Book Review: Worm Farmer’s Handbook

 


Rhonda Sherman: The Worm Farmer’s Handbook: Mid- to Large-Scale Vermicomposting for Farms, Businesses, Municipalities, Schools and Institutions,

Chelsea Green, 2018, 247 pages, $29.95

 The Worm Farmer’s Handbook is exactly that. It explains very clearly how to farm worms on food scraps, manure, yard waste, paper and more. It goes beyond the “tub under the kitchen counter” scale of worm bin, upwards to commercial farming and community-scale enterprises. Rhonda Sherman is an excellent writer, inspiring, concise, personable, candid and very down-to-earth. Art and science. Detail without fluff. For beginners and upgraders.

The book includes the many reasons you might venture into vermiculture (worm production) or vermicomposting (worm cast production); earthworm biology; business plans; equipment set-ups; bedding and stocking rates; feeds and feeding methods; monitoring for success; harvest and post-harvest practices; and over two dozen global case studies, including some in places I bet you didn’t think of: Turkey, Afghanistan, and an air force base in Ohio. Some highly successful business people got some of their boost from worm farming.

Rhonda Sherman started as a recycling consultant, producing a much-scorned-at-the-time factsheet Worms Can Recycle Your Garbage, which became immensely popular. Answering the demand, she created the annual NC State Vermiculture Conference, the only one of its kind in the world. In 2000 she established the NC State Compost Learning Lab, with 26 kinds of composting and vermicomposting bins and space for hands-on teaching. So, she has full credentials to tell us about how to produce vermicast for profit or manage waste produced on farms and gardens, in municipalities, industries and institutions.

A tour of the Worm Barn at the NC State Compost Learning Lab

First, to clarify the terminology: vermiculture is the raising of worms for bait or animal feed or for selling to other worm farmers; vermicomposting is the conversion of organic wastes into worm castings (vermicast), a nutrient-rich, microbially active soil amendment or growth medium for young plants. The word vermicompost is sometimes used to refer to a mixture of castings, uneaten bedding and feedstock (organic material). To avoid confusion between compost (a thermophilic aerobic process) and vermicompost (a warm-not-hot mesophilic process involving the material passing through earthworms), Rhonda uses the word vermicast.

Nowadays the main reason for worm farming is to process organic wastes and use the vermicast to grow stronger, more nutrient-dense food crops or marijuana. It is possible to keep costs low, even fairly large-scale, by manufacturing your own worm bins and by screening the vermicast manually, or with a small motorized sifter. Additional income can come from selling vermicast tea and teaching classes.

Vermicast sells at a much higher price than regular compost, 7-60 times more! The microbial populations in vermicast are much larger and more diverse than those in thermophilic compost. Seeds germinate more quickly in vermicast-amended soil, the seedlings grow faster, the root mass is much bigger, leading to earlier, bigger yields. Strangely, and proven scientifically, all these improvements are independent of the nutrients available to the plants. The turnip photo is astounding. Crops with vermicast-amended soil have greater resistance to insect pests, because the vermicast adds phenolic compounds to the plants, making them distasteful to bugs (but apparently not to humans!). Plant parasitic nematodes (such as the root knot nematode Meloidogyne hapla) can also be suppressed.

Photo https://medium.com/compost-turner-fully-hydraulic-composting-machine/what-is-vermicomposting-b83428572c6c

The earthworm biology chapter is fascinating. Rhonda opens by saying “I don’t want to put you to sleep with a long-winded discussion of the anatomy and physiology of earthworms.” No danger of that. This is concise, technical and yet easy reading. Who knew there are species of earthworms that reach lengths of 3ft (91 cm), 4ft (1.2 m), 4.5ft (1.4 m), 6ft (1.8 m), 13ft (4 m) and an eye-watering 22ft (6.7 m). Only the smallest two of those are in the US, and no, not in Virginia! Some earthworms don’t live underground in the soil – the epigeic group live in the leaf litter. Seven species of worms are suitable for vermicomposting, and Eisenia fetida, the red wiggler, is by far the most widely used.

To start a worm bin, buy at least 1lb (0.5 kg) of these worms per square foot (0.09 m2) of surface area. That’s much denser than I imagined. And don’t go to the bait shop, because you’d have to buy dozens of packages for every pound of worms, throw out all the containers, and pay $122-$225. From a reputable worm grower you will pay $20-50 per pound, perhaps with added shipping.

