Book Review: The Farmer’s Office: Tools, Tips and Templates to Successfully Manage a Growing Farm Business, Julia Shanks, New Society Publishers, 2016
Farmers don’t go into farming because they want to do accounting or develop their business skills, and yet these skills are vital to success. We all want success! Get Julia Shanks’ book, quickly understand what you need to do, make time to do that as often as you need to, and move on to your next production task. You can save the time you would have thrown away on exhausting but wasted work. Be more successful, be less exhausted! This book review will be shorter than my usual ones. Just because I’ve no intention of leading you through the technicalities step-by-step. It’s an extremely useful and well-written book.
This is a very user-friendly book. Julia understands that farming is exhausting work. Julia understands farming, and has earned her stripes growing vegetables. Julia understands accounting and business management too. She explains concisely, very clearly, and provides examples and little stories to help us get to grips with the subject. She leads us to take a clear-eyed look at where we make money and where we don’t, which empowers us to make the decisions that are ours to make. We owe it to ourselves to stop the magical thinking that if we only work harder, everything will come out OK. Too many farmers have crashed and burned that way.
Julia tells how (in her first year of business school) she used a computer model to help a farmer friend determine how much of each of ten crops to grow. The silly computer program answer was to grow only okra and sweet potatoes! But behind that foolish suggestion was the information that his tomatoes were only earning 12 cents/case! Now that is useful information! What would you do if that’s what your tomatoes were earning? Raise the price and explain to your customers? Stop growing tomatoes? Knowingly sell tomatoes at that low profit as a way to attract customers? Any of these decisions might be the right one for your farm.
Like all money management texts, this book has warnings: Julia has used a simplified approach good enough for agriculture but not for taxes! She tells us when we should consult an accountant, tax advisor or payroll service provider. This 250 page book has 10 chapters of 6-30 pages, a glossary and 5 appendices. Everyone is advised to start with chapters 1 and 2. After that you can pick the ones you need and plan your own DIY course of study. Always eat your elephants one bite at a time! See the chart on page xxi, which points out lines of inquiry depending on your situation.
And here’s another aspect that makes this book special: there are pointers towards videos and webinars that Julia has made, on her website. But buy the book first, and know where you’re going! The price of the book includes the download price of many of the templates. Julia tells how she took a business class for farmers, after her first year of farming. She had kept absolutely no financial records! The instructor told her to guess, so they could make a cash flow plan for Season Two. Julia used that as a road map, and it saved her from ruin. She could see what she could afford, what she couldn’t, when she needed to hustle to bring in a bit more income. It wasn’t a coincidence that she ended up so close to where she needed to be!
This book will help you determine whether to prioritize tomatoes or cucumbers, eggs or chickens. You’ll need three primary financial statements: the income statement, the balance sheet, and the statement of cash flows. Don’t panic! There’s a webinar and a very readable chapter, with diagrams. There’s a video on depreciation! One of my colleagues calls depreciation “an enforced savings fund” – it pushes you to pace your spending and saving so you can replace a worn-out tractor. At the end of the chapter are instructions on which chapter to read next, according to your situation (creating projections about the future, or statements about your past)
Chapter 3 includes a set of questions and worksheets to ensure you have the skills you need to set out in starting your own farming business. The questions cover skills, knowledge, access to mentors or farming partners, your own energy levels, money to float your first year, tolerance of risk and uncertainty.
Chapter 4 covers the business planning process. Follow the stories, diagrams and instructions and choose between a Level One “Quick and Dirty” plan, a Level Two more detailed plan and a Level Three full business plan. You might not need the full plan to get started. Remember “A plan is just a plan” – don’t expect everything to go according to this plan! But the plan still has real value – writing it nudges you to think everything through, providing you with the resources you need to think on your feet and solve the problems that come up on the way. Julia leads us step-by-step through the process of writing a business plan, financial projections, operating assumptions (including the “Gut Check”), a list of funding sources, and an executive summary. Scale back your projections to see what it would be like if something went wrong. Test out a worst case scenario. Could you survive? What would it take?
Chapter 5 is all about financing: savings, loans from family and friends, loans from institutions, prepayments from customers and supporters. Be professional, look as professional as needed when asking to borrow money!
Chapter 6 is on setting up QuickBooks, the industry standard accounting software for small businesses. Other small non-farming businesses using QuickBooks could find this useful too. Julia has two webinars, and this chapter includes sample spreadsheets with the relevant bits circled. Chapter 7 shows how to use QuickBooks daily for cash management. It opens with Aesop’s fable of the Grasshopper (living in the moment) and the Ant (stashing grain for the winter). Just as we can tomatoes in summer for eating in winter, we need to set aside cash we earn during peak season for the slower times of year. 10 minutes a day, plus 30 minutes a week, plus 1-2 hours at year end. Doesn’t sound too bad.And it’s going to help with saving time and money next year!
Chapter 8 digs into managerial accounting – how to get meaningful information about your business. It includes determining the costs of producing various products/crops. There are several examples. Inventory management is also important, and requires a quick, smooth and simple system of tracking. Here are examples.
Chapter 9 covers stabilizing your business, so you don’t fall into a hole. There are some sad stories in this chapter. Chapter 10 has the more upbeat title “Growing Your Business”. Here’s help in making thoughtful decisions when considering new projects, or expansion of old ones. This is like having an older and wiser experienced farmer at you side. One who will be very honest with you, will share your excitement, and question things you seem to be ignoring.
The appendices give examples of questions to consider at each step of the way, sample spreadsheets and a list of the templates used in the book, which can be accessed from Julia’s website. What a wealth of information for just $24.95. It will pay for itself, I’m sure! And remember, if you feel out of your depth, Julia also works as a consultant, providing technical assistance and business coaching. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather ask for help! Go to https://thefarmersoffice.com/for more info, including a free basic accounting course, and a 6-course free Self-Paced Farmer’s Office Basic Course, available 24/7, including videos, quizzes and case studies. There’s also fuller Farmer’s Office courses for $49/month.
Harness the Power of Microbes to Create Your Best Garden Ever
Storey Publishing, January 2020
Size: 6 x 9
Format: Paperback ISBN: 9781635862072
Other formats: Ebook
Grow Your Soil! is an introduction to soil biology and gardening in eight chapters. It is written as if describing how to build a house (but starting with the roof!). Diane Miessler writes in plain English, with a light style, and her book has the endorsement of Elaine Ingham, who writes the foreword, saying that Diane’s humor and tongue-in-cheek joy make this book a joy to read. People were once told that using inorganic fertilizers and pesticides was the only way to grow enough food for a starving world. Elaine simply states “That was a flat-out lie.”
Diane’s encouragement to garden in partnership with the soil food web lists the many benefits of a healthy environment, healthy flavorful food, and the satisfaction of doing what you believe is right. She has a ten-point list of suggestions for creating healthy living soil using no-till systems, lots of mulches, home-grown fertilizers, and by encouraging biodiversity. The fundamentals of soil science are explained – soil is about 45% minerals (sand, silt and clay), 20-30% air, 20-30% water and 5-10% organic matter. A teaspoon of good soil contains more microbes than there are people in the US, more species than all the vertebrates on Earth, several yards of fungal hyphae, a few thousand protozoa and several dozen nematodes (mostly good ones). Soil is our planet’s third largest carbon sink (after the oceans and fossil fuels). Healthy soil is continually pulling carbon dioxide from the air and sequestering it in the organic matter and humus. We want to have as much sequestered carbon as possible, both to reduce the amount in the atmosphere and so that we can use it to grow food.
Diane’s mulch recommendations are to generally aim for a mix of one-third green matter (which feeds bacteria) and two-thirds brown (which feeds fungi), but steering towards more green matter for annual vegetables, more brown for woody perennials, in line with the predominant life-form each type of crop does best with.
The cover crops section first describes the plants, then how and when to use them. I had a brief worry that people would go out and plant buckwheat or sweet potatoes in winter, until I read on! In fact, Diane does suggest you can sow buckwheat whenever you like, and it will be dormant until the right spring weather occurs. In our central Virginia climate this does not work. Buckwheat seed rots in cold wet soil. Buckwheat can germinate in a warm early spring spell and be struck down by a following frost before it has made much growth at all. As always, it pays to discuss ideas you haven’t tried before with nearby gardeners.
This book has a good basic description of the Soil Food Web, for new gardeners or anyone who is a bit mystified about what’s happening in the soil. And for those over 50 whose biology classes only included the two plant and animal “kingdoms”, here are explanations of the classes of bacteria, fungi and archaea, the main types of soil microbes. Archaea are neither bacteria nor eukaryotes (tiny organisms that have their DNA in a nucleus). Archaea are similar to eukaryotes in some ways, but have more resistance to extreme conditions. In the soil they work as decomposers.
Next up are the algae, protozoa and nematodes. The algae spectrum goes from one-celled photosynthesizing life-forms to giant kelp. In the soil they provide nutrients and increase plant resistance to diseases. Protozoa are one-celled animals, which release excess nutrients from their meals of bacteria and fungi, in a plant-available form. They help balance the numbers of bacteria in the soil. Nematodes are (mostly) microscopic roundworms that are mostly benign, from our perspective, and healthy populations keep the destructive nematodes in check. Arthropods (including insects, spiders, mites, ticks and scorpions) are shredders of organic matter in the soil (while eating smaller life-forms).
Bigger soil-dwellers include worms, slugs, snails, and small mammals. By the way, Diane explodes the myth that coffee grounds can control slugs, and claims to have videos to prove it untrue. And she tells us that fence lizards eat harlequin bugs. (I think she lives in California). Western fence lizards are centered in California, and according to the National Wildlife Federation, Eastern fence lizards are found between New York and northern Florida and as far west as Ohio and Arkansas. I want some!
The next section of the book explains Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), a measure of how many positively charged ions (cations, nutrients like Mg, K, Ca, ammonium) can be held by the negatively charge soil particles. Diane likens this to the pantry. Soils with a low CEC can’t hold many cations, and the key to increasing the CEC is to increase the soil organic matter content. Clay soils may have a high CEC, but the nutrients may be held too tightly to be useful to plants. The solution to this problem is also to increase the soil organic matter content.
Diane offers several ways to increase the organic matter, and one of her favorites is biochar. Biochar in its original form is more or less sterile, not nutritious at all, but in the soil it can act like humus on steroids – it is very good at absorbing water, hosting microbes, reducing plant diseases and lasting a long time in the soil. I have been skeptical about some of the claims for biochar, and of the net gains in reducing global heating. Diane does not make any wild claims (she’s not selling the stuff). She is open about the fact that the mechanism for suppressing disease is not yet understood.
As I said, Diane is not selling biochar. In fact she describes how to make your own on a small scale with an “upside-down” outdoor fire (with all due safety precautions). Big pieces of wood are arranged on the ground in an open airy stack, and a small fire is lit on top with tinder and kindling. This means the fire produces little smoke (all smoke is air pollution). The fire is thoroughly doused with water once everything is glowing but not flaming. Those wanting to make biochar on a bigger scale are referred to a double-barrel biochar burner on YouTube.
