ideals (which are the root of the disdain some farmers have for the organic movement). He grew fruit without chemical sprays, but was he prepared to lose his whole crop and go out of business rather than spray? How great a benefit to humanity would that be? “Even from an environmental point of view, running tractors, fertilizing with organic fertilizer, and putting untold other resources, human and otherwise, into growing an organic crop, only to lose it on principle. . . well, that just didn’t seem reasonable.” “Getting today’s customers to accept apples that bear more physical resemblance to potatoes than to fruit turns out to be even more challenging than is growing them organically in the first place.”

Those with romantic notions about working with horses will find Alyssa Jumars’ story sobering. Ignorant bliss, obstinacy, passion and ambition are not the way to go. She learned that they had unwittingly taught their draft horses to throw a fit or act terrified, so the people would take away the work, talk soothingly and stroke their necks. This big problem split apart the farm partnership.

Editor Paula Manalo

Some of the tales are cautionary. Teresa Retzlaff and her partner leased farm land from very nice people they knew. “Be sure to put everything you are agreeing to in writing. Be explicit. Then have both a lawyer and a therapist listen as everyone involved explains exactly what is being agreed to. And still have a backup plan in case it all goes to hell.” She doesn’t cast blame or say anything nasty, but clearly she speaks from experience.

Be realistic about your finances, consider loans and debts carefully. Have a backup plan, and regularly compare your daily realities with where you need to be financially. Don’t dig deeper into a hole. You’ll be putting your hearts, souls, energy, time, family and livelihood on the line when you take out a loan. Don’t rush to own and lose sight of your actual goal of farming. Bare land with no infrastructure is going to be hard to wrest a living from if you have no money left over for building the farm!

Luke Deikis advises walking the land before sitting down to discuss details with sellers (saves time drinking unnecessary cups of tea!) Even better, get a map and do a drive by before scheduling a meeting!

Ben Swimm writes about losing tools as part of a chaotic spiral that’s especially dangerous for new farmers. It’s connected with being over-ambitious, spreading yourself too thin, getting flustered and disorganized. This can lead downwards to a state of demoralization. Adding to the challenge is the seasonal nature of farming. It gets too late to fix a problem this year – you need to move on from this year’s mess and do something different next year. Triage is as valuable in farming as in hospitals.

Sarah Smith writes about farming while raising two young children. As a farmer-mama, “there are no vacations, Saturday gymnastics classes, or afternoons at the playground.” Sure, the kids thrive in the outdoor air, learn math making change at market, and develop good social skills by being around so many different people, but “on many days, all this comes at a cost to our family.” Being a farmer and a mama are both full-time jobs and among the most difficult in the world.

Evan Driscoll combined an unpaid 20 hour-a-week farming internship, 40 hours a week earning money, and childcare. He thought that was reasonable, on his way to becoming a farm owner. He hadn’t realized that having his partner in law school meant he’d be the primary caretaker for their child. That’s definitely something to clarify before you get too far down the road.

Maud Powell was shocked to find herself in the conventional women’s role on her farm, after her children were born, while her husband did the fieldwork. The couple apprenticed on a farm together, doing all the types of work interchangeably. She imagined continuing this way on their own farm after her first child was born: farming with the baby strapped to her back. Like many pre-parents, she underestimated the amount of energy and time breastfeeding and childcare would take. She also underestimated the love and devotion she would feel for her child, and how her focus would move from farming to mothering, and taking care of the household.

After her second child was born, her struggle continued. For efficiency in their time-strapped lives, they let their gender roles become more entrenched. This changed when they started growing seed crops. Preserving the fruits that contained the seeds increased the value of the kitchen work. Maud later branched out into community organizing around shared seed cleaning equipment, farm internships, and a multi-farm CSA. She became the one “going out to work” while her husband stayed home on the farm.

Farming includes many aspects we cannot control, including the sometimes devastating weather. Unexpected frosts, floods, hurricanes. As farm-workers, we learn to work outdoors, where the weather is a matter of personal comfort. But it is only as farm-owners that the weather affects our livelihood. We learn to do our best to prepare where we can, surrender when we must, and pick and up and rebuild afterwards.

Editor Severine von Tscharner Fleming

Kristen Johansen says, after Hurricane Ike destroyed their chicken housing in the night, “It was our first year farming, and the learning curve was steeper than you can imagine. It was demanding, stressful, frustrating, exhausting, dirty and beautiful at the same time. When we took the leap into farming, overnight we became responsible for several hundred tiny little lives, and the weight of that responsibility was heavy.”

Climate change is undeniable; we must develop resilience. Ginger Salkowski says, “A successful new farmer in today’s (and tomorrow’s) climate has to have a serious package of skills. You have to be able to live with less. . . get very creative with very little money and time in order to make your season happen. You have to thrive on uncertainty. . . You need to be strong in body. . . You must be strong in mind . . . You must be strong in spirit: In times of high stress, there is grace to be found in pausing to observe the first sweet-pea blossom . . .”

Farming is mostly an exercise in managing chaos, as Courtney Lowery Cowgill points out. She shares her twin defeat of seeds that would not germinate and a hoped-for pregnancy that wasn’t happening. Proactive people make good farmers, and yet we must remember we can’t make everything turn out the way we want. We must learn not to blame ourselves for things we could not control or predict. While also getting better at predicting. “Farming in an ecologically responsible way involves good timing, and when we need to get something done, we git ‘er done!” (Paula Manalo)

Some of the stories describe unconventional (risky) ideas that helped the farmers get through a tough patch, like using a credit card with a year of zero percent interest rate to finance the first year of farming! Or getting a farm loan that didn’t allow for earning any off-farm money (very hard while starting up), followed (when that didn’t work out and they had to get off-farm jobs) by a home loan that didn’t allow any farming! “The irony of having to quit farming so we could finally get a loan to buy the land . . . was made even harder to swallow when we had to provide written assurance to the lenders . . . that although we had indeed spent five years running a ‘hobby farm’ we . . . now had nice safe real jobs, and only wanted to buy eighteen acres of land zoned agriculture-forestry so we could continue to live a ‘rural lifestyle’” “I can’t say I recommend lying to your bank as a road to farm ownership.”

Don’t feel a failure if you need some off-farm income to make the good life good enough. It doesn’t make your farming any less “real”! Casey O’Leary surveyed neighboring farmers and found she was not alone in needing some off-farm income. There is no shame in doing paid landscaping work two days a week to fill the financial gap. By embracing the part-time nature of your farm, you may be able to increase your dollar per hour, as Casey discovered. Focus on the best-paying farming and walk away at the end of the day. “My relationships with my lover, friends, and family have improved because of my ability to keep my farm in a part-time box.”

Editor Zoe Ida Bradbury

Some passages are about why we farm. If your goal is to grow nourishing food with and for those with limited access, while also meeting your own needs to farm full-time, then don’t focus on making money from farming. Find other sources to support your financial needs. Douglass Decandia had a dream of this sort, and found paid work with a Food Bank. “Most of us don’t need to search for meaning in our lives, because we see it every day. Thankfully, the work itself propels us on to the next task.” (Tanya Tolchin)

Jenna Woginrich is an office worker by day and “a farmer by passion”. She attributes her happiness and success to two things: “I always believed I would (not could, not might, but would. 2. And because I wrote it all down.” Only 2% of people with goals write them down, but of that 2%, 90% achieved their dream.

Emily Oakley and Mike Appel write about their decision to run their 100 member CSA of 50 crops on five acres, with just the two of them. It’s their full time job, and they designed their farm to fit this preference. Their goal is to be as small as possible while still making a living. What a refreshing perspective! Bigger means more responsibilities, more worries, and not necessarily more money. Their farm can be smaller because they are not paying anyone’s wages. Why pay for more land just so you can grow more food, so you can pay employees? Staying small also meant they can have an off-season break. The limitations are that there are no sick days; it can get lonely; it can put strains on the relationship.

Farming may not be easy, but it sure isn’t boring. Sustainable farming includes some pioneer spirit and also giving back/paying forward. Respecting other farmers, customers, neighbors. Mentoring newer farmers, sharing tools.

Some stories share the magic and the sense of connection with past farmers. Sarajane Snyder says: “Farmers, understand what you’re doing in the context of inter-connectedness, of caring for multitudes of beings. Take refuge in the care you are generating and the sustenance you are providing, for humans and bees and microorganisms, for gophers and spiders. Our dirty work is good work.”

Ben James describes the day he realized the rusty spots on the right fender of the John Deere he’d recently bought were caused by the palm and fingertips of the previous owner twisting in the seat to see the row behind the tractor. He shares his realization that “Time on the farm is not static, it’s not a given. It’s not like a ladder with all the rungs evenly spaced. Rather it’s a substance, a material we try to manipulate just as much as we do the tilth and fertility of the soil. How many tomatoes can we harvest before the lightning storm arrives?”

Jen Griffith writes about watching the sunset towards the end of her year as an apprentice living in a tent, watching a great blue heron twenty feet away, swallow a gopher whole.

Don’t miss the bonus flip-book in the bottom right page corners. Watch the seed germinate and grow. Use it to distract that young child while you do your accounting! Or for yourself to wind down and cheer up after a hard day.

Watch a YouTube book trailer here:

https://www.storey.com/books/greenhorns/

Book Review: The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food

Book Review: The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food: Step-by-Step Vegetable Gardening for Everyone

Joseph Tychonievich and Liz Anna Kozik, Ten Speed Press, 2021. 90 pages, color throughout, $19.99 paperback, $12.99 Kindle.

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a comic book, and it makes a refreshing change from my usual (less comic) gardening and farming reading. This small book, with text by Joseph Tychonievich and drawings by Liz Anna Kozik, is a delight. The art is wonderfully clear and realistic, even though they are not botanical drawings. The page of seven herbs makes them all distinguishable. The characters have character, keeping the reader engaged with the plot (oh, not a deliberate pun!)

This will be a great book for new gardeners (of whom there are acres, as a result of Covid-19). It will also particularly help recovering failed gardeners get a fresh, more successful start. It is perfect for visual learners, gardeners with English not their first language, and young gardeners. I have a gardening friend who says her teenager reads only graphic novels and she hopes this book will lead him to do more gardening, more enthusiastically!

It is easy to read/look at, entertaining and accurate (therefore helpful). The breezy, friendly conversations between the fictional characters, young novice gardener Mia (who writes code as a day job) and retired neighbor George, show a great example of food-growing (and computer help) as mutual aid. Gardening as a step to a more peaceful and productive future.

The book covers location, choosing crops, timing, soil testing, bed prep, buying plants, starting seeds, planting in the garden or in containers, and maintenance. This is followed by troubleshooting, harvesting, celebrating, and a “Cheat sheet of cheat sheets” and further reading. The cheat sheets throughout step us aside from the story to dive into some aspect more deeply. Come back to those when you need them.

Mia is savvy about technology, finding a compass app or a last frost date when she needs it. George has the gardening experience to share, including his ever-changing Rule #1! (Grow what you like to eat. Grow what’s easy to grow. Always grow herbs. Grow flowers. Get a soil test.)

Important points are included, such as even though organic fertilizer is best, using too much is a bad thing. Check for lead in city soils and if you find it, garden elsewhere (community garden?), grow vegetables in containers of bought-in soil, or grow flowers, not food. Why is Swiss chard easier to grow than spinach? Do you actually like radishes?

Packed in this little book, you will find how to build raised beds, how to mulch, how to choose healthy plants to buy, which crops do better from seed, the most important bugs to watch out for and more. Joseph the writer has been gardening most of his life, and Liz Anna the artist clearly knows her vegetables too.

Pages from the Comic Book Guide to Growing Food. Art by Liz Anna Kozic. Text by Joseph Tychonievich

What is missing that I would have included? Making compost (can be an issue in city gardens, I know); more about choosing seed varieties in stores, catalogs or online; sowing seeds (like carrots) in rows rather than individual holes.

What is included that I would not have thought of? Root-pruning bought plants to encourage good outward growth. A flow chart of whether or not to water that day. Ideas for garden party snacks! The value of a smartphone as a gardening tool!

This is a real book – it has an index! (Some of my readers may know I live with people who index books, and the index is a better way to judge a book than the cover!)

Yes, this book works as a guide for new vegetable gardeners, and right now when you can’t garden with your neighbor physically at your side, this could be the next best thing. It packs a lot in a small space, which is probably what most of the readers are also hoping to do in their gardens!

For sure, the topics are simplified, but the most important bits are all there, including plenty of cautions to help prevent common mistakes, and make it more likely that readers will continue to garden and learn in the future. There are a few resources listed at the end, useful pointers of where to turn when this book can’t get into enough details, or you’ve found a bug that the authors don’t include. This book and a smartphone will help you start growing your own food successfully.


I wrote an earlier version of this review for the Comics Journal.

Joseph Tychonievich
Liz Anna Kozic

Book Review: The Chinese Greenhouse, Dan Chiras

Book Review: The Chinese Greenhouse: Design and Build a Low-Cost, Passive Solar Greenhouse, Dan Chiras

New Society Publishers, 2021. 230 pages, color photos and diagrams throughout, $34.99.

