Book Review: Soil Science for Gardeners, by Robert Pavlis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by NCSU Crop Soil Undergrad course

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

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

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

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

Photo by Usu.edu Soil 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black farmer with mule team. NRCS photo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black farmers. Photo USDA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young black farm-worker. Photo USDA

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

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

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

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

Pete Daniel. Photo Wake Forest Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ira Wallace, the author of Growing Great Vegetables in Virginia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Jewell
Photo Workman Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Workman Publishing, Timber Press

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

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

20 Heroines Revolutionizing Food Activism to Improve the Planet

 

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Thompson Reads from Going Over Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garry Stephenson

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Farmer’s Office by Julia Shanks

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.

Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

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!

Glacier early tomatoes.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

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)

Julia Shanks

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.

Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

Harness the Power of Microbes to Create Your Best Garden Ever

Storey Publishing, January 2020

  • Price: $16.95
  • Size: 6 x 9
  • Pages: 176
  • 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.

Diane Miessler

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

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.

Using a flat compost screen on a wheelbarrow.
Photo by Wren Vile

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.

Golden Glory zucchini in late May.
Photo Pam Dawling

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).

Sun Gold cherry tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pan Dawling

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.

Overwintered spinach with spring-sown Sugar Ann snap peas.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

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.

Bare-root pak choy transplants in a dish pan.
Photo Pam Dawling

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!

Admiring a cluster of blueberries.
Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier

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.

Not everyone likes jumbo sweet potatoes, but for those cooking for a hundred, they are a bonus.
Credit McCune Porter

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.

Will Bonsall

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.