The next section is on photosynthesis, minerals and soil testing. Diane describes the effects of too much, too little and just right amounts of the main soil nutrients first. A deficiency of phosphorus shows up as blue-purple colors on the older leaves. She doesn’t mention phosphorus surplus, although she does confirm that excess phosphorus added to the soil will usually be locked up and become inaccessible to plants. Potassium deficiency can cause yellow leaf edges. Next up are other macro-nutrients, such as Calcium, magnesium and sulfur. Calcium deficiency leads to stunted new growth, brown around the edges, perhaps with yellowing between the veins. Bulb and fruit formation can be damaged, as with blossom end rot of tomatoes, caused by insufficient calcium reaching the fruits. By contrast, a magnesium deficiency leads to older leaves becoming yellow between the veins and around the edges, perhaps with purple, reddish or brownish discoloration. Sulfur shortage can lead to “unthrifty” plants. Shortages of any of these can be remedied by the addition of more organic matter.
Micronutrient shortages can also be helped by organic matter, although in Virginia I have noticed that we do sometimes need to add boron on its own (in tiny amounts).
Diane describes how to test soil, understand the results, and remedy the situation. Try adding organic matter first, and only tinker with the specifics if the general remedy is not enough. For instance, if your soil biological activity is low, you may find that piling on organic matter doesn’t help. Use compost to add some more life to the soil and get a better balance of diners to dinners. There is a helpful one-page “Order of Operations for Fixing Soil”: Correct the pH; correct the calcium level; correct any excesses (usually by adding gypsum); correct the macronutrient deficiencies and lastly correct the micronutrient and trace element deficiencies. Clear instructions like this are so valuable to newer gardeners!
There is a chapter on making compost and compost tea. She suggests thinking of compost as a sourdough starter, and mulch as the flour. Both are valuable, and they work well together. Making good compost is a valuable skill to learn. Try for the a good balance of high nitrogen materials and high carbon materials, with enough water. Turn the pile, assess its progress, add what it seems to need. Rinse and repeat. Diane recommends against spending money on fancy compost bins. “Compost needs love, not a container.” There is value in turning the pile and seeing how it’s doing. If it’s fully enclosed in a tumbler, you might miss the signs that it needs a specific kind of care. Here is encouragement to learn the art and science of compost making.
Worm bins are a great way to use kitchen scraps to produce worms and compost, especially in winter, as worm bins need to be in a non-freezing place to stay alive. I disagree with Diane about using the liquid leaching from the bottom of the bin as a “compost tea” See my review of The Worm Farmer’s Handbook by Rhonda Sherman. This liquid might not be good for your plants. To make compost tea, put some of the wormcastings in water and bubble air though it. Instructions are in Diane’s book a few pages later.
Another small industrious worker is the black soldier fly. The (harmless) maggots of these (harmless) flies will out-compete other (disease-carrying and/or biting) flies in eating up kitchen scraps in an odorless way. They are also a favorite food of poultry, and there are clever ways of setting up a bsf bin so that the pupal stage will “self-harvest” by walking up a ramp and dropping into a collecting box. See YouTube for all the details.
After explaining these various aspects of growing good soil, Diane pulls everything together into a chapter on Building a Garden That Feeds Itself. Here you can learn about sprinkler irrigation, mulching, planting, and selecting good tools. The next chapter covers being a good neighbor, by having a good-looking, good-smelling, productive garden that gets frequent attention. Diane advocates for pulling weeds and dropping them on the bed, without worrying about weed seeds or plant diseases. I can see this would work best in a smaller garden where things don’t get out of control, and in drier climates with fewer diseases and less chance for weeds to re-root. There’s a panel about roses that I didn’t read. (Roses are a great trap crop for Japanese beetles; I’m not a flower grower!) A big help to beginners is the glossary at the end, and the bibliography of books on soil life.
If you are a beginner organic gardener, or you’re looking for a book for someone in that category, this book has a clear user-friendly approach. It won’t scare off newbies with too much detail.
Book Review: Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening. Innovative Techniques for Growing Vegetables, Grains, and Perennial Food Crops with Minimal Fossil Fuel and Animal Inputs. Chelsea Green, 2015
In 1971, Will Bonsall went back to the land in Maine, with his wife, Molly Thorkildsen, and their two sons. They built the farm over the course of five years, “one foundation stone and one exquisitely harvested and finished piece of wood at a time. As neat and efficient as a ship’s cabin, Khadighar Farm rises up on a hillock in the midst of 85 acres.” (Press Herald 2014). Will Bonsall runs the Scatterseed Project, (as featured in the documentary “Seed: The Untold Story“), an organization for the collection, preservation and sharing of seeds. Jim Gerritson, in his endorsement says “The risk of describing [this book] as a gardening book is that the aspiring reader may miss the reality that it is really a book on life, centered as a good life should be, around a garden.”
Will Bonsall’s gardening (life) is focused on Veganism and Eco-efficiency, looking deeply into replenishing the soil by considering each organism’s intrinsic energy as a food in proportion to the food energy (or soil fertility) required to produce it. Only photosynthetic plants actually produce a net increase over the soil-derived nutrients they consume. All animals have a negative ratio. This is not to say all livestock are bad (or for that matter, that people are bad). Different animals vary in their Eco-efficiency and different terrains respond to different treatment. As the author says, you can pick and choose from the ideas presented, without needing to agree 100% with his ideology. And before anyone imagines that Will Bonsall advocates isolationist self-sufficiency, note that he points out that the most stable solutions for hard times involve cooperative, collective, community action.
The book starts with building soil fertility, moves on to growing and saving seeds and propagating plants, then discusses growing particular crops (vegetables, grains, pulses, oil seeds, and “permacrops”. Part 4 explains how these strategies are integrated to make best use of the land, and how to deal with pests and diseases. The book closes with some ideas for using and preserving the foods grown. As with all agriculture, there is not a linear progression of topics, but a network of ideas.
The bottom line on soil fertility is that how we balance the efficiencies of tilth-building imports will determine the long-term sustainability of our farm (and our planet). What are the true costs of bringing in soil-building materials? Here are good instructions on making compost, from the variable ingredients you are likely to have. Will uses 900 pounds (408.2 kg) per 180 ft2 (16.7m2). For some time I’ve been curious about how much compost other growers use. We use about 46 gals/100 ft2 in our hoophouse. Most other professional compost-using growers who I know of use 12-40 gals/100 ft2. How to compare weights with volumes? Perhaps 3.5 lbs/gal? At that density, Will’s rate is 143 gals/100 ft2. It does look very generous in the photo, but perhaps I have miscalculated. He does not report excess phosphorus in his soil, which is one of the main concerns about using lots of compost. Because he commends buckwheat as a cover crop for making soil phosphorus available to plants, I deduce he doesn’t have a surplus. Perhaps the relatively closed nutrient system on his farm reduces the potential problem. Perhaps it is the lack of animal manure.
Among other cover crops discussed here, sweet clover comes out well, for tolerating sodium, making deep roots, fixing nitrogen and bringing up more phosphorus. And growing so tall it can be mowed and the top growth taken for compost-making. Alfalfa has similar features, but is not so cold-hardy. (Khadighar Farm is in Maine.)
While Will’s farm is veganic agriculture, he is still a grass farmer. He uses wood ash and ramial wood-chips (chipped small branches and brush) to improve his grassland, reckoning this more sustainable than farming cattle.
Will describes chopping out circles of cover crop to transplant squash into, as a way of extending the valuable life of the cover crop until the last minute. I’d caution southern growers about trying that. When squash grow fast they can quickly run over cover crops and make life difficult. I tried winter squash with buckwheat once and the crew never quite forgave me, as we had to wade in and pull up the buckwheat to prevent seeding.
I was very interested to read that his squash plants, having grown surrounded by oats and peas (flattened and covered with tree leaves) never get troubled by striped cucumber beetles (one of our more pesky pests). Ramial wood chips are a great way to build soil, if spread on the surface rather than turned in. Fungi will break down the material overtime. The key is to get the woody material locally, to be eco-efficient. We ask our electric co-op to unload their line-clearance chips near the end of our driveway.
Because importing minerals and other soil builders over large distances is not sustainable, it is wise to conserve minerals and recycle those nutrients on your own land as long as possible. Humanure is worth considering, if you are not selling Organically-Certified produce to others, as long as you can be sure it doesn’t have medications or diseases in it, and you are quite choosy about which crops you apply it to.
Will says “boron is most vulnerable to erosion via the marketplace”, meaning selling produce can deplete your soils of some minerals.
Woodash is a valuable resource (although I reckon southern growers get less wood ash than northern growers).Wood ash can help reduce soil acidity, but probably don’t apply more than 10-15 lbs/1000ft2 (4.5-6.8 kg/92.9m2).
The second section of the book is about understanding annual, biennial and perennial plants and how to propagate them by farming seeds, and storing them well to keep them viable. He doesn’t just work with open-pollinated varieties. He points out that some hybrids don’t contain much genetic diversity, “a detail no one wants you to know”. Many hybrid tomatoes will grow surprisingly true to type, as the parent lines are not very divergent to begin with. He suggests Sungold tomato as one example.
Next he explains various ways to clone plants (replicate them asexually) via suckers, layering, cuttings, grafting. I just learned that blood, sweat and tears are bad for grafting, as the cambium cells will be ruined!
The third section of the book (150 pages) is about various crops. These are divided into vegetables, grains, pulses, oilseeds and permacrops. Will Bonsall is, after all, aiming to grow a complete vegan diet. In the vegetables chapter, Will focuses on areas where he has a unique approach, or at least one not widely known about.
There is a valuable tip about not planting peas too early. Plant a week later, when the soil is warmer, and your harvest will start a few days later (not a full week later) than it would have, and more importantly, the yield will be higher. Early lettuce or Egyptian onions make good space-sharing companions with fava beans. Rather than pine because they are too far north to grow lima beans, the family grows white-seeded runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) to use as dry beans. I loved runner beans as a green bean in England and here I learn that many white runner beans have names with the word “Lima” in them. Confused? No wonder!
I might follow Will’s tip and grow only Early Jersey Wakefield, Danish Ballhead and a red storage cabbage. I’ve spent years seeking the perfect combination of cabbages for early eating, storage and sauerkraut. Perhaps this is it? I like the EJW well enough already, although I also like the hybrid Faroa. A trick Will has for getting best use of space is to plant the EJW at 18” (45 cm) spacing, with kohlrabi transplants in between. The kohlrabi are harvested first, leaving space for the cabbage to reach its (small) full size. Lettuce is another option.
It’s always gratifying to read another garden author advocating for something we do too (bare-root transplants). He has details for growing your own bulb onion sets from a mid-July sowing (in NY). The keys to success include sowing thickly in very rich soil, and finding the right variety, as well as the right date – early enough to grow a plant bigger than a wispy seedling, but late enough so they can’t move straight into making seed heads the next spring when replanted. The plants need to die back and harden off for storage. It takes skill!