I have been eagerly awaiting this book, after attending several of Dan Chiras’ workshops where he talked about the evolution of Chinese Greenhouses. This is a next step for those of us thrilled with what we can grow in a passive solar hoophouse. As we harvest our abundant winter greens, we might ponder “What if it were possible to grow warm weather crops in winter without fossil fuels, given a careful greenhouse design with attention to insulation and so on?” The Chinese Greenhouse provides the answers, design and construction tips for pioneers in this new kind of greenhouse. Don’t reinvent the wheel – get this book and learn from those who have gone before.

Chinese Greenhouses are not readily available off the shelf, and are best designed to suit the particular site. This book tells you, step-by-step, how to build your own. Naturally, building one of these high-performing structures is more work than putting up a standard hoophouse (high tunnel), but once you have put up one of those, you might be ready for more challenge (and rewards).

Chinese greenhouses are solar-heated, earth-sheltered, well-insulated, plastic-glazed structures, using heat-banking, and shaded and curtained when appropriate. They are always oriented with a long side facing the sun. In the winter, this allows maximum (low-angle) sun exposure. In the summer, the high arc of the midday sun goes over the roof, and crops don’t get baked. The energy-intelligent design reduces your carbon footprint and saves you from future fuel bills, or imported vegetables.

Dan identifies six design problems with standard greenhouses that are solved with Chinese greenhouses. If you have a standard greenhouse, you can modify it to reduce the impact of the short-comings, by adding water for heat storage, using compost as a heat source, or storing pumped hot air in pipes in the soil. Dan Chiras has tried some of those. Also see The Bio-Integrated Farm by Shawn Jadrnicek. Or you can keep your existing hoophouse for growing winter greens, and put up a Chinese greenhouse for winter tomatoes and citrus trees.

Enclosing the north (south in southern hemisphere) side in the ground (which is 50-55°F (10-13°C) below the frost line year-round) is an important feature of these Chinese greenhouses, helping stabilize the temperature. To grow warm weather crops you need to maintain a greenhouse minimum temperature of 40-50°F (4-10°C). These crops may survive lower temperatures, but they will not thrive or be productive.

A Chinese greenhouse with metal roof trusses and a heat-banking back wall. A path by the wall gives access for harvesting and tending to plants. Photo by Dr. Sanjun Gu, courtesy of Dan Chiras

Dan Chiras met Dr Sanjun Gu, a world authority on Chinese Greenhouses, in Iowa in 2014, and gathered the available information (it wasn’t much, most was in Dr Gu’s slides!). Chinese greenhouses emerged in the mid-1980s, as a way to feed the expanding population. There have been three generations of such greenhouses, and traditional materials such as bamboo posts and external straw mat night curtains have now been replaced by easier-to-use modern materials. The first generation Chinese greenhouses had a bowed roof framing of bamboo poles in a mesh of tensioned steel wires. This framing was supported by many posts, and plastic sheeting was stretched over the top. At night, straw matting was unrolled on top of the roof (effective but labor-intensive). The second generation design reduced the number of posts supporting the roof, allowing the use of small machinery to till the soil. Third generation Chinese greenhouses don’t need posts at all, but have curved steel roof trusses (bows).

Newer models have replaced the straw matting on the outside with synthetic insulated blankets, or with reflective curtains on the inside of the roof, and replaced the hours of manual adjustments with mechanization. There are now billions of acres of these greenhouses in China. About one-third of Beijing’s winter vegetables are grown in greenhouses (I’m unclear if that’s one third of all their vegetables, or one third of warm weather crops.)

Dan has logged winter indoor and outdoor temperatures at his home-built modified Chinese greenhouse in Missouri, and found an indoor minimum of 48°F (9°C) with outdoor temperatures of -10°F (-23°C) for the first two winters. One feature of this book that especially appeals to me is that Dan describes the pros and cons of multiple options for achieving various goals – thermal mass, insulation, glazing, trusses – no need for expensive mistakes!

To build your Chinese greenhouse, you first need to choose a site, excavate it and take steps to prevent water leaking into your greenhouse. Yes, you really do need to earth-shelter your Chinese greenhouse, unless you are in the southern tier of the United States. While you are planning your excavation, consider the options of geo-thermal heating/cooling tubes, or tubing to take excess hot air from the greenhouse and store it in the earth berm until winter.

Check the slope of your land and draw a scale plan to make sure it will work. The perfect slope is 20° south, but anywhere between 10° and 30° will work. It partly depends on the height you want inside. You can also import soil if you need more than your excavation will provide. Stake out the site, using a compass to get the best orientation, correcting for magnetic declination (it’s all in the book). Ensure you are not excavating in a natural drainage path – observe the path of heavy rainfall or snowmelt. Look for subsurface springs or seeps. Look for wet areas in spring. You don’t want to have to incorporate a “water feature” in your new greenhouse! Perhaps consult a water engineer or locally experienced excavator. If necessary, construct swales uphill from your site, to divert water away from your greenhouse. Details of these and various drainage possibilities are in the book.

Dan recommends renting a skid steer loader with tracks rather than tires, or a small excavator. Keep the topsoil and subsoil separate, and covered if it might rain before you finish. Get seed on hand to sow on the berm as soon as possible after creating it, and/or transplant native ground cover plants.

If you really can’t do earth-sheltering, you can compensate to some extent in an above-ground greenhouse by adding lots of thermal mass in the floors and walls. I have some mixed feelings about the use of interior thermal mass. In the 1970’s there were greenhouse books advocating so many barrels of water to store heat, that there was little space left to grow plants!

After completing the excavation you can start incorporating heat-absorbing dark colored thermal mass in the floor and back wall, up to the optimal 4” (10 cm) thick, to store heat gained during sunny days. Dan discusses several possible materials: poured concrete, bricks, flagstones, soil-cement, cement blocks, bin blocks, adobe, cob and rammed earth. How’s that for a thorough review of options? Beware earthen materials that can disintegrate in a damp environment (you can’t use them underground). An adobe, stone or blockwork north wall works. Be aware of all the ecological pluses and minuses of concrete. Bin blocks are large concrete blocks made by concrete contractors when emptying out returning concrete mixers. The price is good! Paying for transportation is expensive! The smallest ones weigh half a ton, so you’ll need at least a tractor with a bucket, if not a crane, to stack them.

If this sounds like a lot of work and you start thinking about installing a wood stove instead, Dan invites you to think again: wood heat is “the black sheep of the renewable energy field.” Burning wood produces carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. It also produces toxins such as sulfur and nitrogen oxide gases, which form acid rain. And particulates that irritate lungs.

Author Dan Chiras.
Photo Dan Chiras and New Society Publishers

The next group of decisions is about wall framing and glazing. Will your framework be curved or in flat planes? Only some kinds of glazing curve, so figure these two items out together. Soil is not a good insulator, as many people wrongly assume. The water in the soil conducts heat, so it is important to insulate the north wall, north roof, and the east and west ends.  You’ll need deep walls with space for R-40 to R-50 insulation. Dan discusses options: loose-fill cellulose and fiberglass; batts of fiberglass, rock wool and cotton; rigid foam sheets of polystyrene, polyisocyanurate, and mineral wool board; liquid foams like Icynene and Air Krete. He recommends loose-fill cellulose, which is made from old newspapers.

Framework options include traditional lumber, home-made or purchased laminated wood rafters (straight or arched), steel tubing (round or square), or metal trusses. There are photos and tips for each of these. Be sure to consult a structural engineer or architect to ensure your roof will support the snow and wind loading that you might experience in your location. While tubing is adequate for smaller greenhouses, steel trusses are stronger and advised for wider greenhouses.

If you are using standard lumber and vertical walls, you will need to carefully determine the roof angle giving the best light transmission without too much summer heat gain. Light hitting the glazing at small angles will reflect rather than pass through. The rule of thumb is to add 20° to your latitude to get the ideal roof angle for maximum winter sun transmission. I found this particular sidebar confusing, but happily, I don’t need to know right now. Dan recommends a lower sloped roof than the calculation suggests, perhaps 30°.

Options for glazing include glass, ETFE, rigid polycarbonate, poly reinforced polyethylene sheeting, and polyethylene film. Light transmission ranges from 75-95%, but light transmission is not all we care about. Plants can do better with light diffused through translucent materials, bouncing around at all angles rather than beaming straight in. Glass is fragile and expensive.

The price of the plastics starts with a high for ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene), For most of us, this is outside the budget: $9,000 for a 20 ft (6 m) greenhouse. Sell 7,000 bags of lettuce to pay for it! Double-wall acrylic is another very pricey option, with very pricey shipping costs. Solawrap looks like bubble-wrap on steroids, provides some insulation (R-1.7) It is sold in rolls the width of the gap between bows (or rafters). A roll 4’ x 328’ (1.2 x 100 m) costs about $2,200 plus shipping. Polycarbonate has channels of air providing some insulation. The price is lower than Solawrap, but the special hardware adds to the cost. Poly reinforced polyethylene (PRP) resembles rip-stop fabric used for outdoor gear, with a reinforcing mesh embedded in it. It comes with a ten-year UV warranty. Avoid wearing holes in your PRP by fitting it snugly after duct-taping any hardware that will contact the sheeting. The price is one-tenth that of Solawrap (but it provides no insulation). Standard 6 mil greenhouse poly is much cheaper, and using two layers with an inflated air space provides some insulation. You’ll need to replace the plastic every 5-7 years.

Watch this YouTube of Dan Chiras talking about the Chinese Greenhouse

To reduce heat losses through the glazing at night, install a blanket. White shadecloth resting on plastic-coated cables or laundry line works well. Aluminet and Tempa Interior Climate Screen work even better as heat reflectors, keeping heat out in summer, in during the winter. Radiant heat barriers can be used on the inside surfaces of roofs and walls to reflect heat back. One kind is a shiny aluminized sheet with a scrim backing, another kind is reflective bubble wrap.

The next part of the book explains ways to improve on the performance of Chinese greenhouses, to consider before you start. Use the excess heat on sunny winter days to mitigate the cold night temperature. Hot air from the top of the greenhouse can be pumped into porous pipes running through an in-floor storage medium such as a bed of gravel. You can wire thermostatically-controlled low-wattage DC fans directly to 50-watt photovoltaic modules, without batteries. When the sun shines, the fans operate. Having air movement in a greenhouse is helpful in managing fungal diseases and bugs, even when it isn’t banking heat. And bringing hot damp air through a gravel bed allows condensation to form in the gravel bed, effectively reducing the humidity of the air above.

Seasonal heat banking is designed to store excess heat from the summer to use in the winter. The usual method is to construct a large heat exchanger, composed of lots of plastic pipe deep underneath the greenhouse. Underground heat at 7 m (23 ft) deep moves through the soil by conduction at a rate of 1 m (3.3 feet) per month. Another method (without pipework) is to install a skirt of rigid board insulation just underground, all around the building to 20 feet (6 m) out. This catches the heat escaping from the building as well as that coming up from deeper in the earth.

I’m going to slide right over the details of designing and building heat bank systems. They involve pumps capable of providing five air changes per hour, thermostats, fans, piping sufficient to allow an airflow rate of 5 feet (1.5 m) per second – that’s 3 mph! Before installing any expensive heat banking and recovery systems, talk with people already using such a system. Once you have literally sunk a lot of money underground, it is very expensive to change. “If you get it right, you should be able to create a structure whose internal temperature in the winter is a heart-warming 35-40 F higher than ambient temperatures.” And pleasant summers too.

Next we have a chapter on minimizing summertime heat gain. One aspect is the roof angle, which we already looked at. A design that works at one latitude won’t be as good at a location with different sun angles. You can shade, vent and (if not in a humid climate) mist, in order to cool the space. That should provide for an extended period of summer use, if not the whole of the summer. Your cooling efforts might need to be moderated by your bug-excluding efforts. You could build a pond (10-15 feet (3-5 m) deep) with cooling loops of pipe. That’s one improvement you can add after construction, adding a fan to spread the cooled air inside.

Next there is info about supplementing the lighting with LEDs, for cloudy areas, or if you are growing commercially. There are explanations about different wavelengths of light, which ones plants use, and in what proportions (65% red, 15% blue, 20% green), and about total PAR, photosynthetically active radiation, the proportion reaching your plants, and the varying PAR requirement at different stages of plant growth. Another consideration is the total amount of light the plants receive each day (the daily light integral).

The final chapter of the book is Dan’s illustrated description of building his Chinese greenhouse in Missouri. His goals are to be cost-effective and environmentally friendly. For simplicity, Dan chose a lumber vertical south wall and sloped (not arched) roof, a departure from the usual curved Chinese greenhouse look. It appears to be about 21 ft long and 30 ft wide/deep. He used 3ft x 16ft (1 m x 5 m) polycarbonate roofing sheets, with plastic H-profile connector strips.

Dan does not gloss over the problems he and his band of helpers met during the 2-3 years spent building his greenhouse. His site was only slightly sloped, so he needed to dig down till he hit bedrock at 6 ft (2 m), then build up and import topsoil to complete the berm. His greenhouse uses rammed earth-filled tires (two summers of work). This is a labor-intensive method, physically draining. Think twice. You’ll need sturdy friends to help you. Even Dan says he would make a different choice if he had it to do over.

There are photos of the gravel footings, the underground pipework, the thermal mass north side and end walls and their insulation, concrete foundations, the Herculean rammed earth tire walls, earth cooling tubes, L-bolts to anchor the tire walls to the sill plate for the glazing, waterproof membranes for the walls that will be in the ground, framing, roofing, and glazing. Keep the chickens from pecking your cob infill, the new berm, suitable groundcover plants, and foam insulation board! Finally a photo of the first plateful of spinach!