Rhonda walks us through all the necessary steps of preparing to farm worms. Study the state and local regulations, and the safety issues, and make a business plan before buying worms, except perhaps for a small pilot scheme. Don’t expand before you know how you will make it work. Production and marketing are equally vital. Will your state regard this as a composting process (lots of regulations) or a livestock farming enterprise? Plan to avoid the problems and have contingency plans in case they happen anyway.

Photo NC State https://composting.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-2/vermicomposting-for-business-farms-institutions-municipalities/

In designing your physical set-up, there are options from small outdoor pits or bins to continuous flow-through bins. Buy or build your own, after studying the pros and cons. Look for suitable readymade containers at a good price, such as Macrobins and IBC totes used for vegetable and other storage and transport. Source your feedstocks and decide if it would be best to pre-compost them before offering to your worms – often wise if dealing with large deliveries of food waste, to reduce volume and pest problems. This book helps with information on the space you’ll need for all stages of the process. Plan ahead. Imagine yourself 10, 20 years older when delivering feedstock, monitoring your livestock and emptying your bins. Don’t build things too wide, tall or heavy. Leave access space all around your bins (unless very narrow). Imagine more climate change.

Don’t geek out too much on the equipment though – remember you are farming livestock and will need to prioritize learning their ways. You need a 6″ (15 cm) layer of moist bedding, a layer of worms at a sufficient density for the container, a thin 1-1.5″ (2.5-3.8 cm) layer of feedstock and a covering layer, so the worms can eat without being exposed to the light. Enough air and water, light to prevent them crawling away. Wait till they’ve eaten all you’ve provided before adding more food, or you will get fruit flies, gnats, flies, ants etc. Rhonda advises on various feedstocks. Check at least once a day, to make sure your worms are healthy, thriving and mot crawling out of your bin. As needed each day, water the top of the bin, using a mist or light fine spray.

Worm farming can fit with other types of farming with good results. Livestock manure (except poultry manure) is a good feedstock for worms. You can experiment with adding some worms to a composting toilet. Vegetable, fruit and flower crops can provide crop residues; food processing has what would otherwise be waste; shredded paper is good (the ink on printed paper is not toxic nowadays, but avoid glossy paper and fancy papers with metallic additions).

A worm bin is not a trash disposal – you need to find a recipe that combines your ingredients in the right proportions to provide a balance of nutrients. The ideal starting ratio is 25 carbon:1 nitrogen, and a helpful list is in the book. You can use an online compost calculator to roughly determine an appropriate mix. Pre-composting is a good way to turn your materials into a homogenous substance the worms will thrive on. This avoids the problem described by Rhonda as “the worms beeline for the melons and stay away from the onions.” Rhonda provides ten reasons for pre-composting.

Photo http://lessismore.org/materials/75-vermicomposting/

Earthworm husbandry is central to worm farming. Inspect daily with eyes and nose, and squeeze a handful of bedding to test for moisture. Never pour water directly into the bin “even if you have seen people do it on YouTube!” as Rhonda cautions. Once a week count population samples at 4″ (10 cm) deep. Take 6″ (15 cm) squares, count and record worm numbers and make sure numbers don’t go down. Keep your worms in a temperature range of 60-80F (16-27C), cooling, insulating or heating as needed. Adding extra feed will help raise the temperature in cold weather, but don’t overdo it. Add cow patties and see if your worms choose to congregate there. Add an insulating layer and watch out for other animals (“with sharp teeth!”) sheltering there. Be aware that too much cooked food can attract different types of flies.

 

Six worm bins.
Photo NCSU
https://composting.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-2/earthworms-and-worm-bins/

The instructions for harvesting worms, vermicompost or both are very practical. For small-scale enterprises with limited budgets there is the table harvesting method – spreading the top layer of the bin material on a table and hand-sorting worms, vermicompost and unconsumed food. This is made more efficient by using bright lights to cause the worms to cluster in the middle of the pile, avoiding the light. Another method, if you only want the worms, is to add fresh feed in a wide mesh tray on the top of the bed, after fasting the worms for a week. When the worms gather in the tray, scoop them up.