I’m going to look out for Chinese broccoli (B. oleracea var. alboglabra), Bonnie Best and Siletz early determinate tomatoes, yellow-fleshed potatoes (especially Granola) and Baxter OP sweet corn.
I appreciated reading Will’s explanation of the causes of the Irish Potato Famine. Food justice is as important as good gardening skills. Let’s stop blaming Late Blight (Phytophthera infestans) and look instead at the English landowners shipping out wheat, barley and beef, reducing their peasant workers to a diet of potatoes and dairy products, which (although very unjust) was adequate as long as the supply of milk lasted and until the reliance on a single variety of potato (Lumpers) brought them to starvation and desperation.
I just learned that cucumbers are rich in soluble silica, important for healthy teeth. Will describes this silica-dissolving property as “eating rocks”!
It’s often said how it’s hard to judge the mood behind someone’s email – are they angry? Tired and grumpy? Making a joke? Sometimes I was left wondering at some passages in this book. He starts one story out by mentioning his “patronizing chuckle” at his wife Molly’s suggestion of mulching their grain plots, follows it up with telling how well it worked when he did try it and how he always mulches grains now. He ends the paragraph with “Yep, I’m totally convinced that’s one of the best ideas I’ve ever had,” but I have to give him the benefit of my doubt. He’s sailing close to obnoxious realities that most women have had to endure.
I appreciated the section on the types of millet. I’ve often been confused about the different types and how best to use them as cover crops. Naturally, I need my “climate zone glasses” on – Virginia has different weather from New York, and what’s true there is not necessarily true here.
Japanese millet – not frost hardy, not suitable for human food (tight hulls)
Proso millet – not frost hardy, short, early maturing, not much biomass, loose-hulled. All are very attractive to birds once seeds form.
For those wanting to venture into small-scale grain-raising, this book has the basics for wheat, triticale, barley, oats, rye, millet, rice, field corn, buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa.
Pulses are dry peas, beans, lentils and other legumes. Not many books have the detailed information found here.
The oilseed chapter proposes the less usual idea of using the ground oily seeds in food, rather than extracting the oil from the seeds, adding it to cooking, and then dealing with a byproduct. I have not read much on this subject since I reviewed Cindy Conner’s book,Grow a Sustainable Diet. In this chapter, Will discusses sunflowers, pepitas, flax, poppies, hazelnuts and some experimental crops. In their climate, peanuts, olives, oil palm, safflower and sesame won’t mature. They don’t grow rape/canola as a seed crop because they value it more as an early greens crop. I was fairly horrified to read that they are trying chufa (tiger nuts) because we have serious weed problems with both yellow and purple nut sedge, also known as chufa. Will says that this food crop is not invasive, and will die with the frosts. I’m not going to try that in Virginia in case it hybridizes with the weed kinds – that would be too terrible!
The “permacrops” are tree nuts like chestnuts, hazels, acorns, pea-shrub and honeylocust, and tree fruits, cane fruits, blueberries, hardy kiwis, autumn olive (invasive in Virginia), dogwood cherry (cornelian cherry), rose-hips, ribes, apples, plums, pears, medlars, mulberries. Then there are the non-woody permacrops such as Jerusalem artichokes (terrasols) and apios. I’d never heard of those – they are groundnuts (but not peanuts), and they can get invasive. Various minor tuberous crops are discussed, such as cattails, Chinese yams, crosnes, daylilies and nanny-berries (wild viburnum).
The fourth section is “The Garden in Context” (Rocks, water, land; pests and diseases; and “smaller footprints” – ways of increasing yields from a given space). There are clear instructions on digging trenches to drain overly wet areas. I am still unclear though, on how big (deep, wide) drains need to be if you fill them with rocks. When I was doing calculations for our hoophouse, I concluded that the size of the drains if filled with rocks would have to be enormous, as most of the trench would be occupied by the rocks, leaving little room for the water. Obviously, the gradient of the ditch makes a difference too, as well as the quantity of water we’re talking about. Worth careful consideration before digging! I like Will’s drawing of a stone culvert in the bottom of the trench, to preserve some open space for the water to run in.
As for increasing yields from a given area, Will clarifies the differences between Old World agriculture (many crops, methods, tools, livestock shared across a large area) and New World agriculture (more isolated, fewer crops (mostly frost-tender annuals), cultivation mostly in the lowlands, no plows, no livestock, mostly slash and burn cultivation with long crop rotations). Old World crops lend themselves better to close planting, although the vining New World crops make better use of vertical space, and fit better with mulched no-till systems.
I appreciated Will’s take on companion planting – it’s not so much that different crops “like” each other, as that they have few quarrels. Peas grow up a trellis and spinach, chard, lettuce or carrots can occupy the rest of the bed without competing with the shallow-rooted peas. The carrots use all the nitrogen from the soil, while the peas are self-sufficient. Edamame can grow in the aisles between sweet corn rows – Will sows the edamame seeds in the same furrows as the corn seed. The corn yields normally, but the edamame yield is reduced by about 50% compared to growing it in separate rows. But the overall yield of corn-plus-edamame is greater for the space. Will has tried and true examples and pointers on factors to consider when designing your own combinations: timing, root depth, fertility requirements, access to light.
“There is something inherently unnatural in any kind of farming.” “Chaos, change and instability are more the norm; the best we can do is exploit them to our temporary advantage.” We must deal with pests! Will’s recommendation is to haul all vegetable crop residues to a hot compost pile, even if no disease is apparent. And to practice serious crop rotations. Animal pests are a problem in inverse proportion to their size: big deer can be excluded. Flea beetles are a bigger problem. Will recommends brewing toxic rhubarb leaves, being careful not to have them anywhere near human food in a way that could cause lethal mistakes. Apply as a fine mist.
The last section is on using the harvest, including milling, baking, sprouting, freezing, fermenting and drying. I didn’t take so many notes on this section, but for those wanting to mill wheat and corn, make buckwheat noodles and bake breads, the info is there. Also for sprouting, malting, freezing, fermenting and dehydrating. Also using oilmeals rather than pressing oil
At the back of the book there are lists of recommended tools and resources and a few thoughts about energy use and alternative technology. This is an excellent book for those wanting to produce as much of their needs from the land as possible, and also for those who enjoy reading about quirky persevering hard-working folk who are doing just that, perhaps with an eye to inching in that direction themselves. Even relatively experienced growers will find something new in this collection of detailed information based on lived experience.
For The Love of Pawpaws: A Mini Manual for Growing and Caring for Pawpaws From Seed to Table
Michael Judd, Published August 2019 by Ecologia, Distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing, ISBN 978-0-578-48874-5.
This wonderful new book is inspiring and appetizing, practical and beautiful. About 150 pages of glorious photos, technical details, mouthwatering recipes, and anything else you might need to start growing pawpaws or to make better use of wild pawpaws on neglected trees nearby. Here you can learn the reasons to plant named cultivars that have been selected for size, flavor, and high yields.
Michael Judd, his wife Ashley and son Wyatt live at Long Creek Homestead in a round house on a homestead in the Maryland Appalachian foothills, where they grow many food trees and other fruits, and hold an annual Pawpaw Festival each September .
Pawpaws are related to custard apples and cherimoya, in the sugar apple family, and yet they grow in the temperate zone, having moved north as Ice Age glaciers receded. Flavors of mango, banana and pineapple come from this creamy fruit. But if you don’t know what you’re doing and you let them get bruised, or you pick them under-ripe, you can end up with a bitter taste in your mouth, or a bellyache. So get this book!
Learn how to spot wild pawpaws in a forest edge or along a river bank. They need full sun to develop good flavor, although the trees will grow in the shade. If you want to grow your own, you can of course grow them from wild seeds (that you keep damp and plant right after eating the fruit).
The four key elements of successful pawpaw production:
moisture (minimum of 32” (81 cm) annual rainfall or access to continuous soil moisture);
well-drained soil, preferably fertile;
warm humid summers with 160 frost-free days;
cold winters including some freezing temperatures and at least 400 chill hours.
USDA Winter-hardiness zones 5-9 are most-suited. If these factors are addressed, the pawpaw can be an easy-care fruit tree. We have all those factors in our area of central Virginia, and we have wild trees along the South Anna river. We also have cultivated varieties planted near our houses. Given the right conditions, pawpaw trees grow to an attractive 25 ft (7.6 m) pyramid shape, and can bear 50 lbs (23 k) of fruit each year.
It’s best to have two or more genetically different trees close together, for good cross-pollination and heavy fruit set. Individual flowers cannot pollinate themselves, and although each tree can self-pollinate, the yield might not be large. The unusual purple-brown flowers are fairly inconspicuous.
The chapters on growing the trees includes collecting seeds, germinating them, planting, grafting, choosing rootstock and the importance of soil fungi. Read about companion planting with nitrogen-fixing plants (such as lead plant, false indigo, black locust, which will need cutting back later) and soil-covering “mulch” plants (such as comfrey, yarrow, lemon balm, fuki, white clover). The tree-care chapter includes fruit thinning, and pruning (avoid climbing these brittle trees by keeping them 8 ft (2.4 m) tall).
If you have only eaten wild pawpaws, you’ll be amazed at the cultivated ones – much bigger, with a more balanced sweet flavor, delicious aroma and smooth texture. Michael offers advice on choosing a variety and choosing and planting potted seedlings. He introduces us to Neal Peterson, who he calls the Mahatma Pawpaw. Neal has created most of the best pawpaw cultivars. I profiled his work here.
Factors to consider include when the fruit ripens and whether all fruits ripen within a small window; whether the fruit softens quickly; whether the skin is thin (undesirable if you are selling or attempting to store the fruit); whether they tend to split in rainy weather; whether they need a lot of fruit thinning to preserve the health of the tree; how big the fruit is (4-6 oz (114-170 g)? 8oz (227 g)? 16 oz(454 g)?); the seed:pulp ratio (some big fruits have huge seeds – an ideal range is only 4-8% seeds). Michael offers profiles of the seven Peterson cultivars, the three Kentucky State University cultivars and Jerry Lehman’s two named cultivars. For the wannabe-grower in a hurry, there is a summary of the best cultivars for several factors, and for the person who has no time to read or experiment, Michael suggests sticking with the long-proven wild-sourced cultivars Overleese, Sunflower, PA Golden and NC-1.
Harvesting is both art and science. Under-ripe pawpaws can lead to belly-ache. Mishandling pawpaws can quickly lead to poor results. Windfalls that have lain on the ground for several days will likely be funky in smell and bitter in taste – don’t let your first experience of pawpaw be like this! The ideal is to hand-pick ripe fruit, and as the transition from rock-hard unripe pawpaws to ripe is very sudden, you’ll end up checking the same fruits more than once. Some cultivars change color, others don’t. Check daily! Ripening can finish later if they have begun ripening before you pick. The harvest period lasts 2-4 weeks (July in the Deep South, late August and early September in central Virginia, October in the Great Lakes region).