Dan ends the book with two of his newest ideas – wind scoops and a methane digester. Of course, all these engineering tweaks won’t help if you’re not a good plantsperson to start with, so you might brush up those skills too, with a different book.

Remember, these are the pioneering days for Chinese greenhouse builders and growers. Not everything has been figured out, especially for locations very different from China or Missouri. You can’t buy exactly what you need “off the shelf”. You have to figure out some things for yourself. Some ideas in this book are untested. Don’t take anyone else’s ideas as the perfect solution, This book would have benefited from a bit tighter editing to remove a few slip-ups. Growing warm weather crops in winter, without fossil fuels, in countries outside sub-tropical zones is a goal worth working for.

Book Review: The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm, Daniel Mays

Book Review: The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm: How to Start and Run a Profitable Market Garden That Builds Health in Soil, Crops, and Communities 

Daniel Mays, Storey Publishers, 2020. 230 pages, color photos throughout, $24.95.

The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm is a great help to those moving towards more No-Till. This book is full of practical details, and efficient and effective no-till practices, such as how to manage large tarps. This is also a beautiful book. The photos are crisp and inspiring, the drawings clear and informative, the charts well organized and easy to use. The aerial photo shows a poster-farm! Frith Farm is a small-acreage vegetable farm using raised beds, in the style of Jean-Martin Fortier, Ben Hartman, Curtis Stone and others. “No-till human-scale farming is about so much more than avoiding tillage.” Here we can learn about healthy soil, high productivity, fewer weeds, lower costs and a more natural way of growing food.

We have had several new books on no-till in the past year or so. I have reviewed Bryan O’Hara’s No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, and Andrew Mefferd’s Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers. Any reduction in tillage is a good step: you don’t have to commit to permanent no-till everywhere. I’m glad we’ve moved on from the early no-till days when it was considered that all tilling was always bad, but practical advice was lacking.

The book includes some hard-to-find topics, such as acquiring capital, designing and setting out drainage and irrigation systems for both drip and sprinklers, and integrating livestock in a vegetable farm. Minor grumble: the index seems a little light. Fortunately, the book, like Frith Farm, is well-organized, and topics are easy to find.

Daniel started Frith Farm in Scarborough, Maine, in 2010, in his mid-twenties, borrowing $180,000 at 3.8% interest and buying a property with five open acres and a crumbling house and barn.  He had “eighteen years of expensive education and an embarrassing lack of hard skills.” His first year, he provided for a 40-member CSA from less than one acre. The farm now supplies a 150-member CSA, four natural food stores, a farmers’ market and a farm stand. They sell about $300,000 worth of food, using 2.5 acres in cultivation and 2.5 acres of pasture. Almost all of the work is done by hand, by a crew working  a 45-hour-week for 8 months, then having four months off.

Daniel recommends consistent bed dimensions, even if compromising the land geometry. He has 16 plots of 12 beds, each 100ft long, on 5ft centers. This bed-width increases the amount of growing space compared to 30ins beds. He’s over 6ft tall, so jumping over a bed is no problem. I don’t know about the rest of the crew. There are driveable surfaces between the plots and wood chip paths between beds. Without tilling, you minimize erosion, and the conventional wisdom of keeping rows across the slope, not up and down it, isn’t so vital.

Daniel recommends soil testing and an initial supply of inputs to jump start your soil health and enable you to earn a living. You’ll probably be buying compost your first year: 54 cubic yards ($25-$50/cubic yard) will provide 3ins cover on 6,000 sq ft (one Frith Farm plot). Once biological soil health is established, few imported soil amendments will be needed. You will need lots of mulch every year, such as leaves, straw, woodchips. Frith Farm uses 130 cubic yards of leaves per acre each year.

To go from a grass field to a set of ready-to-plant beds, some no-till growers do one initial tilling and maybe subsoiling to establish beds (rent or borrow the equipment). Daniel says “Don’t let purism keep you from actually breaking ground – it is better to start farming imperfectly than never to start at all!” Frith Farm tills with a Berta rotary plow on their BCS walking tractor, one 10ins strip at a time. We use a Berta plow to remake paths in our raised beds – it is a wonderful tool for that.

A second method of killing grasses and weeds is to mow closely and smother the plants with tarps. This takes 3-52 weeks, depending on the weather and plant species. This works for beds you plan to bring into production next year. Use a 5-6 mil thick black and white silage trap, black side up. Weight and wait! Daniel’s ingenious “tarp kit” consists of a pallet with enough cinder blocks to hold down a 24×100 ft tarp, which is folded and set up on top of the blocks, safely out of the way of tractor forks. The kit is moved to the next site, then returned to the pallet when its work is done. I’ve been interested in trying tarping, but muscling huge sheets of silage tarp and enough weights to hold it down was quite off-putting. Here’s an answer!

When you and the dead plants are ready, remove the tarp, spread compost thickly and plant. If the soil is compacted, use a broadfork before spreading compost. Tarping is also a valuable method for flipping beds between one crop and the next.

A third method of establishing new beds is to mow, amend the soil, cover the whole area with thick mulch, topped with compost and plant into that. To succeed, use an initial layer that lets no light through.  This method involves lots of work and mulch.

Seedling production is major at Frith Farm, as transplanting fits well with no-till. They recommend 500 sq ft of greenhouse space per acre of field production. They have some very practical “benches” which are sawhorses topped by custom pallets holding 12 standard 1020 flats. Two people can carry a full pallet, saving lots of time transferring one flat at a time.

Frith Farm uses soil blocks, mixing in a cement mixer. Winstrip trays are much quicker than making blocks, but they prefer the smaller cost and space saving of soil blocks. They use four sizes of standup blockers, but not the ¾” miniblocks, because those dry out too fast. They have tried the paperpot planter and found it unsuccessful when planting into stubble, worth considering before spending $3000.

One key to successful transplanting is appreciating the sublime experience of setting a plant in the ground with your own hands. Another is to have enough hands to get the job done! A third is watering soon after planting. They use a rolling Infinite Dibbler, a homemade oil-drum dibbler and a special 6-plant garlic dibbler For direct seeding, Daniel likes the humble Earthway seeder, even using it for cover crop seeds (the beet plate for the grasses). The Earthway is rugged, affordable, and works well in no-till beds.

Irrigation is another aspect of vegetable production that Daniel has well figured out. Here is a good clear explanation about well depth, flow, recharge rates, costs, water quality and all the facts you never needed to know if you use city water. The book includes a very clear pipe layout superimposed on the bed plan.

Daniel will help you decide between drip irrigation and sprinklers (or some of each). He recommends Senninger Xcel Wobblers with a 1gpm flow each, covering 6 beds with a line of 4 sprinklers. They run 12 sprinklers at once. This kind of detailed step-by-step calculation can be hard to find. Here’s another instance where the book pays for itself with just one piece of information! Daniel uses driptape only for long-season crops that are prone to foliar diseases, otherwise, he likes the simplicity of sprinklers. Follow Daniel’s advice and bury all main and lateral pipelines deep enough not to hit them when digging. A hose reel cart is a helpful thing to have to make hand-watering less of a tangled mess.

Daniel avoids rowcover unless a crop has two reasons simultaneously. Pests and diseases indicate imbalance, underlying issues with soil health, crop rotation, biodiversity. Work to rebalance and make improvements. Work towards being a No-Spray farm as well as No-Till.

The chapter on weeds opens with the saying “We till because we have weeds because we till . . .!” Weeds are an ecological mechanism for keeping the soil covered and full of roots. The “simple” solution of never letting weeds seed is less work in the long run, more work at first. It relies on working only the amount of land you have enough skilled hands to deal with. Two skilled fulltime workers per acre.

When is thick mulch not helpful? In early spring when you want to warm the soil. At Frith Farm, the soil is frozen from November to late March. Beds that finish too late to plant an overwinter cover crop get composted and covered in leaf mulch. They rake this leaf mulch off the beds into the paths in early spring, and spread a layer of compost on the beds, allowing some warm-up time. The dark compost absorbs the heat from the sun.

“Flipping the bed” after a crop may be simple if it was a root crop with few weeds. If the crop leaves a lot of bulky residues, mowing and tarping can restore the soil to a usable state in 5-10 days in warm weather. You may need to dig out perennial weeds, or add soil amendments, and another 7 barrows of compost per 100ft bed (2.5 cu yards/1000 sq ft), but soon you are good to go. They have a smooth compost spreading operation. A tractor driver delivers buckets of compost directly into wheelbarrows lined up at the head of the beds. People push the barrows down the paths, dumping out several shots of compost, raking the compost out to cover the whole bed surface.

Solarization with clear plastic during warm sunny weather is another way to kill weeds. If the edges of the plastic are buried, weed seeds and pathogenic fungal spores are also killed. If you want to kill weeds or crop residues without all the other life forms in the top layers of soil, using black plastic tarps is a safer way to go. The soil temperature does not get as high, but the removal of light does help kill plants. The book has a graph of days of tarping versus temperature. More than 25 days at an ambient temperature of 50F, about 9 at 65F, and only one day above 85F.

They have an ingenious foot-powered crimping tool for killing tall cover crops instead of mowing. Called the “T-post stomper”, this is a partner dance with one person at each end of a T-post lying across the bed. The T-post is tied with twine to the “inner” foot of each partner and includes a long twine loop that is hand-held.

No-till cover crop planning takes care. Plants die in three ways: they finish their lifecycle, they winterkill or they are starved of light or water. In no-till farming, the tools are the mower, winter, and tarping, or some combination of these. A sequence of photos shows beds from seeding the cover crop in September to healthy summer brassicas with no weeds in sight. A spring cover crop sequence shows peas and oats sown in April, tarped in June, direct seeded in storage radish in summer. Shorter sections on summer and fall cover crops follow.

Daniel has a chapter on integrating livestock with vegetable farming to increase diversity and net productivity of the farm. The symbiosis between soil, plants, animals can lead to creation of more soil, and increased fertility. Chickens are easy to keep, although if you want poultry that don’t scratch up the soil, get turkeys. (Daniel has a punny photo of turkey on rye.) Sheep are easier to fence than goats, and are smaller than cattle. Be wary of pigs. They can act like obsessed tillers and do lots of damage.

Harvested crops remove nutrients from the farm soil, and these nutrients can be replaced by farming for a very healthy soil biology. Healthy soil draws carbon and nitrogen from the air, and makes previously “inaccessible” stores of nutrients available to the following crops. Use compost, leaves and other organic mulches until you max out the recommended level of some nutrient. If your soil is then unbalanced, you will need to bring in missing nutrients.

The chapter on harvest sets out efficient user-friendly methods at Frith Farm. For a pleasant wash-pack space, you need a roof, a floor with good drainage (could be wood chips), mesh or slatted tables; hoses and sprayers; tanks to hold water; a salad spinner, a barrel root washer; good scales; flip-lid storage totes; walk-in coolers using CoolBot technology; and customized shelving. Think before buying a delivery truck – $1,500 worth of produce will fit in the back of a Prius! Almost no fuel costs! Daniel also recommends buying an insulated truck body to convert into a cooler. It can double as a screen for crew outdoor movie nights! Don’t forget to have fun!

We have a captive market at Twin Oaks (more politely called direct supply), so I‘m not the best reviewer of information about selling. But the section on their hiring process really grabbed me. “We are not just hiring a pair of hands to meet our labor needs; we are inviting someone into our community, our family, and our home.” Spell out and keep to high standards, provide a social experience, show care and camaraderie, train adequately, and compensate fairly. Interview well, check references, have a working interview (paid) if you can; write out your job offer. Provide guidelines with goals for pace and efficiency. Each person should be able to harvest, wash and pack about $80 worth of produce per hour. Share the joyful observations of life around you.

Daniel describes his recordkeeping, where the plan becomes the record. He recommends Holistic Management by Allan Savory with Jody Butterfield. Define your farms’ purpose, plan the season, plan the week. A plan is just a plan, sometimes plans change. Look for opportunities to record aggregate data, such as recording what you take to market and what you bring back, rather than each individual sale. At the end of the season, add up sales for each crop and divide by the number of beds to calculate the revenue per bed, and the yield of that crop. Having standard sized beds makes this simple. Add into pre-existing records and eliminate multiple versions of the same data. Make one spreadsheet of notes for next year. You can sort it by crop or by month, or by plot number.

Their Plan for the Week is an online spreadsheet accessible to all via a laptop in the barn. (Obviously they have better internet than we do!) Each week has a tab, each day has a column, and each plot has a row with tasks, times and sometimes a name. Once a week, the crew walks the farm and makes the list for each day, including any tasks carried over. Nothing is erased (it becomes a record!) When someone completes a task, they use a strike-through font and add notes. At the end of each day, remaining tasks are reprioritized for the rest of the week. This spreadsheet becomes the farm journal, and is easily searchable.

Frith Farm has a four-year rotation starting with smothering followed by transplanted cucurbits or nightshades and a winter-killed cover crop. The second year involves brassicas followed by root crops, with mulch over-winter. The third year is devoted to repetitions of salad crops, and a winterkilled cover crop. The fourth year is for alliums and an over-wintering cover crop. Consider the crop spacing you need for the new crop, and the spacing of the stubble from the previous crop. You often don’t need a clear bed, just clear rows where you intend to plant.