To harvest vermicompost, you can make screening boxes. Sort the finest vermicompost for sale or use on the farm, and return the coarser material and the worm cocoons to the bin. Return the worms to the bed or sell them. A way to harvest the vermiculture but not the worms is sideways separation. Set up a new bedding and feeding area adjacent to the old one, after not feeding the worms for a week or so. They will gradually move sideways into the better accommodation and you can harvest the vermicast from the old area. Continuous flow-through bins allow vermiculture harvest without disturbing the worms. This involves grates in the bottom of the bin and a way of scraping the vermicompost across the grate. This was the only place in the book where I do not understand the description, and there was no helpful diagram or photo. Fortunately a description later cleared up the mystery.

There is a good photo of a homemade trommel (cylindrical screen) involving bicycle rims. Worm farmers are definitely a hands-on crowd! Packaging and shipping can involve egg trays cut to size on a band saw, and breathable bags sewn from rolls of rowcover.

Vermicast can be tested using compost-testing criteria, and the book tells you the target values for pH and various elements and also the acceptable pathogen limits. There’s also a list of 13 bragging points which you can include on your label if selling your products. There is also a warning about what not to claim on you labels!

Rhonda Sherman

The last chapter of the book consists of 27 diverse global case studies, and makes inspiring and confidence-building reading. So many ideas you could use for your own worm farm! Rhonda points out that she herself is operating from a small research station, with a small staff. Sites profiled include the Len Foote Hike Inn (Georgia), a state park facility where you do indeed need to hike in. The facility was built in 1998 to be sustainable. The worm bins are fed guest meal scraps, shredded office paper, cardboard, discarded natural fiber clothes and even cotton mopheads! The Evergreen State College collaborates with Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Washington to recycle their food waste. The prisoners designed and built the equipment, saving the taxpayers $2000 per year and reducing the facility’s water consumption by 25%. The vermicompost is used in the prisoners’ garden to grow vegetables for the facility.

The Medical University of South Carolina reduced food waste with worms and has recorded the data in good academic fashion, providing everyone with some precise information on quantities, labor requirements, expenditure and productivity. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (Ohio) began vermicomposting when they acquired a bin and a quarter-million earthworms from another air force base where they were no longer welcome. With one hour of labor per day, the staff were able to save $25/day hauling waste food and provide vermicompost for the base golf course (hey, better than chemical fertilizer!)

Photo
https://www.tagawagardens.com/blog/want-to-turn-kitchen-garbage-into-gardening-gold-vermicomposting-is-for-you/

Various school projects are acclaimed for educating children and getting them onboard with reducing landfill lunch components by 85%, in one case. After lunch, the SCRAP carts (Separate, Compost, Reduce and Protect) carts (operated by students, staff and custodians) are wheeled around to collect up whatever has not been eaten.

The Green Organic Agricultural Production Company in Kabul, Afghanistan, is a woman-owned business with the goal of composting and vermicomposting 20% of Kabul’s organic waste, and train other women in the process. They use open-air beds built of concrete blocks, producing 100 tons of vermicompost annually.

The diversity of the farms profiled is a real help in showing the process as manageable on various scales, in various climates and with varying degrees of funding and mechanization. Perhaps the widest range is the feedstocks: everything from manures and vegetable wastes to agave bagasse at a tequila production plant, waste from a palm oil extractor plant. And scales up to 200,000 tons per day (maybe bigger). Reading these profiles will also steer you away from repeating mistakes already made by others, such as the large continuous flow-through bin made of wood, that fell apart under the strain, dumping worms and vermicompost on a concrete floor in the middle of winter in Michigan.

Corrugated cardboard is a surprising source of nitrogen – it’s in the glue. As paper is recycled, the fibers get shorter each time until they are too short to be useful for recycling (this is why egg boxes and apple trays are not recyclable. Worm farming is the perfect use for these products, and worms are partial to paper sludge.

There are five pages of Resources, nine pages of Bibliography and a twelve page Index. That’s an impressive index. Twin Oaks runs an indexing business, and I have written two books myself, so I have a fine appreciation of indexes!

Book Review: The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers, Andrew Mefferd,

The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers, 

Andrew Mefferd, New Society Publishers, January 2019, $29.99

Organic No-Till has been an unachievable goal for many of us, but there’s no need to feel guilty or ashamed! We may understand the biology, and even the physics and chemistry of it, and why it’s a Good Thing. We can see how it can be done on a domestic scale, especially by those who can grow or buy lots of mulch, and especially if there’s no need to account for time and money invested.  There is equipment (roller-crimpers and no-till planters) that makes large scale organic no-till possible and efficient. But for those of us growing food in the middle scale, it’s proving harder. Giant equipment works for acres of soybeans but not for market farming. How to keep the weeds away while tending forty sowings of lettuce? The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution provides very practical information for those who want to increase the amount of no-till growing on their small-scale farm.