Be very gentle in handling these delicate fruits. Eat within 72 hours of picking or refrigerate (for 1-3 weeks, with the longer period being in a large cooler with a big air volume) Pawpaws exude large quantities of ethylene when ripening. This colorless, odorless gas causes other crops in the same storage space to ripen more, or to sprout, or in the case of carrots, to taste bitter. Alternatively, pulp and freeze (or freeze and pulp). This is one of the places where you learn time- and money-saving secrets – freeze the fruits whole, remove from the freezer after 12 hours, warm them for half an hour, then peel as if they were potatoes, pry them open and pop the seeds out cleanly. Put the frozen chunks back into the freezer until you have more time. There are tips about keeping the yellow color, and which food mills and sauce-makers can pulp pawpaws.
There’s info on the nutritional content of pawpaws: 3.5 oz (100 g) provides 80 calories, including 1.2 g of protein and fat, and all of the essential amino acids.
The next section of the book is recipes and mouth-watering photos. (Cheesecake! Ice-cream!) First are the recommendations on eating pawpaws fresh off the tree, and in other ways raw. Next are the cautions about baking with flour which can mask the more subtle flavors and leave something that could be mistaken for banana pie or butterscotch tart. There are vital guidelines on how to use pawpaw pulp in recipes, and what not to do (do not boil or dry the fruit). Many pawpaw recipes are high in cream, butter and sugar, which you might relish. However, here are also some recipes that are healthier, including some vegan recipes. There’s also a simple recipe for unsweetened pawpaw jam, which they cook on a rocket stove, and one for pawpaw butter that includes some sugar and some bourbon. And beer, mead and kombucha.
Pawpaws and Permaculture
The first appendix is “Pawpaws and Permaculture” – here’s one of the special things I like about this book. First we learn about this particular tree crop, and bit by bit we see practices we associate with permaculture – swales, mulches, companion plants. It all makes sense. Here is an explanation for those of us who are not filled with religious zeal at every awed utterance of the word “permaculture”. I’m not the type to believe a theory then fit my practice into that theory. I’d rather practice, observe, learn about options, choose from the most likely to succeed, evaluate, tweak, do a small experiment with a different method, and so on. Here’s “Permaculture for the Rest of Us.” In the past I have been put off by the religious zealotry of some permaculturists – the all or nothing, good or bad, I-know-better-than-you attitude, which does not lead us closer to co-operation, mutual learning or world peace. This book is refreshingly different from that branch of permaculture and I am very grateful for that.
I also got insight into what permaculturists mean when they talk of “Food Forests”. They don’t actually mean acres of food trees. They mean small clumps of trees within a lawn. Agroforestry is the name for the type of farming that includes trees as windbreaks and crops, and pawpaws are a good candidate for inclusion. Goats don’t eat pawpaw trees! In this part of the book, the place for pawpaws in Hügelkultur beds (piles of wood covered in soil); greywater berms (shallow trenches funneling sink water into the landscape; and rain gardens (areas that store rainwater in the soil to irrigate plants) is explored.
Commercial Pawpaw Farming
For those venturing into commercial pawpaw growing and marketing, there is a profile of Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard in Maryland, where trees are 8 ft (2.4 m) apart in rows 15 ft apart (4.6 m), and produce 6,000 lbs (2.7 metric tons) annually. Their best varieties are Shenandoah, Allegheny, Susquehanna and PA Golden, and grafting onto wild rootstock has given them better drought tolerance. They have tips on commercial-scale pruning, thinning and fertilizing.
Onward and Upward
I was thrilled to learn that the zebra swallowtail butterfly has a single host – the pawpaw! We have these butterflies (in small numbers) and I didn’t know much about them. The caterpillars do not do significant damage to the leaves of grown trees, and the acetogenins from the leaves make the insect unpalatable to predators.
I have one little quibble with this book, which is that it would have benefited from tighter editing in some places. It’s not at all verbose or convoluted, but sometimes a piece of info has become detached from its colleagues, and occasionally it gets repeated. But all the info here is good, and actionable. And if you don’t read the whole book at one sitting, as I did, it won’t even be a problem!
After you’ve enjoyed the book, if you are anywhere nearby, book in for one of their open days between March and June, and in September and October at Long Creek Homestead near Frederick, Maryland. The annual Pawpaw Festival is in September. No! No! don’t just show up at their home at some random time of your choosing! See their website www.ecologiadesign.com
His talk In Defense of Okra is on Friday, Sep. 20th: 1:30–3 pm at the lovely Woodland Pavilion. Click here to buy tickets.
Go if you love okra. Go if you hate it – you might change your mind!
The workshop description says:
Calling all worshippers of this much-maligned, tasty vegetable (that is technically a fruit). And okra doubters beware — we’re about to change … your … life.
Join Smith, author of the newly released book The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration, for an interactive and entertaining exploration of the culinary (and non-culinary) uses of okra. Having grown 125 varieties, Smith will share and sample many of the incredible uses of the plant, including okra kimchi, pickled and fermented okra, okra flower tea, okra-seed coffee and okra oil — not to mention the world-renowned delicacy, okra marshmallows.
Participants will learn to enjoy (yes, even LOVE) and appreciate this disparaged underdog — from pod to stem. Take home delicious recipes that will have you profusely apologizing for ever uttering the word “slimy” in its presence.
The future of okra rests on your shoulders. Do the right thing.
Author of The Whole Okra, expert okra enthusiast Chris Smith writes regularly for The Heirloom Gardener, the Mother Earth News blog, and the Farmers’ Almanac blog. His presentations on the versatility of okra have delighted audiences at food and farming festivals and fairs throughout the Southeast. He is the Executive Director for The Utopian Seed Project, Communications Manager for Sow True Seed in Asheville, North Carolina, and serves on the board of The People’s Seed. A native of the UK, Smith has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Manchester. His short stories have been published in Nashville Review, Mid-American Review, and The Manchester Review.
Yes, he’s a fellow Brit. He’s very funny. He’s very knowledgeable about seeds and growing vegetables.
200 pages, color photos and drawings throughout, $24.95
We all need to read more books like this, to prepare for climate chaos and global heating. Alone, we can’t control how much it rains, or when, but we can improve our farming so that rain penetrates deep into the soil, is stored there and is able to keep plants and livestock alive through dry times. The author farms and ranches cattle in Kansas, using less than 4 acre inches of rain per year. This book is mostly addressed to livestock farmers, not vegetable growers like me. I skimmed some sections, although not much, as the same principles of caring for the soil apply to all farmers. This book is not about Organic Farming. Selective use of herbicides is advocated. But you decide. Selectively graze this book, taking only what you like!
[Oh why are books on sustainable agriculture in the US printed in China?]
The first part of the book is about creating a water-efficient soil with three approaches: getting more water into the soil; keeping water in the soil for longer; and helping plants get more of that water. The second part of the book is about providing for livestock: ensuring a reliable water supply; creating drought-tolerant pastures; providing emergency forage in a drought; and livestock decisions after a drought.
Part 3 of this very practical book is Looking to the Future, and includes water-efficient agriculture for semi-arid regions. There are resources for further reading, metric conversion charts and a glossary, and of course an index (without which no practical book is actually practical!) Buy this book to get the checklist of actions to take to prepare for future droughts, and cope with them as they occur.Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl should be required viewing, says Dale Strickler. We need to learn from history. Dale learned as a young man that the fantastic corn yields in Iowa were not due to that state having more rain than Kansas, but to the better soils. He also learned it is possible to get better yields on less rain. Poor soils are unable to hold onto the rain they do get. And this is something we can do something about. Dale increased his soil’s ability to hold water from 3” in 18” depth to 12” in the much-improved 6 ft depth after 11 years. Yes it takes time – start yesterday! The three key parts of this feat are:
Get the water in (not running off)
Keep it stored in the soil
Ensure the plant roots can get the water out when they need it.
Getting more water absorbed into the soil depends on creating a good soil structure, with good-sized water-stable aggregates and large-sized pores. Minimizing heavy tillage (think compaction) will help towards this goal, as will increasing the organic matter, using organic mulches, including crop residues (Dale’s excellent example shows the true costs of baling corn stalks for emergency fodder and selling at $60/ton, while incurring costs of $30/ton and losing the fertilizer value of those stalks at $49/ton). After several years of this treatment, yields go down and the soil loses structure. Over-grazing leads to similar results. Bare soils cannot easily absorb water – keep roots in the ground, and preferably some foliage above ground, at all times. Animal manure on the surface also improves water infiltration – the worms and beetles that feed on the manure make burrows that allow water to reach deeper into the soil.
Dale recommends feeding hay in the fields, either unrolled or with bales spaced around the pasture. Uneaten hay and the manure add a lot of organic matter and fertility. Mycorrhizal fungi on plant roots exude glomalin, a stable gluey compound that greatly improves soil structure. The fungi themselves act like root hair extensions, increasing water uptake ability. Earthworms make burrows (air and water conduits) and line them with slime, which helps soil aggregation. Decayed plant root channels also let water deep into the soil. For best results, combine fibrous-rooted cover crops (grasses, buckwheat) with tap-rooted cover crops (brassicas, sweetclovers, sunflowers).
Terracing, or other ways of working on contour help to reduce runoff and make full use of the water that does arrive. Swales, keyline shaping (contour ridges), retention dams in seasonal waterways, all aim to slow down runoff and give more opportunity for water to soak in.
The next step is to bank the water in the soil for longer. We do not want soils that rapidly evaporate all the water, leaving a brickyard. Peat bogs store lots of water, but this isn’t what we need either. How best to manage the water once it is in the soil? Soils lose water in three ways: it gets sucked up by plants, it evaporates from the soil surface, or it leaches down below the root-zone.
Not every drop of water sucked up by plants is helping us – manage or eliminate weeds to leave more for the crops. Preventing a pound of smartweed growth can save 678 pounds of water! Better to grow a pound of crop plants. Overcrowded plants grow taller, but not stronger, as the roots are restricted. Get weeds early, we all know that. If you’ve forgotten why, this book will remind you of the science! In pasture, many weeds are crops, as far as the livestock is concerned. Sometimes rotating different types of livestock will make best use of the plants you have.
As the amount of CO2 increases, plants become more water-efficient. This is because they don’t open their stomata so wide to get enough CO2, and less water transpires out. Increase the CO2 held in the plant canopy by reducing tillage (which instantly flushes out lots). Organic no-till systems allow natural decay and slow release. Keep lots of organic matter on the surface, and if your soil is acidic, add lime.
To reduce evaporation, provide shelterbelts and windbreaks, which cut the wind speed. Research has shown that woody windbreaks increase yields from an area ten times their height. And yet, when times get hard, some farmers pay good money (that will never come back) bulldozing hedgerows to gain a tiny amount of land, with no understanding of the coming decline in yield. Protecting the soil from excessive sun can also reduce evaporation (minimize bare soil). The book has a convincing photo comparing tall healthy corn planted into hairy vetch mulch, with a shorter, curled leaf droughty corn on bare soil.
Dale explains the Law of the Most Limiting Factor, which is helpful to overwhelmed farmers seeing lots of problems. Tackle the factor that is the first to limit the growth of the crop, whether that is sunlight, nitrogen, water or something else.