During the winter they create their attractive crop rotation plan where each plot has 12 rows (for the beds), with “under-rows” (for under-sowing) and 12 columns (for the months). It’s color coded for quick reference. From that rotation plan, they create a Greenhouse Plan and a Seed Order.

Next is a Harvest Plan for each harvest day, starting with walking the fields to take notes, balancing what is mature with what is needed. The evening before, the harvest manager makes a list of crops, quantities, and picking order. Each harvest day has a tab on the online spreadsheet, with a row for each crop. The sheet for that day is posted by the time the crew arrives. In this case, pickers use a pen to indicate who is picking what, when it’s done. People work down the list in order, taking the crops to the wash-pack station. That crew cleans the produce and stores it in a cooler, labeled with its destination.

There is a table of revenue data for 16 top-earning vegetables. (The other 45 crops are not shown.) In terms of revenue per bed, ginger wins at $2442, but it is in place all year (and I think it is in high tunnels). Taking bed-months into account, ginger still wins, but arugula is chasing it. Radishes don’t so well in revenue per bed-season, nor do onions and beets. Frith Farm does not record labor per crop. CSA growers need to provide variety, not just the “most profitable” crops.

Success includes sustainability, considering the people and the planet as well as the profit. Profit can be understood as ability to reinvest. Exactly where the profits end up is important, and to his credit, Daniel includes his 2018 farm revenue and where it went. Of the total $314,000, $120,000 went to the farm crew (an investment in the local community that makes the farm productive); $11,000 to family loan payments. $92,000 went back to the land (infrastructure, seeds and local biomass). $91,000 left the area, for taxes, insurance, fees, tools and equipment, and non-local inputs including the energy bill.

Purchases like plastic mulch, fossil fuels and manufactured equipment are part of a linear process that essentially convert resources to pollution. Strong words, and why not? We need to each face the full effect of our production.

Frith Farm works to increase food access to people in the community who cannot afford the usual prices of healthy food. They accept SNAP and WIC, donations, and offer gleaning groups the chance to help food pantries. They have sliding scale pricing, barter, work trades, and ride shares, all of which they advertise widely.

On the ecological front, their no-till practices are working daily to increase carbon sequestration by increasing organic matter (less than 4% in 2011, over 10% in 2019). A one per cent increase in OM in the top 10” of an acre of soil removes about 8.5 tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

Daniel Mays
Photo Storey Publishers

Book Review: Freedom Farmers, by Monica M White

Freedom Farmers Cover image

Book Review: Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, by Monica M White, UNC Press, 2020. 208 pages, with 11 b&w photos, hardback, $27.95, paperback $19.95.

This book will fill the gaps in your knowledge of Black US agricultural history, with a mix of narrative and evaluation. Here you can read about people such as Fannie Lou Hamer, who set up the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), offering a way for Black people of limited means to pursue self-reliance, health and a supportive community. Cooperatives offered an alternative to another wave of northern migration for African Americans – a way to stay in the South and help each other build a sustainable lifestyle.

It’s good to celebrate paths of hope, while also acknowledging the things that need to change. Freedom Farmers provides an uplifting perspective, showing agriculture was not only a site of oppression and exploitation of Black people, but also one of proactive political resistance and cooperative effort. Land access gives people the power to heal themselves, much more directly than food pantries and cooking lessons do.

Dr Monica White is assistant professor of environmental justice at the University of Wisconsin. This is an academic book, so you’ll need to navigate some sociological terms, and I recommend you persevere even if this is challenging, in order to learn more of the important history of agriculture in the South. The book divides into two parts, starting with the intellectual traditions in Black agriculture, specifically Booker T Washington, George Washington Carver (my sweet potato hero) and WEB Du Bois. Part 2, Collective Agency and Community Resilience in Action, covers four specific cooperatives, the Freedom Farm Cooperative, North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

Dr Monica White speaking. Photo http://monicamariewhite.com

As a member of a cooperative community (Twin Oaks) myself, I always appreciate reading the stories of others who have chosen a collective path. As a food grower, I enjoy hearing other producers’ stories. No, I don’t enjoy stories of slavery, share-cropping, land loss, although I do need to know about them. I do enjoy hearing stories of those who found a way to earn a living on the land and lift others up while doing so.

Dr White’s framework of Collective Agency and Community Resilience (CACR) covers proactive approaches that build knowledge, skills, community and economic well-being. Collective agency is an intrinsic part of social activism. Community resilience refers to adaptation to adversity: social organization to adjust, withstand and absorb disturbance, and reorganize for best results.

Martin Luther King Jr pointed out that the broken promise of the US government to provide 40 acres and a mule to freed people happened at the same time that millions of acres of land (stolen from Indigenous people) were given to white people in the West and Midwest.

The Black Panther Party recognized the importance of land ownership in getting access to food. The free breakfast for children program fed 20,000 children at its height, as well as providing clinics, childcare centers, clothing programs and political education. The Nation of Islam also provided access to healthy food in cities. In the late 1960s, NOI owned 13,000 acres in the South, collectively known as Salaam Agricultural Systems. In 1994, Muhammad Farms was formed on 1,556 acres in south Georgia.

These movements built on Booker T Washington’s model for building community-based institutions, George Washington Carver’s scholarship as an agricultural scientist improving farming methods, and the work of WEB Du Bois in documenting the experience of southern Black farmers, particularly in Alabama.

In 1875, African Americans owned 3 million acres of land. Five years later, 8 million. By 1900, 12 million. The Tuskegee Institute welcomed its first class in 1881. Students worked on the two farms as part of paying tuition. In 1902, the USDA established the Cooperative Farm Demonstration Service, which offered information on modern farming methods. The Negro Cooperative Farm Demonstration Service sent farm and home demonstration agents into the field. The value of Black-owned land in the South increased more than sevenfold by 1920.

George Washington Carver, Tuskegee Institute

George Washington Carver was a brilliant man with advanced botany degrees. He was committed to land conservation, plant breeding, scientific approaches to pests and disease. He left his plantation childhood at age 11, and made his way from Missouri to Iowa, where he enrolled in Simpson College, and later the college that became Iowa State University. There he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany, and became their first Black faculty member.

Carver accepted Booker T Washington’s 1896 offer of a job on the Tuskegee faculty although it entailed a loss of income. He said “The primary idea in all my work was to help the farmer and fill the poor man’s dinner pail . . . My idea is to help the “man furthest down”.

WEB Du Bois studied race, inequality, Black political participation and social movements including agrarian production. He was convinced that cooperatives were the key to freedom. Du Bois’s theory of the power of cooperatives was that the key is distribution, rather than production.

Du Bois established the Negro Cooperative Guild to promote cooperation among African Americans, beginning with basic needs (food, clothing, jobs) and moving on to economic power.

He insisted the cooperatives adopt the Rochdale Principles of Cooperation, which I am familiar with from the Co-op movement and intentional communities in the UK. These Principles were set out in 1844 by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in England and are used by co-operatives around the world.

Colored Farmers’ Alliance Members.
Photo: Resources | Monica Marie White, Ph.D. monicamariewhite.com

Part Two tells of four specific organizations, one a single farm cooperative, one a county-wide program, one a regional federation of cooperatives and the last one an inner-city food security network.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper and domestic worker, founded Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC) in Sunflower County, MS in 1967, to fight poverty among displaced farm workers. Hamer wanted an opportunity for Black farmers to live off the land, as an alternative to a second wave of northern migration. “Someone with a pig and a garden need not starve to death.”

Between 1950 and 1960, the county population decreased by 20% as African Americans moved to northern cities to find work. Between 1960 and 1970, another 20% left.

Hamer’s boss fired and evicted her when she refused to withdraw her voter registration. She articulated the link between voter suppression by farm employers and starvation and homelessness. Her way to fight back was to set up a cooperative farm, providing workers with food, housing and the freedom to vote. Freedom Farm was a Black-led organization, with a triple focus on affordable, safe housing; a business incubator providing training; and an agricultural cooperative meeting the food needs of the most vulnerable people in the county. Thirteen of the first 40 acres were used to collectively grow subsistence vegetables. Freedom Farm was also a social and political organizing center, supporting activists.

In 1969, 50 pigs were donated to the farm as the “starter funds” for the “Bank of Pigs”. Families kept the sows and took them to the facility that kept the boars. From each litter, the family paid two piglets back into the pig bank. Heifer International (in its first US-based project) provided training and help. By 1973, more than 865 families were beneficiaries of the pig bank, which provided them with meat and income.

In 1971, Freedom Farm put down a deposit on 640 acres of additional land to build more housing, and the next year, the US Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) gave funding for 80 self-build houses, to include electricity and indoor plumbing. By 1972, their crops were feeding 1600 families. 540 acres were used for grazing cattle and a catfish cooperative. Two years later, they added 600 acres of cash crops of cotton, soybeans, wheat and cucumber. The income paid the mortgage on the land.

In 1973, FFC had 600 acres in crops, 300 families receiving livestock from the pig bank, 70 families living in affordable housing, and several people benefiting from college and business funds. Freedom Farm was a major employer in Sunflower County. As well as farm and office jobs, FFC started two sewing cooperatives. FFC paid all employees $10/day, often with housing, food and services in addition.

After four years of growing success, Freedom Farm Cooperative started to unravel in 1971. There were several tornadoes, leading to next year’s seed money being used for disaster relief. Donor funds started to dry up. The social service programs were wound up in order to focus on making the farming financially viable. A disastrous sequence of droughts and floods added to the troubles, and the seasonal employees could not be paid. The pig bank was closed as it was not paying its way. In 1974, FFC’s business manager died suddenly and Hamer became ill. In 1976 FFC had to sell its land to pay overdue taxes. The enterprise could not continue but many people had had their lives changed for the better. As Monica White says “FFC created an oasis of self-reliance and self-determination in a landscape of oppression maintained in part by deprivation.” We should not undervalue their successes.

Compared to the very local efforts of FFC, the North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative (NBCFC) was a county-wide enterprise. The decline in need for farmworkers had left farmers unemployed, malnourished, ailing and in poor housing. Unfortunately, the area was a sea of racism. Black farmer-activists were glad of the support from Mound Bayou, an all-Black town founded right after the Civil War. The town included a health insurance cooperative, a hospital and a cottonseed oil mill worth $100,000, built and owned by African Americans.

In December 1967, sixty-four residents of Bolivar County, Mississippi started the NBCFC. They were mostly sharecroppers, tenant farmers, day laborers or domestic workers. Two Black landowners allowed the cooperative to use their land and another loaned his tools. For the first year, no one received pay, so members worked other jobs simultaneously. At the end of the first year, 953 families had joined and 120 acres were prepared for planting. Over one million pounds of produce was raised and distributed. The area was divided into 12 sections, each with two representatives on the board of directors.

Cooperative members who worked in the fields typically earned $4 cash per day plus $6 in produce. NBCFC created a Food and Nutrition Cooperative Project. They prioritized protein vegetables, then greens, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, okra and cucumbers. Starchy vegetables were at the bottom of the list, just above melons. They began processing their own vegetables because it was obvious to them that they lost value by selling their produce to distributors and then buying vegetables at market.

The third example in this book is on a regional scale: The Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC). Cooperatives had sprung up throughout the South, from Texas to Virginia, organized by the disadvantaged: Blacks, Latinx and some whites, working together in mutual aid. Some were farming, others manufacturing, sewing or consumer cooperatives. The FSC began in 1967 with twenty-two representatives of southern rural cooperatives as an umbrella cooperative for the Southeast with the goals of raising funds, providing technical assistance and developing resources.

By 1974, 134 cooperatives had joined FSC from 14 southern states. Through the Small Farmers School Program, FSC staff provided training in agricultural technology, hoophouses, irrigation systems, new crops, farm management, energy consumption and business decisions. They gave help to illiterate farmers with application forms, and made loans to members through an interest-free Revolving Loan Fund.

By combining orders and maximizing savings, FSC broke the stranglehold that distributors of seeds and fertilizers had on farmers (charging high prices because there was no competition). Farmers also cooperated to plan their crops so that different farmers brought in cucumbers, say, in different weeks of the season.

FSC included cooperatives for aquaponics, shrimping, and catfish farming, as well as flowers, transplants and shrubs. In 1979 FSC expanded by collaborating with two other organizations, the Emergency Land Fund (addressing the issue of Black land loss) and the Southern Cooperative Development Fund (providing emergency loans to struggling co-ops).

FSC also trained agricultural workers to plan and build housing for displaced farmers. They operated the Black Belt Family Health Care Center in Epes, Alabama, an ambulatory preventative health care cooperative providing services on a sliding scale. FSC also ran the Right to Read Program, including in-home literacy classes for 500 members and small group classes. Incarcerated people got literacy training. There were also mini-libraries, GED training and vocational training. They developed credit unions, protected and expanded Black landholdings, and provided book-keeping and financial services. They advocated on policy issues for low-income cooperators.

There was white backlash. Some white business owners and white political officials had no moral qualms about destroying Black cooperatives. A group of Black farmers in 1965 formed the Grand Marie Vegetable Cooperative of Sunset, Louisiana. The low price they were getting for their sweet potatoes was about to force them off the land. They banded together and shipped $102,000 worth of sweet potatoes to market in 1971. In 1972 a group of white growers asked the bank to stop the line of credit to Grand Marie. Their checks bounced, leaving them in a precarious financial situation.

In 1979, a federal grand jury in northern Alabama ordered FSC to provide all documents relating to federal funding for the past four years. The 18-month investigation did not lead to any charges, as they found no wrongdoing. It was an exercise in grinding down FSC. Defending itself cost FSC $20,000 in legal fees, and lots of wasted time. There are other examples of such harassment. Alabama state troopers stopped a fleet of refrigerated cooperative trucks, keeping them at the side of the road until they ran out of fuel, causing the produce to rot after several hours in the Alabama heat.

Fifty-three years later, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is still organizing Black cooperatives in the southern states, running a land assistance fund, a food box program, rural training, networking opportunities, technical assistance, and more. They accept donations on their website.

The next chapter, about the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), tells the stories of some of the descendants of those who migrated north, specifically to Detroit, for work. Sadly economic decline arrived there too, starting with the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, resulting in white flight and car manufacture moving elsewhere. Black flight followed in the early 2000s. Knowing that returning to growing food was an effective strategy of survival and resistance, the remaining Black community resisted pressure to leave and formed agricultural communities.

Following the 2008-2010 foreclosure crisis, the population shrank further and public services were cut again. DBCFSN mobilized the Black community with conversations about food sovereignty and food security, mutual aid, collective wealth-building and general political education. Today, Detroit is a major center for urban farming and community food systems.

In 2008, D-Town Farm grew out of the school garden at the Nsoroma Institute, when the city of Detroit asked DBCFSN to consider a 2-acre space in Meyers Tree Nursery, Rouge Park. Five more acres were added in 2011. By 2016, D-Town Farm was producing over 30 different vegetables, as well as mushrooms and honey. Hoophouses and a large composting operation are included. They have an annual internship program and a volunteer program, as well as a paid manager and staff. Their produce is sold mainly at city farmers markets.

The farm participates in Keep Growing Detroit, which promotes Detroit as “a food sovereign city where the majority of fruit and vegetables Detroiters consume are grown by residents within the city limits.” Food is a gateway to foster a sense of self-determination and self-reliance. The major grocery chain in Detroit closed, and growing food became a necessity. Cooperatives help resources stay in the neighborhood and build it up, rather than get siphoned off to shareholders elsewhere.

The African American urban farming movement encourages us to “dig deeper,” further than the traumas of enslavement, sharecropping and exploitative tenant farming, back to roots as people of the land. This counter-narrative shows how food production is an aspect of self-reliance, collective resilience and resistance.  Aside from food resources, cooperatives offer information, community support, physical exercise, and solutions to problems in politics, education, housing and policing. Three strategies: sharing (resources, ideas, labor and solutions), participation in decision-making (politics) and economic autonomy, are the building blocks of community resiliency.

Book Review: Soil Science for Gardeners, by Robert Pavlis

Book Review: Soil Science for Gardeners, by Robert Pavlis, New Society Publishers, 2020. 228 pages, with charts and diagrams, $18.99.

I recommend this book to all gardeners who have hesitated to open a soil science text for fear of dry incomprehensible overloads of numbers. Robert Pavlis explains how your garden grows, and dashes cold water on false myths that may have been wasting your time and limiting your success for years! He leads us to a better understanding, including on a microscopic level, of soil biology, chemistry, physics, geology and ecology and to a place of wonder and curiosity at the everyday functioning of crops and soils.

This new comprehension can lead us to do right by our plants and our gardens, leading to healthier plants and higher yields. Robert writes in plain language, as a gardener with over 45 years of experience. He is the author of those Garden Myths books you might have seen. Perhaps, like me, you paid them little attention, thinking your own knowledge was fact-based. Even so, like me, you might find you had been holding onto some anti-facts (mine was that I believed compost is acidic – not so!). This book aims to have us understand real soil and make real improvements, via a Soil Health Action Plan at the end of the book.

The three sections of the book are Understanding Soil, Solving Soil Problems, and A Personalized Plan for Healthy Soil. A satisfying, logical sequence. Read the sections in the order presented! Robert says it’s very easy to grow plants if you understand the soil which anchors them, feeds them and provides the air and water they need to survive. With a solid understanding of what’s going on, you won’t need to memorize rules.

The 2016 definition of soil, by the Soil Science Academy of America is “Soil is the top layer of the Earth’s surface that generally consists of loose rock and mineral particles mixed with dead organic matter.” A rather bland underselling of what soil accomplishes. Here comes myth-bust #1: “Soil is not alive. It does not need to eat or breathe.” “The whole idea that soil is a living organism that requires similar attention to animals is completely false and leads to many poor recommendations for managing soil.” No, don’t give up here! It’s not the soil but the ecosystem of the soil and all the living organisms in and on it that holds the life. The ecosystem contains life, but is not itself alive.

Air and water are critical for good plant growth, about 25% of each. A simple, startling truth. The sand, silt and clay we might worry about make up another 45%, and 5% organic matter might fill out the total. A large tree can remove up to 100 gallons (400 liters) of water a day, discharging most of it into the air as water vapor. As the water leaves the soil, air is pulled in to fill the spaces. Roots pull the oxygen in, day and night, to convert sugars into energy. Were you also lead to believe that plants photosynthesized by day and respired only by night?

Did you know (I hadn’t thought about it) that “soil pH” is really an average of the pH of the water in the soil, and a spot with organic matter and lots of bacterial activity will have a very different pH from a spot with less organic matter? The rhizosphere (the area right around a plant’s roots) can have a very different pH from the soil solution further away. Plants can grow in alkaline soil because their roots are actually growing in acidic conditions. The nitrogen-fixing bacteria on legume roots cause the plant to release hydrogen ions, making the rhizosphere more acidic. To some extent, our efforts to change the soil pH can be undone by our crops and weeds! A soil property called buffer capacity lets the soil absorb materials at different pH and maintain its same level. Peat moss is acidic, but it does not acidify alkaline soil. The soil in the rhizosphere can be 2 pH units different from the soil around. This is usually written about in rather magical terms, but here it is in plain language.

Roots grow just fine where there is enough phosphorus. Adding more at transplanting doesn’t help, and can hinder. Visual plant symptoms can predict possible deficiencies, but are not a reliable diagnosis. Purple leaves may indicate phosphorus deficiency or cold temperatures, high light intensity, pest damage or lack of water. Or a nitrogen shortage reducing the plant’s ability to absorb phosphorus. There’s much that we don’t know!

Pay attention to the Cation Exchange Capacity – the measure of the soil’s ability to hold cations – because many plant nutrients are cations. You can increase the CEC by increasing the clay content, increasing the OM or increasing the pH. Read more in this book.

Have you ever thought about the “free” nitrogen from legume root nodules? Rethink of it as “homegrown” or “solar” rather than simply magic and free, because the leguminous plant may use up to 20% of the sugars produced during photosynthesis, to feed the bacteria.

Don’t justify your adherence to organic gardening by falsely claiming that synthetic fertilizers kill bacteria. Bacteria feed on both synthetic and organic fertilizers. This book challenges us to find the factual basis for choosing to grow organically, making us stronger advocates.

Hoophouse bed broadforked to aerate the soil without inverting.
Photo Pam Dawling

The bacteria chapter is followed by a chapter on fungi. Fungal spores are everywhere, even the Antarctic. Fungi are crucial for cleaning up plant litter on the soil surface. They grow above-ground hyphae which can penetrate dry leaves or wood chips and move the nutrients deep into the soil. Bacteria can’t tackle such tough stuff! 150 species of fungi capture and digest nematodes.

Why is organic matter important?  This chapter explores the chemical and biological effects of organic matter on soil. Soil contains three forms of organic carbon: the living (15%), the dead and the very dead (stable humus and charcoal). Increasing the level of organic matter in the soil can increase aggregation, improve water infiltration (reducing runoff), increase aeration, increase water-holding capacity, improve tilth of clay soils, reduce crusting, and improve the size and distribution of the pore spaces. Those are just the physical effects. It will also increase the cation exchange capacity, increase the availability of nitrogen, boron, molybdenum, phosphorus and sulfur, and increase the microbial activity and diversity.

Often we think about adding partially decomposed OM such as compost and manure. We should face the reality that compost tends to have low levels of nutrients (maybe 1:1:1).   The big value of these is in providing food for microbes, short-lived beings that provide a constant supply of fresh OM, multiplying its value. Partially decomposed compost takes about five years to finish decomposing, during which time it slowly releases nutrients. This gradual steady supply is what crops need. The humus left at the end is a complex molecular mixture of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, resistant to further decay.

The initial effect of adding fresh OM (not composted OM) is an explosion of microbial reproduction, feeding and death. The microbes use nitrogen, which can cause plants to suffer a shortage. It takes time for a new balance to be achieved, providing adequate N for the plants.  The needs for the N can encourage gardeners to add so much compost that the P level is too high, which can bring death to mycorrhizal fungi, leading to roots driving deeper to access their own P from the soil directly. We have very high soil P, a result of misunderstanding soil test limits. I have worried about it, then read more and stopped worrying. Soil P is pretty stable. If you are not leaching P into a waterway, it just stays in your soil until a plant need it. We switched to using less compost and more cover crops where we could. We were already using a lot of cover crops – it’s not like we were slouches in that department! After more time, I settled on accepting our situation, and as the plants show no sign of P-caused problems and our soil is bursting with earthworms, it doesn’t affect us much.

I mentioned at the beginning that I learned that finished compost is alkaline, not acidic. In the initial composting stage, acidity happens. Then fungi thrive, and decompose the tough lignin and cellulose, causing the pH to rise and bacteria to take over. Compost-making has lots of myths! Poorly understood science makes them grow, I suppose. Bokashi composting, for example (more of a fermentation than a composting process) is based on the idea that fermented material decomposes faster, although it’s unclear if this is really true. “The best method of composting is the one that you do and continue to do because you like doing it. Any form of composting is better than taking yard waste to the curb.”

The Rhizosphere chapter is fascinating! Root exudates can restrict the growth of competing roots, attract microbes into symbiotic relationships, Change the chemical and physical properties of the soil solution and the soil, and make nutrients more available. Bacteria make explosive population growth as they feed on exudates. Then their predators, nematodes and protozoa, join the party. The soil water around the roots becomes a nutrient soup. By photosynthesis, the plants produce the attractive exudates that the soil food web turns into plant nutrients right where the roots can efficiently hoover them up. Plants are active in seeking nutrients, not passive recipients. Not to say they have knowledge, or think and plan. It’s a matter of chemical reactions controlled by enzymes with the capacity to change their activity based on the presence or absence of chemical triggers. Let’s marvel at the reality! We don’t need fairy stories!

The second section of the book, Solving Soil Problems, starts with identifying the problems, and works through techniques affecting the soil, chemical and microbe issues, increasing organic matter and structural problems. We are not feeding plants, we are replacing missing nutrients in the soil, so they can take the nutrients they need. The solution will depend on your soil, so a “tomato fertilizer” is not going to be what tomatoes need in every soil. If you plan to top up the missing nutrients, get a soil test to learn what those are. But if you plan to apply manure or compost everywhere as your only amendment, your money is wasted on a soil test. If you add compost every year and return cover crops, organic mulch and your plant debris to the soil, and your plants are mostly growing well, you probably don’t need to add any other fertilizer to your garden. This alarmed me a bit. What about boron shortage, which happens here? Yes, if you are a farmer or market gardener, yields do matter and soil tests (free for commercial growers in Virginia) will be worthwhile. But for a home gardener, or a landscape gardener, yields might not be at the top of your list. Robert explains various tests, and gives his take on how useful they are. The information here can save a lot of confusion and wasted effort.

Photo by NCSU Crop Soil Undergrad course

In the techniques chapter, the author explains the dramatic difference in available nitrogen in a cultivated garden and a no-till one. No-till can supply up to five times the nitrogen, because tilling adds more air into the soil, increasing the microbial activity, burning up the OM. There is a useful chart comparing the effects of fertilizer, compost and wood chips on the soil. We’ve all learned not to bury wood chips in the soil, where they use up the nitrogen while decomposing. But on the surface they can do wonders.

Crop rotation has come under scorn recently from commercial growers who are focused on maximizing yield and profit for their time on small areas of land. Sure, salad mix and baby spinach can rake in the money. But generations of farmers have learned to grow different types of crops each year in a particular spot. This can increase yields 10-25%, even though we are not sure why. Studies have shown it’s not simply nutrient availability. It could be pH changes freeing up more nutrients, or microbe biodiversity, or differing root growth granting access to more depth than the current crop alone can achieve. Rotated crops are more drought resistant and make better use of nitrogen. Research is needed.

As I was happily digesting this book I was brought short by this mnemonic that still puzzles me: “If you have trouble remembering whether P stands for phosphorus or potassium, remember that these nutrients are listed in alphabetical order. Phosphorus comes before potassium in the alphabet, and so P comes before K.” Um, K comes before P, last time I looked. Confusing.