Organic matter in the soil improves water-holding capacity (both the depth of water penetration and the amount per inch). Increasing soil organic matter comes up next. Anyone over 50 might have been taught that it is not really possible to increase soil OM at a reasonable price. This is not true! By good soil husbandry you can indeed improve soil OM. Conserve crop residues, add cover crops, add manure or compost, reduce tillage and observe the C:N ratio needed for humus production (1 part N: 10 parts C) and don’t forget the sulfur. Some studies seem to show that feeding the crop residues to livestock, letting the manure stay on the fields can increase yields even though the measurable %OM is not higher than if the residues had been left on the field.
The focus then moves on to helping plants get more of the water out of the soil. Improving root depth is key, but sub-soiling is not usually a good way to do this, although Dale concedes that in the Southeast, it can work for one year at a time, perhaps replacing the heavy frost heaving that happens in winter further north. If possible, find other ways to reduce compaction. The more water there is in the pore space, the less oxygen there is. Field tile drainage can help remove excess water, and prevent a low level of oxygen limiting root growth. Earthworms, deep-rooted plants, increased OM, improved aggregation all help increase oxygen flow to the roots. Increase root water-efficiency by ensuring adequate fertility; enlist mycorrhizal fungi by using an inoculant if needed.
I’m considering photocopying the chapter summary pages for a Cheat Sheet on those Practical Strategies. As I said, I skimmed the livestock farming details, but the information on the impact of drought on livestock farmers and ranchers gave me compassion for those faced with suffering animals. Having to make decisions in a hurry to prevent undue suffering can lead to long term problems for the farm. Sometimes row crops must be sacrificed to provide fodder, when pastures become “crispy brown exercise lots”. Dale has the experience. He tells of neighboring farmers getting together to net all the fish from all their ponds before the ponds dried up. They had a neighborhood fish fry, and he ate fried snapping turtle that day.
Providing surface water includes keeping well-maintained ponds that livestock do not trample down. Dale shows how to provide a livestock “beach” with geotextile and gravel, and old tires forming a fence in the water. He shows how to set up a siphon to bring water out of a pond; how to set a living willow hedge to protect steam banks and pond edges; how to build a shade roof for cattle that catches and provides rainwater; how to build temporary ponds with rubber sheeting and hay bales or earthbags; how to drill a shallow well; and how to enclose a spring to protect it from trampling and provide clean water. Here’s info on addressing water quality issues such as excess nitrates, blue-green algae, salt, and sulfates; and on the use of fish trap gates to encourage livestock to move themselves to the next paddock when they need water.
The next chapter is on creating drought-tolerant pastures. Test the soil, and choose pasture plant species carefully. Here is a good explanation of the three photosynthesis pathways, discovered so far. C3 plants have 3 carbon atoms in the first product of photosynthesis. Cool-season grasses and almost all shrubs, trees and broadleaf plants (think brassicas and legumes) are in this group, which has the poorest water-efficiency, and on hot sunny days can use only about 50% of the available sunlight. The book explains why. While the plants have plenty of water, they can use it to cool the leaves; but if it’s hot and the soil is dry, growth is restricted.
C4 plants include warm-weather grasses (including corn), pigweeds, and lambsquarters. They grow best in hot weather, and are unproductive in cold weather. While they are more water-efficient, they are less digestible and low in protein. It is wise to interseed C3 and C4 grasses, adding appropriate mycorrhizal fungi for the C4 grasses, to speed up establishment and provide better long-term productivity. Add deep-rooting plants (chicory or alfalfa).
The third photosynthetic pathway mentioned is the Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) pathway, and it has by far the best drought tolerance. This pathway is found in succulents such as yuccas, cacti, pineapples. They close their stomata during the day, having stored CO2 for photosynthesis. These otherwise promising-sounding plants grow very slowly. They may have a place as drought rations, once the spines have been burned off, or the whole plants have been ground to a “soup”.
Calculating and maintaining a sustainable stocking rate will prevent the downward spiral that comes from overgrazing. Stock conservatively such that only 40% of the foliage is removed in the worst years. There are no financial savings from overgrazing. Removal of more than 40% of the leaf area results in a loss of root growth, hindering recovery. You make more money from conservative grazing than from exploitative grazing. The book has the research to prove it. Consult your local NRCS, who can calculate a suitable stocking rate (free of charge). In wet winters, it is often better to make a woodchip mulched winter feeding lot with spaced hay bales, than let the soil get “pugged”.
There is technical information here about growth stages of different grasses – it’s most important to avoid too much defoliation of cool-season grasses in late spring; warm-season grasses benefit from a rest in late summer. Plants with growing points near the ground can survive close grazing better than those with elevated growing points.
Chapter 7 delves into providing emergency forage in a drought, as an alternative to reducing stocking levels and thus reducing income (hard for any farmer to do). Hopefully, using the previous info, your pastures will be improved and more drought-resilient, and you are less likely to face this emergency. If you do, the first place to look is failed rowcrops, which you can graze or cut and haul (grazing is better). Beware the urge to make silage, as it loses 20% of the feed value in fermentation. And it’s heavy to haul. Also, it leaves your fields denuded, unless you immediately sow a cover crop, which is tricky in a drought. Strip grazing using electric fencing is a better way to go, and also lets you force a better balanced diet of grain and stalks on your livestock, reducing the risks of acidosis, excess nitrates or prussic acid poisoning from young sorghum growth.
Another source of emergency rations is crop residues, such as corn stalks, strip grazed as for failed crops. It is important to understand the nutritional limitations of what you are feeding. There are feed additives used by some ranchers to increase the digestibility of some feedstocks.
Winter cover crops are another emergency feedstock in desperate winters. Tree branches, or felled trees, can save the season occasionally (obviously not every year). Plan ahead and cut poles of cottonwood or willow (whichever grows locally) and plant your own emergency feedlot. It can serve as shade and shelter in non-drought years until needed. Possibly thinning the trees the first time round could actually improve the health of the spared trees.
Another approach is to cut hay on areas that would otherwise get mowed, such as roadsides or parks or serve wetland plants, weeds, lawn clippings, dormant grasses (those bison weren’t wrong!). If you can supplement the protein with legume hay or oilseed meals, do that. For low protein feeds such as dormant grasses, choose mature, non-lactating animals. Planning ahead, it makes sense to shift the birthing season to the beginning of the high-quality grazing season.
There are various (sometimes painful) livestock decisions to make during droughts and in the aftermath. Dale recommends making a written plan, which will save revisiting the decisions each day, and will reduce the stress of making decisions in the thick of it. Deciding to reduce the herd size is easier if you have some animals that you find easier to let go of. Having such “stocker animals” that you intend to sell at some point reduces the decision to when to sell. Having some pre-set trigger dates when decisions need to be made will help you ease into it. Set an initial date to decide the stocking rate for the season, and another when half the growth of the grass will have occurred, for both your cool season and your warm season pastures.
Another strategy is to have some of your livestock be able to survive in buildings or dirt yards for a while. Far from ideal, but in a drought, we are already far from ideal, and climate chaos is going to throw us into situations we have never seen before. Make a priority list of which animals must be first to go when a reduction is needed.
When you’ve done all the things mentioned, and you still have animals to feed, look thoughtfully at hay, silage and grain. It is better to start feeding some hay while the pastures are still in good shape than to overgraze and then have only hay. You want your pasture to respond quickly as soon as rains do arrive, to regrow and be stored for winter. Have a sacrifice lot or pen, where you feed hay, and keep the animals off the pasture, so it can recover sooner. Or graze for a few hours, then feed hay in the lot.
Whatever else you do, keep notes of your observations, your actions, the results and anything you think would have been better. This will position you for better results next time.
The last part of the book looks to the future. The cautionary tale of how the Dust Bowl was created by poor farming practices is relevant to all of us. The lessons are: Farm to suit the land, the climate and the plant species already growing; don’t believe theories (“Rain follows the plow”, “Use dust mulch”, “Deeply tilled soils will catch more rain”) disseminated by people living far away, or companies that are set to gain from farmers following their advice; don’t move hundreds of miles and expect to farm the same way you did “back home”; check the research for results you can depend on, think it through for yourself, and watch what is working for farmers around you, before trying something really different.
Reading about how the Plains are suited to grazing is instructional for anyone who thinks animals should be eliminated from agriculture. Living in central Virginia, I am not in a place to make an informed judgement, but Dale Strickler is. He has a system of capturing falling rain in grasses or cover crops, converting 40% into meat or milk (by grazing, which adds manure to the soil) and leaving 60% to cover the soil. In drought years, maintaining a flexible mind, using those decision-point dates to make best choices for the current year, having some “flex-pastures”, considering all your options rather than panicking, are going to help.
Rhonda Sherman: The Worm Farmer’s Handbook: Mid- to Large-Scale Vermicomposting for Farms, Businesses, Municipalities, Schools and Institutions,
Chelsea Green, 2018, 247 pages, $29.95
The Worm Farmer’s Handbook is exactly that. It explains very clearly how to farm worms on food scraps, manure, yard waste, paper and more. It goes beyond the “tub under the kitchen counter” scale of worm bin, upwards to commercial farming and community-scale enterprises. Rhonda Sherman is an excellent writer, inspiring, concise, personable, candid and very down-to-earth. Art and science. Detail without fluff. For beginners and upgraders.
The book includes the many reasons you might venture into vermiculture (worm production) or vermicomposting (worm cast production); earthworm biology; business plans; equipment set-ups; bedding and stocking rates; feeds and feeding methods; monitoring for success; harvest and post-harvest practices; and over two dozen global case studies, including some in places I bet you didn’t think of: Turkey, Afghanistan, and an air force base in Ohio. Some highly successful business people got some of their boost from worm farming.
Rhonda Sherman started as a recycling consultant, producing a much-scorned-at-the-time factsheet Worms Can Recycle Your Garbage, which became immensely popular. Answering the demand, she created the annual NC State Vermiculture Conference, the only one of its kind in the world. In 2000 she established the NC State Compost Learning Lab, with 26 kinds of composting and vermicomposting bins and space for hands-on teaching. So, she has full credentials to tell us about how to produce vermicast for profit or manage waste produced on farms and gardens, in municipalities, industries and institutions.
First, to clarify the terminology: vermiculture is the raising of worms for bait or animal feed or for selling to other worm farmers; vermicomposting is the conversion of organic wastes into worm castings (vermicast), a nutrient-rich, microbially active soil amendment or growth medium for young plants. The word vermicompost is sometimes used to refer to a mixture of castings, uneaten bedding and feedstock (organic material). To avoid confusion between compost (a thermophilic aerobic process) and vermicompost (a warm-not-hot mesophilic process involving the material passing through earthworms), Rhonda uses the word vermicast.
Nowadays the main reason for worm farming is to process organic wastes and use the vermicast to grow stronger, more nutrient-dense food crops or marijuana. It is possible to keep costs low, even fairly large-scale, by manufacturing your own worm bins and by screening the vermicast manually, or with a small motorized sifter. Additional income can come from selling vermicast tea and teaching classes.