Does rock dust add nutrients? No evidence, says Robert. Do not be beguiled by mineral products claiming to add 74 minerals to your soil. Plants might only use 20 of them. More is not better! Beware fad products such as biostimulants and probiotics. Plants cannot use vitamin B1. What about compost tea? Yes, it adds nutrients, but claims that the included microbes work wonders are not supported by science: test results are very mixed, including worse. Sometimes we are too gullible! Milk, molasses: they add nutrients but no special magic. Fermenting something cannot add nutrients – it could make some more available, although that isn’t proven either. The fungal and bacterial populations increase, but are the species nutritious ones or pathogenic ones?

Photo by Usu.edu Soil 1

The gardener’s goal is to farm healthy microbes, even though they are too small to see. Use the state of the soil and the health of the plants as indicators of the health of the microbes. Supply OM, water and you’re on the right track. It has been proved useful to add rhizobium legume inoculant if you haven’t grown legumes for some years. Fungal inoculation of soybeans in low phosphorus soil will be effective. Not otherwise.

The author’s general practice is to improve the soil environment to help existing microbes. There is a list of 7 general ways to do that. There is a whole chapter on increasing OM, using what’s local and cheap. Coir is a waste product, but its production causes environmental damage to local water supplies (large amounts of sodium have to be leached out).

Biochar, one of the new “Garden Wonders”, has claims to make big improvements to the soil food web. Most of the biochar studies have been conducted in labs, not on farms. Even then, 50% of the studies report higher yields, 20% report no change, and 30% report a decrease. There are probably better ways to spend your money!

What about gypsum? I believed the common advice to use it to break up clay soils. Mostly this myth is not supported by evidence. Gypsum can have some negative effects. Add more OM instead. Likewise for improving sandy soils: add more OM.

The final section of the book is a set of worksheets and instructions to help gardeners improve the soil health where they are. This is a slow process, so start soon! Robert has also made the forms available on his website www.gardenfundamentals.com/soil-book-forms. First assess your soil, then make an action plan, then record your progress.

I recommend this book for all sustainable/regenerative/organic gardeners and small-scale farmers, and even large-scale farmers who realize there are gaps in their understanding of soil science. This book is very accessible, user-friendly and full of soil-based common sense. Winter is a good time to make new plans!

Robert Pavlis has two websites: www.gardenmyths.com and www.gardenfundamentals.com as well as a YouTube channel www.youtube.com/Gardenfundamentals1

Book Review: Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights, by Pete Daniel

Book Review: Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights

by Pete Daniel, University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 352 pages, with 17 photos, $29.95.

Dispossession is a very gripping and valuable book, a combination of detailed history and personal stories, making plain how African American farmers were systematically deprived of their land and livelihood by the white-controlled agri-government during the third quarter of the twentieth century. Yes, the same “civil rights era” when some substantial success was made against racial discrimination. At that same time, agriculture was experiencing big changes leading to increased yields. Mechanization, herbicides and pesticides reduced the number of farmworkers needed. Between 1940 and 1974, the number of African American farmers fell by an astounding 93 percent, compared with a much smaller number of white farmers leaving the land. The magnitude of this decline was personal tragedy to those farmers and it was not coincidental – white people in the USDA manipulated the distribution of information, loans, grants and of positions of power, to favor white farmers. This shameful part of American history only slowly became apparent to me, a white immigrant farmer, as I noticed USDA reparation efforts within phrases like “historically under-served”. Quite the under-statement!

The USDA promoted capital-intensive agriculture and subsidized already wealthy farmers headed in this direction. At the same time, the USDA put barriers in the way of women and minority farmers seeking a fair share of resources, including the important acreage allotments (approval to grow certain acreages of wheat, cotton, corn, tobacco, peanuts, and rice). These production controls had been introduced in the mid-1950s to prevent surplus production. Every couple of years the rules changed, and not all farmers were given the needed information to apply for that year’s permits and price support mechanisms.

The USDA had been run by white men since it was formed in 1862, and, with the exception of the Negro Extension Service, African Americans were excluded from any decision-making positions. Many individuals and organizations worked to get USDA to remove the discrimination, and to help African Americans get a fair distribution of the resources. Pete Daniel’s book focuses on the South in the years before the 1999 Pigford v. Glickman class action suit, which won compensation for discrimination occurring after 1981. Previously there was no real check on USDA discrimination. The class action suit opened the way for similar suits by women, Native Americans and Latinx farmers.

The first couple of chapters of the book give the overview and make for information-packed reading. After setting the stage, Pete Daniel shares individual stories of farmers, civil rights volunteers, and black extension agents. The first chapter is called “Intended Consequences”. Although the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination, the US Commission on Civil Rights (created to monitor the application of the Act) reported in March 1965 of a broad range of discriminatory practices in every office of the USDA. It took 30 years before Timothy Pigford brought the suit that found the USDA guilty of widespread discrimination. The broken promise of “Forty acres and a mule” for every soldier in the Civil War was followed by decades of subverted laws and farming programs that left black farmers unjustly treated. And Pigford did not fix everything! Congress did not make funds available until 2010, by which time many of the mistreated farmers had died or lost their farms. And all the farmers discriminated against before 1981 received no recompense.

At the very time that laws were supposedly protecting Black people from bias, Black farmers were suffering the most crippling discrimination. It was very hard for sharecroppers to become tenant farmers, with control over the sale of their own crops. Their fortunes were eroded by labor laws, bad weather, bankers, landlords and pests. Diets were poor, and so was sanitation and health, as well as childhood schooling. Many tenants and sharecroppers became redundant as machinery took their jobs.

Black farmers who succeeded did so by cultivating white support, as advised by Booker T Washington. The decline of Black farmers after World War II was in strong contrast with their gains in the 50 years after Emancipation from slavery. Over-production led to lower prices, which led to desperate farmers.

The USDA was founded during the Civil War to encourage better farming methods throughout the country. In 1862, Congress funded land-grant universities in each state. Since Southern white schools would not admit Black students, Congress funded the African American land grant colleges in 1890 (with fewer resources than went to the white colleges).

Black farmer with mule team. NRCS photo.

The 1887 Hatch Act established agricultural research stations, and Congress established the segregated and unequal Federal Extension Service in 1914, operating out of the land-grant universities, providing some farmers with advice and information. The organization of the Extension Service was convoluted, territorial and discriminatory, and extension agents wielded enormous power. The confused structure lead to claims that some agents were employed by the county and some were federal employees. (All, in fact, were part of the federal civil service retirement system and held civil service appointments.)

White agents oversaw the Negro Extension Service, which was hosted by the 1890 land-grant colleges. Black agents got lower pay and poorer equipment, but the jobs offered respectability and the opportunity to serve rural people. Women working for the Home Demonstration service got a lot of satisfaction from the work. African American Extension agents had to tread a fine line when addressing the needs of Black famers and preserving goodwill with whites. Many whites only tolerated black agents who did not challenge their authority or disrupt farm labor.

A white agent with 6 years’ work experience with the extension service was paid $375 a month, while a black agent with 14 years’ experience was paid only $212. The Black agent received considerably less information from the office, and was kept out of the decision-making loop. In some places, the furniture for the Black agent’s office was much poorer quality than that in the white agent’s office; Black agents received no vehicles, and little demonstration materials and had to do their own typing. Black agents were usually isolated from decision-making and rarely interacted with their white counterparts. Because the USDA functioned in isolation, the white leadership in USDA had not been challenged about their discriminatory practices.

Loans often went to wealthier farmers rather than the poor farmers for whom the program was intended. Black farmers assumed many of the programs were for whites only, and did not apply. Or they decided that the costs of upsetting the applecart were higher than the costs of managing without those resources. As pressure mounted on the agricultural organizations to appoint or elect African Americans, whites turned to intimidation, tokenism and duplicity, such as getting permission to include the name of an African American on a committee, but then not telling the person which committee or when they met. His name was sought to satisfy requirements, but his participation was not wanted.

During early 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was preparing for the Freedom Summer, and the US Commission on Civil Rights turned its attention to the USDA. This 6-person commission made investigations and reports but had no enforcement power. The National Sharecroppers Fund had filed nine discrimination cases with the Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman, but Freeman had reported that all Mississippi USDA agencies had denied discrimination, as if that was a fact. The commission interviewers questioned USDA agents throughout the South, and observed unchallenged malpractice in powerful southern USDA county offices. Black farmers had not received information about new trends or programs or loans. Black farmers often received no notices of conservation service or other committee elections, or even of their right to vote.

Successful Black farmers made their own way, finding sources of loans outside pf the government agencies that should have helped them. Many Black farmers had no idea they even had access to USDA. Many USDA committees throughout the South controlled which farmers received information. Acreage allotment increases went to the “committeemen. White land-grant universities paid lip service to the support of civil rights, but distributed the resources as they liked.

Towards the end of the Freedom Summer of 1964, civil rights activists moved into helping African Americans benefit from federal programs. They also hoped to get Black farmers onto committees where they could have influence by force of numbers. Many believed the jobs were for whites only. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers were squeezed out when committee work involved calculations they had never been taught to do, or understanding complex farm programs.

This left the field open for white agents to ignore deceitful acreage measurements by white farmers. Surpluses were not destroyed, even in cases where they were hundreds of acres in excess. Some ballot boxes were stuffed, some elections were declared invalid. In order to preserve central control and shore up apparent participation, committee members sometimes convinced farmers of the value of programs that did not help them.

Court jurisdiction in disputes was replaced by powerful committees that were not neutral, and did not rely on established precedent. Farmers were at the mercy of the personal preferences of the committeemen.

SNCC workers saw how sharecroppers did not have access to their accounts, and Willie Mae Robinson in Mississippi, for example, picked 20 bales of cotton in 1962, that should have brought her $1870. But she was only given $3.

Black farmers. Photo USDA

In 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, civil rights leaders there urged John Lewis, the SNCC chair, to tone down his criticism of the Kennedy administration for unlawful arrests and failure to promote the civil rights bill. SNCC was seen as outside the main campaign for civil rights. When farmers in Mississippi provided housing for the SNCC workers, they suffered economic reprisals. When they registered to vote, they risked losing their homes and their jobs. Sharecroppers had no bargaining chips. One key for progress was to get Black farmers to stand for seats on the Conservation Service committees.

In 1965, The Conservation Service (ASCS) took steps to make sure all farmers had the chance to vote, and that the elections would be fair. But there was widespread fraud and intimidation, which the Conservation Service chose to ignore. Sometimes Black farmers found their names had been added to the ballot in an effort to dilute Black votes, preventing any African American farmers getting seats on the committee. Or ballots included only Black nominees chosen by white committees for their cooperation with whites rather than their support of Black farmers. “Discouragement” and humiliating treatment of this sort was widespread. Black farm wives in one county had been required to collect their own ballot slips at the office instead of receiving them in the mail like everyone else. Whites exacted a price for Black activism, such as registering to vote. Physical intimidation and violence, firing from jobs, and petty insults, such as using only first names for Black people, were common.

All-black advisory committees were set up to assist white ASCS committees, although this was not the equal participation mandated for federal programs. Unsurprisingly, white committees continued to run the show. SNCC workers offered workshops and stressed how important participation in ASCS elections was. They gave support by putting opaque election rules into plain English, and using stick-figure diagrams to explain elections, so farmers could understand what options they had.

The next year, Horace Godfrey, the head of ASCS, ordered counties to hire non-whites for temporary summer jobs at the same percentage of the population as whites. This was challenging in high-majority Black counties, and with few Black farmers owning cars. Also, the numbers of Black farmers were declining, leaving whites more control. However, overall, Godfrey’s hiring initiative became the best civil rights action taken by any USDA administrator in the 1960s. This did not smoothly lead to the hiring of more Black farmers for permanent jobs, although the ASCS set up a training program for clerical positions, which helped a few individuals each year and cracked the segregation within ASCS.

1965 included an escalation of violence, with the assassination of Malcolm X, the police brutality towards the marchers in Selma, President Johnson’s increase of troops in the Vietnam War, and the introduction of the draft. Press attention turned towards the war and away from civil rights.

In July 1965, Nyle Brady (the soil scientist), as the USDA’s director of science and education, claimed that the Extension Service had contacted 312,000 non-white southern farmers. Census numbers showed that there were less than 200,000 nonwhite farmers in the South.

Many elections were rigged, but Washington refused to take corrective action, or even admit anything was wrong. In July 1966 in Lowndes County, Alabama there was such blatant fraud that Stokely Carmichael reflected “If the government can spend billions of dollars to kill people in Vietnam to assure free elections, then they had better spend some of those dollars to assure free elections in the Lowndes County ASCS.” Stokely Carmichael led SNCC away from civil rights organizations including their white allies and focused more on color rather than class. He introduced the Black Power slogan, which meant different things to different people, perhaps as “Defund the Police” does in our times. His belligerent words alienated John Lewis, Charles Sherrod and Julian Bond, who all resigned from SNCC in 1966.The last of the white allies left in the spring of 1967, a step that was painful to many of them. The representation of Black farmers on ASCS suffered as a result of this pivot of attention in the SNCC.

During 1968, support from civil rights workers for southern Black farmers dwindled as political activists focused on anti-war efforts. Increasingly, the focus of discrimination included women, who were extremely rare within USDA. In a summary of minorities on county committees, there were no women at all. Beginning to employ Black people and white women changed the office culture. Training programs began for minorities (and women?), to qualify them for jobs in ASCS.

Integrating 4H camps proved too challenging for some white extension administrators, who cancelled the whole program rather than integrate. I am reminded of the closing of the white public swimming pool in one county in Virginia, by those in power, who would not integrate. The county remained without a public swimming pool for decades.

Young black farm-worker. Photo USDA

In 1981, the USDA had disbanded its Office of Civil Rights and stopped responding to farmers who had filed complaints. The US Commission on Civil Rights reported in 1982 on continued injustice in every program, which resembled too much the discrimination exposed in its 1965 report. By 1982 only 33,000 Black farmers remained in the South. Isidoro Rodriguez headed the Office of Minority Affairs from 1981, and in a bid to support the Republicans, dropped civil rights guidelines that were contrary to the Reagan administration. Investigations dropped from 90 a year to zero. He cut staff by ten and returned $475,000 in unspent funds. He was fired in 1983.

The 1984 House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing included as a witness, Timothy Pigford, who went on to file a class action suit, after eight years of struggling to afford to farm in the teeth of very bad advice and no financial assistance from the USDA. The 1999 Pigford v. Glickman class action suit won compensation for discrimination occurring after 1981 claims of discrimination. (The two-year statute of limitations was extended to cover the longer period.)  Theoretically, before that date, the office of Civil Rights had dealt with complaints, although as we have seen, this was a big whitewash.

As a result of Pigford, farmers lacking incomplete documentation of their claim could get a cash payment of $50,000 and forgiveness of debts owed to the USDA. Farmers with documentation had no cap on what they could recover. Judge Friedman commented that the billions of dollars due to farmers for discrimination would show that the USDA was not above the law and remind them of the consequences of discrimination.

The payment of compensation resulting from Pigford claims was delayed in some cases for a decade, until February 2010 when the Obama administration announced a $1.25 billion settlement with African American farmers.

Pete Daniel. Photo Wake Forest Magazine

Memory fades and the history of the civil rights movement is mythologized as a string of heroes, achievements and successes. Like the earlier faked compliance reports, the success story has edited out conflicts, obstruction of justice and the many individual and small group efforts to bring justice. The USDA spoke of equal opportunity even as it obscured inequities in lending and provision of information and assistance and discriminated in choosing employees, and as it continued bad policies that drove more African American farmers off the land. Resources went to relatively wealthy white farmers

To compound the problems of Black farmers, many died without making a will, and all the heirs inherited the farm. Any heir could later sell their share outside the family to someone who could force a partition sale. Problems with Heirs’ Property caused a further loss of farming land in the African American community.

In July 1987 only 33 of 2,520 county directors in the nation were Black. Most of the offices by then were staffed by white women. All the Good Old Boys were resisting having a Black man in charge.

After Pigford, the USDA did backslide, and in 2009, Tom Vilsack as the incoming Secretary of Agriculture, inherited 11,000 unprocessed civil rights complaints, several class action suits and 113,000 employee discrimination complaints. In November 1999, Native American farmers had filed a suit that led to a $760million fund to pay damages, as well as cancelled debts. Hispanics sued in 2000. Women sued and were added to the Hispanic farmers’ case. These cases opened the way for more claims from other minorities who had suffered discrimination.

Lloyd Wright on his family farm in Montross, VA.Lloyd Wright, former chief of civil rights under President Bill Clinton—and himself a farmer—on his family farm in Montross, Virginia. Photo Donnamaria Jones

No financial settlement makes up for humiliation, distress and loss, and many of these farmers had already lost their land by the time they received money. It is past time we treated everyone with decency and justice.

Click the link for an interview with Pete Daniel and Jess Gilbert on Edge Effects

https://edgeeffects.net/pete-daniel-jess-gilbert/

Book Review: Grow Great Vegetables in Virginia, by Ira Wallace

Book Review: Grow Great Vegetables in Virginia, by Ira Wallace, Timber Press, 2020. 240 pages, line drawings and full color photos, $19.95.

Here is a great book for beginning gardeners or those new to Virginia. Ira’s friendly style will encourage everyone wanting to grow their own food, whether you’re one of the new “Covid Victory Gardeners”, newly retired from your day job, or newly determined to eat better food, this book will help you towards success. There are not many authors who could write five books at once, but Ira has given us five regional books for the southeast, with more details than her earlier Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. She has written for gardeners in Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina.

I’m reviewing the Virginia book, which includes an introduction to Virginia, to gardening and to garden planning. Most of the book is a series of month-by-month lessons on what to plant; what you could be harvesting; and seasonal topics. The harvest lists are very encouraging! 11 crops in January, 27 in July, 46 in October. And there are the stored crops too. I like the month-by-month format. It enables new gardeners to learn just enough for each month’s tasks, and get ready to learn something new.

There’s a map of Virginia and the winter-hardiness zones, and at the back of the book there’s a chart of the average coldest temperatures in each of the zones. I wished for a heat zones map as well, because climate is not only about winter temperatures. Summer weather has quite an impact too! There are good descriptions of the growing season in various regions of Virginia, and the kinds of weather that come our way.

In the gardening intro, there is a table of organic sources of plant nutrients; encouragement to try succession planting (making several sowings over the course of the growing season to keep fresh supplies of that vegetable rolling in); and an explanation of planting “hills” (which might be better flat when it’s hot and dry). I remember being new in this country and not understanding hills at all, because books didn’t explain what they are, why you might use them, or how far apart they are. I proceeded to plant in rows, as I had done in England, and the crops grew fine. Eventually I learned what hills are. They’re not essential, and not necessarily better than rows, but maybe good for small home gardens. Read Ira’s book! She explains her information clearly, and her reasons for doing things the way she does. She explains why we transplant in the afternoon on an overcast or drizzly day. We live in a climate with hot summers, we don’t transplant in the mornings!

In the planning section, there is a full-page chart classifying vegetable crops as easy-to-grow, slightly more challenging and (undeniably) challenging. Each category is subdivided into warm season, cool season and “in need of extra space”, so no one need waste time on monstrous crops at the wrong time of year. Many paths to failure eliminated! There is encouragement to weigh up the value of keeping an old tomato planting going, versus getting a winter cover crop planted. Growing food well involves not forming attachments to particular plants! Ira says you can more than double the yield in a small garden by having some transplants ready to pop into any spaces that open up.

Planning includes being prepared for surprise opportunities to pop in a catch crop of something fast-maturing, and that idea is beside a list of crops by season in case you need more ideas. There are instructions on germination testing of seeds held over from the previous year, and a chart of seed longevity. Clearly one of Ira’s goals is to reduce your chances to fail and increase your chances to succeed! The perfect gardening mentor! And one who is not trying to part you from your money. Here are resources for finding used tools free or inexpensively priced ones, and the excellent advice to view garden gear in use before buying.

There is information about growing lettuce year round, starting with basic pointers that many books forget to tell you: lettuce needs light to germinate; don’t sow it too deep; store your seeds cool and dry – they won’t germinate well if they’ve got hot; make new sowings frequently; use shade in hot weather and put ice on the seedbed; sow more frequently in late summer and early fall and use cold-tolerant varieties even though it’s still hot when you are sowing, because as day length decreases, a one day delay in sowing can lead to a one week delay in harvest.

Ira Wallace, the author of Growing Great Vegetables in Virginia

There are useful charts of days to maturity, cold-hardiness of fall crops, and when to plant for fall harvest based on your first frost date. The fall garden is too often overlooked, and yet it is a wonderful chance to grow more fresh food and some to preserve for winter that will have been harvested closer to when you want to eat it. Ira reminds us to keep picking through the summer days, to encourage plants to keep producing more. When we get to the November chapter there is a section on Winter Garden Awareness. Although we aren’t sowing new crops, we do have plenty to harvest, and removing weeds will make for a better garden next year. There will inevitably be less to harvest in February and March, so don’t waste what we have growing before the Winter Solstice. Plan for the fall garden to mature by late November. Not much growing will happen after that.

Mulch over the rows to keep crops alive, or harvest and store before the coldest weather. Virginia snow is not the beneficial blanket that northern snows can be. Ours is wet, fleeting, heavy and unreliable. We need hoops and row covers to protect plants outdoors. Our winter gardens are susceptible to drying out the crops while the ground is frozen, and drowning them when it’s waterlogged.

After the month-by-month section is a multi-page chart of planting and harvesting. Three pages for zone 6 and three for zones 7 & 8. These are followed by an alphabetical crop section. Globe artichokes in Virginia – Ira has grown them as an annual, as other famous southern gardeners have done. Five blueberry bushes will feed four people – information like this is priceless, because you need to know before you plant and it will be a few years later that you discover the answer by yourself. Ira is part of Acorn Community, who run Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a company selling open pollinated seed suited to the southeast. And she is broad-minded enough to recommend some quick-maturing broccoli hybrids “since timing is everything with spring plantings”, alongside OP varieties for fall. I appreciated the advice on garlic varieties, because I only know well the two varieties we grow, and people often ask me for recommendations. Nootka Rose for a long-storing softneck, Asian Tempest for early maturity, Music and Killarney Red for large cloves and easy peeling. The page on Muscadine (scuppernong) grapes is very useful to transplanted gardeners with no experience of them. Jerusalem artichokes are another crop you might not have considered. Easy, reliable, with you for life (self-propagating), they could be part of every self-reliant garden. Parsnips are another under-appreciated vegetable, “an old staple worth rediscovering”, very cold-tolerant and tasty. And there are crop-saving tips such as not to plant out peppers until the dogwood blossoms have fallen. In other words, don’t stunt them by planting out while we still have cold weather. A lesson I still need to learn.

This is a very accessible book, user-friendly, a great gift for yourself or other Virginia gardeners.

I have a few gripes with the publisher. Why get books printed in China rather than North America? Why not use recycled paper? I like the artistic background line drawings of plants (mostly a repeated artichoke head) lightly peppered throughout. The green spot-color drawings are OK to give a “quaint” feel to the book, but they often don’t match well with what Ira is saying. Ira is my neighbor and I know her favorite garden tools don’t look like these drawings!

Why not let authors provide more of the photos, so they are a better match for the text? I’ve given up trying to grow runner beans in summer in Virginia, because they don’t set pods when it is hot, (much as I love them – as a Brit, I was raised on them). There’s a photo of a (non-Virginian?) dog guarding a July harvest that I feel skeptical about. Early in the book, there is mention of runner beans as a challenging cool weather crop. The Plant and Harvest chart has them as planted in either Feb/Mar for Apr/May harvest, or July/early Aug planting for September and October harvest.

There’s a photo of kale and rainbow chard leaves, captioned as “rainbow kale.” If authors supplied the photos we wouldn’t get mix ups like this! Eye candy photos are attractive, yes, but I think people buying a gardening book will want clear accurate info above all else. I’m happy Ira got some photos of black and brown people gardening included. Most of the photos have no people, but other humans do help us relate to what we’re doing and why.

Book Review: No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, by Bryan O’Hara

Cover of No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture by Bryan O’Hara

Book Review: No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, by Bryan O’Hara

Chelsea Green, 2020. 250 pages, full color photos throughout, $29.95.

Bryan O’Hara’s No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture is the work of an expert. His bio says he is known for “providing mountains of details in a concise, practical and cohesive manner”, which sounds like my kind of writer!

His book includes science, art, and philosophy. It is an example of something I realized a while ago: if a farmer pays good attention to what works well, and acts in accordance with their observations, it doesn’t seem to me to matter exactly why they think it works! Although I don’t share the author’s spiritual outlook, or practice of Biodynamics, I do highly value healthy soil, diverse ecosystems, crop rotations, nutritious food, good relations with our neighbors and peace in the world. And so I can use the pointers to achieve some of these goals. Bryan has been paying exquisite attention for decades!

This no-till book is very different from Andrew Mefferd’s Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers which I reviewed in May 2019. That book provides a menu of varied methods for those who want to increase the amount of no-till growing on their small-scale farm. Any reduction in tillage is a good step: you don’t have to commit to permanent no-till everywhere. Read Andrew’s book first and choose the reduced-tillage options that suit your farm. Then read Bryan’s book on one particular way of no-till vegetable production and see which parts will work for you.

Bryan and his partner Anita started farming in Connecticut in the early 1990s. Experienced, enthusiastic and energetic, they quickly succeeded, and prepared to expand Tobacco Road Farm. Fortunately, Anita realized the three acres of vegetables they already had was a better fit with their goals: providing for their family year-round, keeping them healthy and happy, providing a service to fellow humans, and freedom from economic subjugation. They embraced Biodynamics as a way to improve crop health, and then Korean Natural Farming. KNF (developed by a Korean, Cho Han Kyu) and making brews of microorganisms (IMOs).

After noticing that tillage was detrimental to their soils, they switched to no-till and were stunned at the differences. The vegetables taste wonderful!

Bryan writes an inspirational narrative, without any fluffy chat. It’s like being in conversation with him. Not everyone can make a discussion of soil quality so engaging! He has a suitable humility about stepping in and influencing the fine balance of the ecosystem. His advice: “be careful not to get in the way of delicate, naturally functioning systems.”

I was surprised to find that Bryan believes that long-lasting condensation trails left by high-flying aircraft under certain conditions are actually “chemtrails” of chemical or biological agents secretly sprayed on us, rather than water-vapor. I do agree that airplane flights significantly add to climate chaos. We who sometimes fly have the responsibility for this, not secret government departments. Like Bryan, I lament the erratic weather, the decline in insect populations, and the struggle to provide water for our livestock and crops in appropriate quantities and rates of distribution.