Vermicast sells at a much higher price than regular compost, 7-60 times more! The microbial populations in vermicast are much larger and more diverse than those in thermophilic compost. Seeds germinate more quickly in vermicast-amended soil, the seedlings grow faster, the root mass is much bigger, leading to earlier, bigger yields. Strangely, and proven scientifically, all these improvements are independent of the nutrients available to the plants. The turnip photo is astounding. Crops with vermicast-amended soil have greater resistance to insect pests, because the vermicast adds phenolic compounds to the plants, making them distasteful to bugs (but apparently not to humans!). Plant parasitic nematodes (such as the root knot nematode Meloidogyne hapla) can also be suppressed.
The earthworm biology chapter is fascinating. Rhonda opens by saying “I don’t want to put you to sleep with a long-winded discussion of the anatomy and physiology of earthworms.” No danger of that. This is concise, technical and yet easy reading. Who knew there are species of earthworms that reach lengths of 3ft (91 cm), 4ft (1.2 m), 4.5ft (1.4 m), 6ft (1.8 m), 13ft (4 m) and an eye-watering 22ft (6.7 m). Only the smallest two of those are in the US, and no, not in Virginia! Some earthworms don’t live underground in the soil – the epigeic group live in the leaf litter. Seven species of worms are suitable for vermicomposting, and Eisenia fetida, the red wiggler, is by far the most widely used.
To start a worm bin, buy at least 1lb (0.5 kg) of these worms per square foot (0.09 m2) of surface area. That’s much denser than I imagined. And don’t go to the bait shop, because you’d have to buy dozens of packages for every pound of worms, throw out all the containers, and pay $122-$225. From a reputable worm grower you will pay $20-50 per pound, perhaps with added shipping.
Rhonda walks us through all the necessary steps of preparing to farm worms. Study the state and local regulations, and the safety issues, and make a business plan before buying worms, except perhaps for a small pilot scheme. Don’t expand before you know how you will make it work. Production and marketing are equally vital. Will your state regard this as a composting process (lots of regulations) or a livestock farming enterprise? Plan to avoid the problems and have contingency plans in case they happen anyway.
In designing your physical set-up, there are options from small outdoor pits or bins to continuous flow-through bins. Buy or build your own, after studying the pros and cons. Look for suitable readymade containers at a good price, such as Macrobins and IBC totes used for vegetable and other storage and transport. Source your feedstocks and decide if it would be best to pre-compost them before offering to your worms – often wise if dealing with large deliveries of food waste, to reduce volume and pest problems. This book helps with information on the space you’ll need for all stages of the process. Plan ahead. Imagine yourself 10, 20 years older when delivering feedstock, monitoring your livestock and emptying your bins. Don’t build things too wide, tall or heavy. Leave access space all around your bins (unless very narrow). Imagine more climate change.
Don’t geek out too much on the equipment though – remember you are farming livestock and will need to prioritize learning their ways. You need a 6″ (15 cm) layer of moist bedding, a layer of worms at a sufficient density for the container, a thin 1-1.5″ (2.5-3.8 cm) layer of feedstock and a covering layer, so the worms can eat without being exposed to the light. Enough air and water, light to prevent them crawling away. Wait till they’ve eaten all you’ve provided before adding more food, or you will get fruit flies, gnats, flies, ants etc. Rhonda advises on various feedstocks. Check at least once a day, to make sure your worms are healthy, thriving and mot crawling out of your bin. As needed each day, water the top of the bin, using a mist or light fine spray.
Worm farming can fit with other types of farming with good results. Livestock manure (except poultry manure) is a good feedstock for worms. You can experiment with adding some worms to a composting toilet. Vegetable, fruit and flower crops can provide crop residues; food processing has what would otherwise be waste; shredded paper is good (the ink on printed paper is not toxic nowadays, but avoid glossy paper and fancy papers with metallic additions).
A worm bin is not a trash disposal – you need to find a recipe that combines your ingredients in the right proportions to provide a balance of nutrients. The ideal starting ratio is 25 carbon:1 nitrogen, and a helpful list is in the book. You can use an online compost calculator to roughly determine an appropriate mix. Pre-composting is a good way to turn your materials into a homogenous substance the worms will thrive on. This avoids the problem described by Rhonda as “the worms beeline for the melons and stay away from the onions.” Rhonda provides ten reasons for pre-composting.
Earthworm husbandry is central to worm farming. Inspect daily with eyes and nose, and squeeze a handful of bedding to test for moisture. Never pour water directly into the bin “even if you have seen people do it on YouTube!” as Rhonda cautions. Once a week count population samples at 4″ (10 cm) deep. Take 6″ (15 cm) squares, count and record worm numbers and make sure numbers don’t go down. Keep your worms in a temperature range of 60-80F (16-27C), cooling, insulating or heating as needed. Adding extra feed will help raise the temperature in cold weather, but don’t overdo it. Add cow patties and see if your worms choose to congregate there. Add an insulating layer and watch out for other animals (“with sharp teeth!”) sheltering there. Be aware that too much cooked food can attract different types of flies.
The instructions for harvesting worms, vermicompost or both are very practical. For small-scale enterprises with limited budgets there is the table harvesting method – spreading the top layer of the bin material on a table and hand-sorting worms, vermicompost and unconsumed food. This is made more efficient by using bright lights to cause the worms to cluster in the middle of the pile, avoiding the light. Another method, if you only want the worms, is to add fresh feed in a wide mesh tray on the top of the bed, after fasting the worms for a week. When the worms gather in the tray, scoop them up.
To harvest vermicompost, you can make screening boxes. Sort the finest vermicompost for sale or use on the farm, and return the coarser material and the worm cocoons to the bin. Return the worms to the bed or sell them. A way to harvest the vermiculture but not the worms is sideways separation. Set up a new bedding and feeding area adjacent to the old one, after not feeding the worms for a week or so. They will gradually move sideways into the better accommodation and you can harvest the vermicast from the old area. Continuous flow-through bins allow vermiculture harvest without disturbing the worms. This involves grates in the bottom of the bin and a way of scraping the vermicompost across the grate. This was the only place in the book where I do not understand the description, and there was no helpful diagram or photo. Fortunately a description later cleared up the mystery.
There is a good photo of a homemade trommel (cylindrical screen) involving bicycle rims. Worm farmers are definitely a hands-on crowd! Packaging and shipping can involve egg trays cut to size on a band saw, and breathable bags sewn from rolls of rowcover.
Vermicast can be tested using compost-testing criteria, and the book tells you the target values for pH and various elements and also the acceptable pathogen limits. There’s also a list of 13 bragging points which you can include on your label if selling your products. There is also a warning about what not to claim on you labels!
The last chapter of the book consists of 27 diverse global case studies, and makes inspiring and confidence-building reading. So many ideas you could use for your own worm farm! Rhonda points out that she herself is operating from a small research station, with a small staff. Sites profiled include the Len Foote Hike Inn (Georgia), a state park facility where you do indeed need to hike in. The facility was built in 1998 to be sustainable. The worm bins are fed guest meal scraps, shredded office paper, cardboard, discarded natural fiber clothes and even cotton mopheads! The Evergreen State College collaborates with Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Washington to recycle their food waste. The prisoners designed and built the equipment, saving the taxpayers $2000 per year and reducing the facility’s water consumption by 25%. The vermicompost is used in the prisoners’ garden to grow vegetables for the facility.
The Medical University of South Carolina reduced food waste with worms and has recorded the data in good academic fashion, providing everyone with some precise information on quantities, labor requirements, expenditure and productivity. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (Ohio) began vermicomposting when they acquired a bin and a quarter-million earthworms from another air force base where they were no longer welcome. With one hour of labor per day, the staff were able to save $25/day hauling waste food and provide vermicompost for the base golf course (hey, better than chemical fertilizer!)
Various school projects are acclaimed for educating children and getting them onboard with reducing landfill lunch components by 85%, in one case. After lunch, the SCRAP carts (Separate, Compost, Reduce and Protect) carts (operated by students, staff and custodians) are wheeled around to collect up whatever has not been eaten.
The Green Organic Agricultural Production Company in Kabul, Afghanistan, is a woman-owned business with the goal of composting and vermicomposting 20% of Kabul’s organic waste, and train other women in the process. They use open-air beds built of concrete blocks, producing 100 tons of vermicompost annually.
The diversity of the farms profiled is a real help in showing the process as manageable on various scales, in various climates and with varying degrees of funding and mechanization. Perhaps the widest range is the feedstocks: everything from manures and vegetable wastes to agave bagasse at a tequila production plant, waste from a palm oil extractor plant. And scales up to 200,000 tons per day (maybe bigger). Reading these profiles will also steer you away from repeating mistakes already made by others, such as the large continuous flow-through bin made of wood, that fell apart under the strain, dumping worms and vermicompost on a concrete floor in the middle of winter in Michigan.
Corrugated cardboard is a surprising source of nitrogen – it’s in the glue. As paper is recycled, the fibers get shorter each time until they are too short to be useful for recycling (this is why egg boxes and apple trays are not recyclable. Worm farming is the perfect use for these products, and worms are partial to paper sludge.
There are five pages of Resources, nine pages of Bibliography and a twelve page Index. That’s an impressive index. Twin Oaks runs an indexing business, and I have written two books myself, so I have a fine appreciation of indexes!
The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers,
Andrew Mefferd, New Society Publishers, January 2019, $29.99
Organic No-Till has been an unachievable goal for many of us, but there’s no need to feel guilty or ashamed! We may understand the biology, and even the physics and chemistry of it, and why it’s a Good Thing. We can see how it can be done on a domestic scale, especially by those who can grow or buy lots of mulch, and especially if there’s no need to account for time and money invested. There is equipment (roller-crimpers and no-till planters) that makes large scale organic no-till possible and efficient. But for those of us growing food in the middle scale, it’s proving harder. Giant equipment works for acres of soybeans but not for market farming. How to keep the weeds away while tending forty sowings of lettuce? The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution provides very practical information for those who want to increase the amount of no-till growing on their small-scale farm.
Andrew Mefferd says in the introduction, “No-till is as much about climate change as it is about soil health as it is about farm profitability.” Work on all three at once with this book. 50-70% of the world’s carbon in farm soils is off-gassed due to tillage (according to a Yale study). This decreases soil fertility at a time when we need to grow more resilient crops to cope with climate change. Global food production could be reduced by up to 17% by 2100 due to climate-induced crop failures. All steps in a good direction are worth taking.
Andrew is not a proselytizer and this is not a religion. You don’t have to commit to permanent no-till everywhere to benefit from some very practical new skills, enabling you to increase the area in no-till practices. Different strategies work for different farms and different crops. Not inverting the soil layers is important. Any reduction in tillage is a good step; shallower is better than deeper; less often is better than after every crop. The tilther and power harrow on a shallow setting are used by some no-till farmers. One last tilling before setting up permanent beds is OK if that’s what you need to do! Think in terms of doing more no-till and take away any pressure to feel bad if you continue to do some tilling. One step at a time towards healing the earth, the climate; improving your soil and your crops.