Bryan describes increasing or decreasing the strength of both or just one side of the growth/reproduction polarity of plant development. Keep the balance of air and water in the soil. Steer things in the direction your crops need. Don’t let the soil dry out, as many life-forms will die, and recovery won’t be instant. But how do we get there from here? Bryan offers suggestions for what to look for when “reading” the appearance of crops in terms of balance. Rank growth? Stunted? Sparse? Obvious nutrient deficiencies? Good yield? Color?

Bryan suggests monitoring the conditions of the soil, air, sunlight and water. Whether you see this as a manifestation of Pagan Earth/Air/Fire/Water elements, or a simple description of aspects of farming doesn’t matter to me. As an example, if you want consistent supplies of an annual cool weather crop, sow several successions in spring (because they will quickly bolt) but fewer in late summer because they will not bolt. Once you understand this, you can follow the cycle of “plan/execute/observe/adjust plan” and get the best possible fit of crops with markets. Your approach may be mystical or pragmatic, but your attention to results will be detailed either way.

If you are drawn to Biodynamics, I think you’ll love this book. If you are drawn to very successful crops, I think you’ll also love this book. You just might skim some it.

The next section of the book is about preparing land for a gradual transition to no-till. Don’t expect to make an overnight change! Try various approaches on small areas. Reduce your tillage until you no longer need any, or just need occasional tillage. Don’t worry that opening a furrow for big seeds, or digging up root vegetables, will get you expelled from the No-Till School! Try to avoid tilling simply to prepare seed beds.

Various conversion methods are explained, even clearing woody growth. First set up a system that doesn’t need primary tillage (usually heavy tractor equipment), but uses secondary tillage tools (rototillers, disk harrows, field cultivators, walking tractors, hand rakes and hoes) for bed prep (and occasional subsoiling to deal with hardpan).

Bryan recommends a three step process for killing old crops or weeds. First is mowing: Bryan most often uses a flail mower on a 16 hp BCS 850. Second is preventing regrowth by solarizing using clear plastic sheeting to heat the soil surface to 125F or more, for a day. Unlike solarizing to kill pathogens deeper in the soil, killing annual crops or weeds is very quick, provided air temperatures are 75F or more. Perennial roots will not solarize quickly – it’s best to remove these before transitioning. Those that arrive later will need digging out, or longer term solarizing using black silage tarps over the winter. For anti-plastic growers, organic mulches of cardboard covered in 2 ft of fresh cut hay can substitute. There is a good review of various mulching materials, and the photos show his own trials. Oak leaves (and coffee grounds) seem to repel slugs!

Mowing or rolling and crimping is another method, given a thick cover crop and good timing. Flaming can work to kill emerging weeds if any mulch is well-watered first. Reading the book will save you trying all the cover-management methods that don’t work well. At Tobacco Road Farm, they now solarize as much as ¼ acre at a time, moving the covers from plot to plot.

The chapter on seeding and transplanting includes a chart of planting methods, seeding rates and spacing for about 65 crops (not just the top twenty!), instructions for hand broadcasting, sowing in rows by hand or by EarthWay. They have learned to get the most from their Earthway, customizing plates, leaning right while pushing, and only half-filling the hopper for round seeds (to avoid the “brassica grinder” effect).

The transplanting section describes clearly how to make use of outdoor nursery seedbeds for growing bare root transplants as we do. For more delicate seedlings February-June, Bryan likes soil blocks on benches under shadecloth or rowcover tunnels.

Watering by hand must be a joy once the farm gets to the point of only needing water for new seeds and new transplants. We’re not there yet, and so must continue dealing with drip “irritation” and sprinklers.

The crop rotation chapter includes a planning chart showing what goes in each plot when throughout the course of a year. The system includes flexibility: if a crop continues to grow well in a spot, it doesn’t get rotated. That challenges one of my cherished beliefs! My next challenge came with the information about the influence of the moon on crop growth. I have raised eyebrows myself, claiming that frosts are more likely with a full moon. It sounds so woo-woo, but it fits my observations. Perhaps Bryan is more observant of details, more woo-woo than me, or both. I’m happy he acknowledges that sometimes a crop needs to be planted regardless of lunar position.

Bryan O’Hara, author of No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture

Next is a valuable chapter on soil fertility and crop health assessment. This is an area I would like to practice in more. Not just testing pH and the main minerals, but also the Brix measurement of sugar in the crop sap, the electrical conductivity, and soil compaction. Bryan gives a good explanation of cation exchange capacity (the nutrient-holding capacity), and points out the challenges of achieving a good high CEC and then of adjusting the elemental nutrient balance: you need large amounts of material to bring the elements into balance, compared with a low CEC soil. And never forget: “the objective is not to balance a soil test but to get results in the field.” Strong biological activity can outweigh chemical element imbalances.

A slightly acid pH of 6.5 helps cations be more available to the plants: the acidity favors a higher level of fungal activity, which releases nutritional elements held in bonds that resist bacterial action.

Phosphorus buildup is an issue for us growers who use a lot of compost. It is hard for labs to assess phosphorus levels, because many factors influence its soil availability. Compost grows strong plants which in turn reduce water pollution, including phosphorus. Looking at the big picture leads to different solutions than focusing down on soil phosphorus content. Soils high in OM often test high in P because the test includes all the P-containing living fragments. Water-quality regulators are focused on phosphorus contamination of waterways above and beyond that of other pollutants like excess synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and industrial byproducts.

The information on composting is thorough, and Bryan recommends up to 100 tons per acre for a new vegetable patch. Thereafter, 30 tons or more per acre pre-plant. There is a good comparison of various organic fertilizers, and instructions on making bonemeal after cooking meat. There are fish fertilizer recipes which (to my surprise) call for “unprocessed brown sugar.” When I was a hippy grocer in the 70s, our sugar supplier told us there was really no such thing as unprocessed brown sugar – all brown sugars are white sugar with various proportions of molasses added back in. There’s no more nutritional value in brown sugar than in white sugar. Even “raw” sugar isn’t raw. I guess the only unprocessed sugar is a length of sugar cane or a chunk of sugar beet! Is sugar a big evil, like a synthetic fertilizer, that we don’t want to add to our gardens, or does it have a place?

Some growers apply raw manures, or uncomposted food byproducts directly to the soil, (“sheet composting” or “trench composting”) in the fall for crops the following spring. It’s certainly less work than making a compost pile, but is the result as balanced as a composted mix? Everyone has to make their own decisions. Bryan takes a thoughtful look at these options, and milk, seaweed, charcoal, vinegar and more.

He gives us his precise recipes for liquid and solid feeds for seed-starting, for young plants, and for flowering plants; recipes to be modified by growers for their own conditions. He adds particular ingredients to the base recipe of 30% wood chips, 20% dead leaves or straw, 40% cattle manure and 10 % vegetable scraps.

After this we get into the production of Biodynamic preparations, which do seem to require faith. Working barefoot and stirring a bucket of potion to create a vortex is a step too far for me. But for the grower who wants to learn about these techniques from an expert farmer rather than another beginner, this is a good place. Here are recipes for Biodynamic horsetail tea and Preparations 501 (ground quartz) and 500 (horn manure) as well as Oriental Herbal Nutrient (OHN), a fermented herbal preparation, and Fermented Plant Juice (FPJ) from Korean Natural Farming. “With this stirring comes the opportunity to impart the forces of will or prayer into the material, so this is a time of concentration or maybe a song.”

Bryan O’Hara’s Tobacco Road Farm is three acres of intensive vegetable farming at Lebanon, Connecticut.

Next are the Indigenous Microorganisms (IMO). This is part of Korean Natural Farming, and involves “farming” captured forest microorganisms (most noticeably, fungi) with a bait of cooked grain. There are four stages. Making IMO #1 involves incubating cooked grain (mixed with sugar) perhaps with some duff from the forest floor. The lidded box is set in a forest, covered over with more duff, and left for a week. Once white fungal mycelia (and perhaps other colors of fungi) cover the surface of the grain, you have IMO #1. The box is brought back from the forest and further processed to produce a large pile of active life.

Mix IMO #1  with sugar 1:1 by weight in a crock, cover it with paper and keep at room temperature for a week. This is IMO #2. To make IMO #3, stir this material in water and mix with bran. Pile the damp material on the forest floor, cover with wet leaves, straw or cardboard and tarp if it’s rainy. The pile heats up and produces more white fungal growth. After about 5 days, make IMO #4. Add an equal volume of soil to the bran pile and mix in. After about a week the material is ready to use. IMO #4 can be spread directly on the beds at 5 gallons per 250 ft2, approximately every other year. Or it can be used as a foliar feed. It acts as a catalyst to grow stronger plants. Improvements to the soil can include better aggregate structure, and better release of nutrients.

Weed, insect and disease control come next in the book, necessary but not directly income-earning aspects of farming. Increasing crop health and vitality for the long term is of fundamental importance here. There is a sense in which pests can be useful: as indicators of an imbalance that the grower would do well to address.

Reducing the weed seed bank is a long-term improvement. Destroy weeds as they germinate, and do not bring up weed seed by tilling. Try not to import weed seed with brought-in materials. Since Bryan was able to stop tilling, galinsoga no longer pops up [envy!]. Crop rotation can help break weed cycles by altering the growing environment. Switch between cool weather and warm weather crops, soil-covering crops and vertical crops, and keep roots in the ground all the time.

Stale seed beds and shallow hoeing can kill weeds without tillage, and solarization can kill not only germinated seeds but ungerminated ones near the surface. Mulches can prevent weed seed germination. Good hoeing technique and tools can remove the weeds that still pop up.

Don’t over-react if problems arise. Monitor pests or diseased plants and count a sample. Determine if the pest numbers warrant your intervention. Also determine if it’s too late to save that crop. Learn if managing the crop differently next time might make it more resistant to pests or diseases. It might take a season or two for changes to pay off in terms of stronger crops. Carefully look for any improvement, as an indicator that your actions are steering things in the right direction.

Beneficial insects, rowcovers, insect netting, shadecloth, shelterbelts and other kinds of crop protection all help crops grow stronger. I learned that our friends, the Cotesia glomerata wasps that parasitize brassica caterpillars, and overwinter as pupal cocoons on the undersides of brassica leaves, will hatch out in spring on the very day the overwintered brassicas start to flower. The 20-50 day lifecycle needs brassica flowers, so don’t be in a hurry to cut down all your bolting greens! The flowers provide nectar for the adult wasps. The leaves, as we know, provide food for the caterpillars, which provide the host for the wasps to lay eggs in. The wasp larvae feed on the caterpillar until it dies, then pupate.

There’s an incredible National Geographic video of this cycle, showing parasitic wasp larvae swimming around inside a caterpillar, bursting out through its skin. The weirdest bit is that it is the dying caterpillar that spins the protective cocoons around the pupating larvae. And us who plant the brassicas that feed the caterpillars! Who is the farmer and who is farmed?

The next chapter is on organizing things to produce vegetables year round. Off-season growing takes more attention and understanding than growing the crops at the easiest time of year. And can bring higher prices and more appreciation. People do want to eat year-round! Protective structures can earn their keep. Tobacco Road Farm uses lots of low tunnels in their snowy winters. Snow cover is actually a benefit to low tunnels, holding the covers in place, and providing insulation. In our climate, I think hoophouses work better. Because our winter weather switches back and forth from cold and icy to warm and sunny, we would spend a lot of time ventilating low tunnels. Without snow cover, we suffer wind and radiation losses through the clear plastic on cold nights.

We need to harvest more frequently than growers in colder climates (not complaining!), and the stooping over, opening and closing of low tunnels gets tiresome. We appreciate walking around in our (no-till) hoophouse, where all the crops are visible at once. Different climates call for different solutions.  If you are working with winter low tunnels, read this book and learn how to customize a snow shovel for clearing snow from the tunnels, by rounding and smoothing the corners of the blade. And here are tips for charring sawdust to melt thicker snow. They use a pump to blast a slurry of charred sawdust, salt and molasses over the tunnels. Sounds like a fun winter activity!

Bryan points out how healthy, sturdy crops will have a longer shelf life after harvest, paying back the year-round attention to soil and environmental health. Here are tips on ergonomic harvesting of small crops at ground level (rest one elbow on your knee) and efficient harvesting (while cutting, decide where to make the next cut). The speed of decision-making can be the bottleneck in harvesting, so practice to speed your decision-making.

Why do we grow vegetables? To meet basic human needs for health and happiness; to provide healthful foods, with the potential for job satisfaction and happiness. Sometimes slogging through and finishing a project is the most efficient. Sometimes switching to a different plan is more efficient (or at least, effective). Efficiency includes having a plan and having the flexibility to change plans.

The Further Reading includes a list of twenty books, and I am honored to be among those 26 authors. There is only one other woman among the authors. Bargyla Rateaver is from Madagascar, and with her son Gylver Rateaver, she wrote The Organic Method Primer in 1993. Some reviewers and obituary writers refer to Bargyla as “he”. Farmers are not all of one gender (or of one color). Thanks Bryan, for including some of the diversity that exists.

At the beginning of this review I said it was not a “menu” book, but a “specific method” book. Then I found myself picking and choosing from the ideas Bryan presents. It really isn’t a fixed meal. There is something everyone will love in this accomplished work. You don’t have to add all the Special Sauces.

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