The first part of the book explains the concepts and presents various methods: mulch grown in place; applied cardboard, deep straw or compost; occultation (tarping) and solarization (clear plastic). The main section consists of in-depth interviews with seventeen farmers about what works for them. After reading the first part, you can dive into the chapters with the methods that most appeal to you. The book is written so it doesn’t have to be read sequentially to make sense.
Andrew worked at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Research Farm on organic no-till vegetable production, using roller-crimpers and no-till drills. The next year he moved to a 3 acre farm and temporarily forgot about no-till because the methods he’d seen were not applicable to that scale. Ten years later, in 2016, he read articles in Growing for Market magazine, and attended conference workshops by farmers who were succeeding with organic no-till on smaller farms. These growers were using various different methods, and Andrew decided to visit them and write up the interviews.
“Want to build organic matter and soil biology because of the way you grow, instead of despite it?” Andrew asks. Increasing the organic matter in the soil will help the soil hold more water, suffer less from run-off and need less applied water per year (1″ (2.5 cm) of water saved per 1% increase in OM has been quoted). Carbon is stored in the soil, keeping it out of the atmosphere. Paying attention to the soil biology and feeding the soil is the heart of organic farming. We must farm more ecologically if we want to survive. At the same time, small-scale farms must be profitable to sustain the farmers. This book has many examples of farmers that started small with limited resources, and are able to make a decent living. Avoiding the need to buy heavy machinery is a big saving.
I love this surprise quote: “Tilling the soil is the equivalent of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado and forest fire occurring simultaneously to the world of soil organisms.” Which outspoken radical farming group made this proclamation? The USDA-NRCS! Taking care of the soil biology reduces the urge to compensate with chemistry. The less tillage, the better-off we can be. OM levels can rise quickly when tillage is reduced. Cover-cropping, adding compost and organic mulches are all ways to achieve this. The churning of tillage burns up OM. As Bryan O’Hara of Tobacco Road Farm, Connecticut, says, “Tillage is a nutrient flush from all the death you just wrought on the soil…Tillage doesn’t give nutrient balance, it gives you nutrient release.” More OM must be added every year just to maintain levels that were there before tilling.
Tarping is a rediscovered method that lets the soil digest the plant material without any tilling. This is especially useful when you have several weeks to spare after a harvest, but not enough time to grow a cover crop. The soil biology breaks down the residue, weed seeds germinate then die. The soil is left ready to replant.
After listing all the many benefits of no-till, Andrew explains the disadvantages. Weed control without cultivation is the main issue, especially perennial weeds. The slowness of mulched soil to warm in the spring is another. A third is that high OM can lead to more slugs. If you mulch with tree leaves, you might find squirrels and chipmunks rummaging for acorns. Grass creeps in from the edges. These problems are all addressed in the book.
The Overview of Organic No-Till Techniques is a summary of methods, biodegradable mulches and plastic sheet materials.
Biodegradable mulch grown in place is the method we used for many years for our large planting of paste tomatoes. We sowed winter rye, hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas in early September, following our spring broccoli and cabbage. At the beginning of May we mowed down the cover crop with our hay cutting machine and the next day dug holes and transplanted the tomatoes. We used a small shovel for our big transplants. Shawn Jadrnicek suggests using a stand-up bulb planter. The legumes provided all the nitrogen the crop needed, and the long-cut cover crop kept the weeds at bay for maybe 6 weeks. By then we had trellised the tomatoes and were able to unroll big round bales of spoiled hay between the rows. This dealt with the weeds for the rest of the season. One year in ten in our row crops rotation was no-till. We tried a few other applications of this method but generally they didn’t work as well. We were unable to direct-seed into cut mulch, for instance. Our watermelons didn’t like the cold soil, and we wanted watermelons in August, not October! To grow big enough cover crops for this to work, the food crop has to be planted no earlier than late April in central Virginia. Paste tomatoes worked well because we didn’t need an early harvest. Transplanted Halloween pumpkins and winter squash work. Fall cabbage and broccoli (on German millet and soybeans) can also work.
Bringing in biodegradable mulch (hay, straw, cardboard, paper, compost, tree leaves, wood chips, spent brewers’ grains) is the second method. The material needs to be spread thickly, usually 3″ (7.5 cm) or more and used appropriately (don’t switch plans and till in raw wood chips!). Straw can cost $750 per acre covered. A round bale covers about 200′ by 5′. We use hay bales or biodegradable plastic on annual crops, cardboard and wood chips around our fruit plantings. The existing weeds and crop residues will need to be removed first. Flaming works for small weeds, otherwise use one of the sheeting methods. Read the book to get the all-important details on how to be successful.
The non-biodegradable mulch methods are tarping (occultation) and solarizing. Tarping was introduced to most of us by Jean-Martin Fortier in The Market Gardener. For annual no-till crops, first tarp the soil using an opaque material such as silage tarps (or solarize in hot weather). After killing the weeds, uncover, spread mulch and transplant into it. Tarps will not kill docks or nut-sedge. Tarping takes from 3-6 weeks, (the shorter time in hotter weather). Allow longer if you’re bringing new land into production. Plan ahead, and tarp all winter. Silage tarps warm the soil for early spring plantings, and also prevent soil moisture from evaporating.
Solarization uses clear plastic (old hoophouse plastic is ideal). In a summer hoophouse, solarization can be as quick as 24 hours, Andrew says. When we’ve done this, one of our goals was to kill nematodes and fungal diseases, not just weeds, so we waited a few weeks. Outdoors it takes several weeks. You can see when the weeds are dead. Bryan O’Hara poked a thermometer probe through solarization plastic and found a 50F degree (28C) difference between the outside air and the soil immediately under the plastic; a 10F (6C) difference at 1″ (2.5 cm) deep and little temperature gain lower than that. Solarization does not kill all the soil life!
The growers interviewed explain which methods they use and why, helping readers weigh the pros and cons for the various crops we are growing, and our resources, climate and soils. Andrew offers some pointers on which methods are likely to work best for which situations. Several farmers tell how they transitioned into organic no-till for various crops, for instance buckwheat, compost and Weed Guard Plus paper mulch for a garlic crop, followed by two crops of lettuce. Mossy Willow Farm in Australia has a designated area for direct-seeded crops, where they use sprinklers, and the tilther if needed. The rest of their farm (transplanted) uses drip irrigation, but the soil does get too clumpy for direct seeding, and is slower to improve.
Farmers also address the things that went wrong while they were learning (thin stands of cover crops, cover crops not dying, getting the timing wrong on seeding or roll-crimping, weed seeds blowing in from elsewhere). They describe equipment they found helpful (drop-spreaders to lay down even layers of woodchips or compost, landscape fabric, the stand-up bulb planter, Tilther, Jang seeder, paperpot transplanter, broadfork). They also address timing of cover crop sowing to avoid warm-season and cool-season weeds; extending the weed suppression period of cut or crimped cover crops by adding tree leaves; pre-irrigating before digging transplant holes; and many other tips to success. A strategy for tall crabgrass is to mow it down, cover with newspaper and compost. A border of comfrey plants all-round the garden does a great job of keeping grass out. You can quickly see how this book will pay for itself many times over!
No-till beds are ready for early spring crops, even in wet regions, if the beds are mulched overwinter. Because no-till builds soil upwards, it is a good technique for land that is very rocky or with shallow topsoil. Another advantage of no-till is that you can install fairly permanent irrigation (drip or sprinklers). And you can farm intensively on small areas without needing to cater to the turning radius of large machinery. Getting high productivity from small areas is becoming an essential factor to consider.
Potatoes are a soil disruptor, and can bring up new weed seeds, so it’s worth covering the beds as soon as the potatoes are harvested. At Four Winds Farm in New York State, they plant garlic in the fall after potatoes, then mulch over the top of the garlic with a thick layer of compost. In their bigger plan, they only plant garlic in every other bed (although composting all). The following spring they plant winter squash in the empty beds, which can take over all the space after the garlic is harvested.
As I read the interviews, I started to worry: were none of these farmers having a problem using such high amounts of compost? The first problem is making or buying the sorts of quantities they are using, but the second is a build-up of phosphorus, which we have experienced on our farm. Singing Frogs Farm has studied this, testing the water run-off in the ponds at the low-point of their land. The phosphorus stays in place in their system, it does not leach. Nor does the nitrogen. The soil biology sponges up the nutrients, the 3-8 crops they grow in a year absorb them. They don’t rely on compost for fertility, but now use pelleted feather meal, calcium and rock dusts. Their compost use is 0.5″ (< 1 cm) per year, very different from the many farmers using much more.
Daniel Mays at Frith Farm in Maine believes cover crops provide a more active kind of organic matter, which is tailored to the soil. He is seeing better results than with compost. Roots in the Ground! Hedda Brorstrom, of Full Blossom Flower Farm, Sebastopol, CA is trending in the other direction. She points out that a lot of the compost for sale is made with lots of animal manures, which does send the phosphorus levels way up. Because growing cover crops was not working for her, she researched available composts carefully. High-carbon compost is a way to avoid sending the phosphorus levels up too much. She has used 4-8″ (10-20 cm) of compost per year.
Neversink Farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains point to intensive production (“the greenhouse mentality writ large”), 5 people working on 1.5 acres of permanent (not-raised) beds, and direct sales to customers, as factors in their success. As Conor Crickmore says proudly, “Our farming practices may be radical but they have resulted in our farm being one of the highest production farms per square foot in the country.” Close to $400,000 gross on 1.5 acres!
The collected wisdom and experience in The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution can save newer no-till farmers from a lot of frustration and wasted time, money and mental and emotional energy.
This brand new book is a lot of fun, and the photos are stunning. It has more about okra than you knew you “Wanted to Know”. Oil from the seeds, eating the leaves, okra-stem drinking straws, okra seed tempeh, okra marshmallow delights, okra history and geography, medical and industrial uses and so much more. It contains growing tips and recipes, but is not limited to the practical realm.
Chris Smith lives in North Carolina and works with Sow True Seeds in Asheville. He is also a writer, speaker and consultant. He is an immigrant farmer, like me, coming from a climate where okra does not grow. “As a white British guy, I am fully aware that okra is not part of my culture or heritage. I have, however, fallen in love with okra and have tried to approach this book with integrity, and a deep appreciation of people and food.” Fortunately for us all, he persisted beyond his encounter with soggy, slimy, greasy fried okra to discover much better ways to use this versatile vegetable.
Chris has grown 76 varieties of okra, cooked it in many different recipes, and experimented on himself and his family with “beauty” preparations and alcoholic tinctures and beverages. He is growing another 76 different varieties in 2019. The USDA Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) holds 1099 separate accessions from all over the world. India grows the most okra, by far (over 6 million tons in 2014). Nigeria is second with 2 million tons. The US is 21st in line (producing 10,000 tons in 2014). The US also imports 50,000 tons mostly from Mexico and Central America.
In his introduction, Chris says: “Not embracing okra because it’s slimy is like not visiting the Alps because you’re scared of heights.” Okra is often dismissed these days as a vegetable people don’t like, although it used to be a favorite of many. In the 1900s, the Tabasco brand of canned okra sold well.
We need resilient crops in the face of climate change; we need to grow more of our own food, eat locally, organic, and with less or no meat, to survive the uncertainties ahead. Zero food waste has become a goal of some chefs (and no doubt, some home cooks too). The Whole Okra provides help with several steps on this journey.
Early in the book, Chris embraces the S-word (slime), including some great photos of his smiling family with okra slime face masks and okra-slice eye pads, and himself with okra mucilage hair conditioner. Although Chris is only recommending things he’s tried himself, he does mention some untested ideas, like substituting okra juice for mallow juice as a tonic. A (tested) recipe for okra marshmallow delights is included. Adding acidic ingredients (think tomatoes, lemon juice) to a recipe will effectively cut through the sliminess.
If you have grown okra, you will probably be familiar with the sudden glut that arrives at some (hot) point in the summer. Here are instructions for freezing okra, pickling (both by fermenting and with vinegar), drying (best when strung on dental floss). Best of all are the okra chips (season 2 pounds (907 g) of pods with oil, salt, spices, roast at 500F (260C) for 20 mins, then 170F (75C) for 2-3 hours). 4 ounces (113 g) of tasty crunchy chips! Who knew? There’s also info on pressure canning, and okra kimchi, which can be dried, powdered and used as a seasoning.
Okra can be self-pollinating, but produces more seeds per pod when pollinated by insects. There is a specialized native okra bee, Ptilothrix bombiformis. Okra is not native to North America, but rose-mallow and hibiscus are. The flowers are edible cooked, but of course you won’t get an okra pod if you’ve eaten the flower. Unlike squash, okra does not have separate female and male flowers. Flowers can be dried, used in tea blends, or in vodka for tinctures and nightcaps. Only eat flowers if you have an over-abundance of pods or you are about to go away for a long weekend and don’t want to come home to a mass of woody pods. Believe it or not, Chris has uses for woody pods too! These can often be obtained free or cheap in high summer. Don some gloves. Open the pods and shell out the immature seeds, which can be cooked and eaten then, or blanched and frozen for winter. Thoroughly dry the empty pods, then powder them, and sift through a fine mesh. The pod powder can be used as a thickening agent in place of cornstarch.
The young leaves make appetizing summer greens and are higher in protein than the pods. They are used (mixed with yam and other vegetables) by the Igbo people of Nigeria. Choose very young leaves, or fairly young leaves of a variety without spiny leaves. Heavy Hitter is the variety to grow for large supple spineless leaves. A close cousin of okra, abika, is used as an important leafy green in some Pacific Island nations. Seeds can be bought from Monticello, under the name Sunset Hibiscus.
Deep-fried young leaves can make crisp chips, like kale chips, but different. If you are saving okra seed, you will often have more seeds than you need to grow, you can sow those for microgreens. Chris has a small aquaponics system made from a barrel. Goldfish (and tilapia in summer) are in the bottom section of the barrel and the water is pumped to the top section which grows the microgreens.
Mature okra seed has a tough hull and a nutritious kernel which can be ground into flour and used in soups, sauces, gravies, and okra seed tofu and tempeh. Back to woody pods: they can make Christmas tree ornaments, earrings, strings of holiday lights (hint: cool LED bulbs, not fire-prone hot bulbs), and painted ornamental figurines. Crushed pods can be used to grow mushrooms. I’m waiting to find out if Chris suggests using them as mulch, or as firelighters. (My Advance Readers’ Copy doesn’t have an index).
It was known in 1874 and in 1919 that oil can be extracted from okra seeds, but forgotten since. Chris describes hand-cranking his Piteba oil press, for small yields of delicious yellow-green oil. In a comparison of okra oil with that from sunflowers, safflower, soy and sesame [why only the oils that start with S?] the yield of okra oil per hectare is second only to sunflower. The yield pf protein is the highest, beating soy. Clay Oliver makes artisanal small-batch oils, including okra. In a study by Robert Jarret, the oil content varied by variety from 9.19% to 21.56%.
Okra seed flour has high levels of protein and fat, and an impressive range of amino acids. It can be made into bread and other baked goods, mixed with cornmeal. Okra seed was used as a coffee substitute during the civil war. Chris tries everything, and reports that the roasted seeds, when ground, release an appetizing coffee aroma, and look just like coffee, but the beverage tastes nothing like coffee (and has no caffeine). So much for that!
Okra stalk fiber is next – you can make cordage or crochet a hat. Okra is related to jute, kenaf, roselle, kapok and even cotton. Paper is another option. Okra paper is beautiful, strong, and you can make your own paper or twine, following Chris’s instructions. It never caught on commercially, because supply could not meet demand.
Naturally enough, there is a chapter on growing okra. I was amazed to learn that at about 3 weeks of age the 6″ (15 cm) tall plant could have a taproot three times as long! At full maturity, the tap root could be 4½ ft (1.4 m). This suggests okra would be sturdier if direct sown, rather than transplanted, but you work with the climate you’ve got! To avoid stunting the taproot, get the small plants in the ground as soon as you can. But it needs to be warm enough. Bruce Adams at Furman University suggests waiting until the butterflies migrate from the South.
Here’s the info you need to get your seed germinated: Warmth, soaking the seed for 8 hours in water at 88F (31C). Get the book for all the details. There are several false rural myths out there about growing okra. Okra has naturalized in the Red River floodplain in Louisiana, and also near Durham, North Carolina, where it survived some freezing temperatures.
Recommendations on spacing vary a lot: as close as 6″ (15 cm) in rich soil, to 24″ (60 cm) for some of the bigger varieties elsewhere. Wider spacing leads to more branches and more pods per plant, but not necessarily more pods for a given area.
And the important matter of deciding when a pod is mature but not too fibrous receives good attention, and a helpful photo, although Chris does warn that it’s best to develop a feel for the rigidity of tough pods. You can’t tell just by length, even within a variety you know well, as the weather will change the size of a mature pod. Chris recommends snapping the end off a trial pod. A clean snap indicates a good meal ahead. A pod that doesn’t snap or that “splinters” is too woody. Three to nine days after flowering is how long it takes to mature a pod (and 40 days from flowering to mature seed). An experienced grower suggests harvesting 4 days after flowering, regardless of length. In drought it might be 2″ (5 cm) long, in warm rainy weather 6-7″ (15-18 cm) Chris includes a hilarious description comparing reactions of Americans and British family and friends being served tough okra. As a fellow Brit, I laughed aloud. Buy the book, I won’t spoil the suspense!
Store the unwashed pods in a cool damp place after removing the field heat.. I was intrigued at the description of Zero Energy Cool Chambers (ZECC) in India, but wonder which part of India, and if this would work in a humid climate.
The back of the book includes a summary of Chris’s 2018 variety trial and includes descriptions his observations, including pod spininess, branching and productivity.
And to end this review, no, Chris did not mention what great kindling dried okra pods make, nor what great long-lasting, weed-free mulch they provide. (I recognize you need to grow a lot of okra seed to produce enough mulch to write about!) Thanks Chris! An entertaining read, and lots of practical information, and inspiring photos!
The New Organic Grower, 30th Anniversary Edition, Eliot Coleman, Chelsea Green, published October 2018. ISBN 978-1-60358-817-1, 304 pages, $29.95 Full color photos and illustrations throughout.
This anniversary edition comes almost 30 years since the first edition in 1989. There was also a 1995 edition, which I’m guessing is the one on the bookshelves of most people farming today. Given that carrots grow the same way they did 30 years ago you may be wondering if you need the new edition. Eliot Coleman’s wisdom was good in 1989 – how much better can it get?
The first thing I noticed is that the new book is half the thickness of the old one. That’s mostly because the quality of recycled paper has made vast improvements! This book is 304 pages, the old one was 340. Most of the reduction is in the Recommended Tools and Suppliers section. Eliot recommends using the internet. Of course the internet doesn’t say which work well for Eliot, but he can be seen talking about which tools he likes on videos and in Johnny’s seed catalog.
Much of the text remains just the same. The new preface is the same as that of the 1995 edition, with a bit more travel and research trips. The drawings have gone, to make way for the photos by Barbara Damrosch. The addition of color photos is the second most obvious change, and mouth-watering they are! I do regret the loss of a few specific drawings, especially the crop spacing ones and related chart. With hindsight, I realize the previous editions contained several crop spacing charts. To my relief, these have not disappeared, but have been consolidated and rationalized in the chapter about setting out transplants. The newer chart is more functional if less characterful.
The other main kind of change is the introduction to newer tools and equipment: Jang seeder, 4-row and 6-row seeders, Quick-Cut greens Harvester, Cool-Bot, screen pyramids, and Quick Hoops. Coldframes have ceded to low tunnels; large soil blocks have been replaced by 6″ pots. The 15-page historical progress of moveable hoophouses has gone, to focus 6 pages on the current preferred type/method, but no diagrams. The Season Extension chapter has lots new.
As I started reading I was disappointed at so little new. But then I started to find information I had forgotten, or not registered on previous readings! If, like me, you have not opened this book for 10 years, you’ll probably find useful tips. And Eliot only writes about things that have been tested out on his farm. Naturally, for those of us in different climate zones, this brings limitations. We’ll have to look elsewhere for more regionally appropriate details, but we can rely on the truth of what Eliot says works in Maine, and extrapolate from that.
There is a new little chapter The Self-Fed Farm, on combining vegetable and small-livestock farming, which I welcome, for its plain common sense on how to be resilient and get the best food supply from a small farm.
There’s a 2-page section by Barbara Damrosch on cut flowers, which can often be a way to bring in higher income to balance the national expectation for cheap food (yes, it would be good if we could change this expectation, but meanwhile we need to survive to tackle that challenge over the long haul.)
Much has gone from the 1995 28-page Winter Harvest Project chapter, which is now a slimmer 7 pages. Perhaps the extra material is covered in the Winter Harvest Handbook.
The annotated bibliography has only a few additions. The notes that used to be in the margins are now collected up at the end of the book. The metric conversions are now in place in the text, everywhere needed. No longer do we need to make our own conversions, using charts. I’m happy about that, and it will make the book easier to use in the large metric part of the world.
The chapter A Final Question – Why Farm? has been replaced by The Adventure of Organic Farming, which is Eliot’s answer to his earlier question. It’s a potted memoir of how rock-climbing led him to organic farming, along with his perspective (which is a long one, remember) on the Organic Farming movement. He quotes Eric Hoffer “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” We now have “organic” dairies of thousands of cows, and “organic hydroponic” vegetables grown without benefit of soil. Only by buying direct from the farmers can people be sure of good quality and care for the environment and the planet’s long-term future. Or by growing your own, of course. Have at it!
If you haven’t opened any of Eliot’s books for ten years, it’s time you did. If you haven’t got the 1995 edition or the 1989 edition, buy this. If beautiful photos will help inspire you or your crew, buy this.