Andrew Mefferd says in the introduction, “No-till is as much about climate change as it is about soil health as it is about farm profitability.” Work on all three at once with this book. 50-70% of the world’s carbon in farm soils is off-gassed due to tillage (according to a Yale study). This decreases soil fertility at a time when we need to grow more resilient crops to cope with climate change. Global food production could be reduced by up to 17% by 2100 due to climate-induced crop failures. All steps in a good direction are worth taking.

Andrew is not a proselytizer and this is not a religion. You don’t have to commit to permanent no-till everywhere to benefit from some very practical new skills, enabling you to increase the area in no-till practices. Different strategies work for different farms and different crops. Not inverting the soil layers is important. Any reduction in tillage is a good step; shallower is better than deeper; less often is better than after every crop. The tilther and power harrow on a shallow setting are used by some no-till farmers. One last tilling before setting up permanent beds is OK if that’s what you need to do! Think in terms of doing more no-till and take away any pressure to feel bad if you continue to do some tilling. One step at a time towards healing the earth, the climate; improving your soil and your crops.

The first part of the book explains the concepts and presents various methods: mulch grown in place; applied cardboard, deep straw or compost; occultation (tarping) and solarization (clear plastic). The main section consists of in-depth interviews with seventeen farmers about what works for them. After reading the first part, you can dive into the chapters with the methods that most appeal to you. The book is written so it doesn’t have to be read sequentially to make sense.

Andrew worked at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Research Farm on organic no-till vegetable production, using roller-crimpers and no-till drills. The next year he moved to a 3 acre farm and temporarily forgot about no-till because the methods he’d seen were not applicable to that scale. Ten years later, in 2016, he read articles in Growing for Market magazine, and attended conference workshops by farmers who were succeeding with organic no-till on smaller farms. These growers were using various different methods, and Andrew decided to visit them and write up the interviews.

“Want to build organic matter and soil biology because of the way you grow, instead of despite it?” Andrew asks. Increasing the organic matter in the soil will help the soil hold more water, suffer less from run-off and need less applied water per year (1″ (2.5 cm) of water saved per 1% increase in OM has been quoted). Carbon is stored in the soil, keeping it out of the atmosphere. Paying attention to the soil biology and feeding the soil is the heart of organic farming. We must farm more ecologically if we want to survive. At the same time, small-scale farms must be profitable to sustain the farmers. This book has many examples of farmers that started small with limited resources, and are able to make a decent living. Avoiding the need to buy heavy machinery is a big saving.

I love this surprise quote: “Tilling the soil is the equivalent of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado and forest fire occurring simultaneously to the world of soil organisms.” Which outspoken radical farming group made this proclamation? The USDA-NRCS! Taking care of the soil biology reduces the urge to compensate with chemistry. The less tillage, the better-off we can be. OM levels can rise quickly when tillage is reduced. Cover-cropping, adding compost and organic mulches are all ways to achieve this. The churning of tillage burns up OM. As Bryan O’Hara of Tobacco Road Farm, Connecticut, says, “Tillage is a nutrient flush from all the death you just wrought on the soil…Tillage doesn’t give nutrient balance, it gives you nutrient release.” More OM must be added every year just to maintain levels that were there before tilling.

Tarping is a rediscovered method that lets the soil digest the plant material without any tilling. This is especially useful when you have several weeks to spare after a harvest, but not enough time to grow a cover crop. The soil biology breaks down the residue, weed seeds germinate then die. The soil is left ready to replant.

After listing all the many benefits of no-till, Andrew explains the disadvantages. Weed control without cultivation is the main issue, especially perennial weeds. The slowness of mulched soil to warm in the spring is another. A third is that high OM can lead to more slugs. If you mulch with tree leaves, you might find squirrels and chipmunks rummaging for acorns. Grass creeps in from the edges. These problems are all addressed in the book.

Andrew Mefferd
Photo by Ann Mefferd

The Overview of Organic No-Till Techniques is a summary of methods, biodegradable mulches and plastic sheet materials.

Biodegradable mulch grown in place is the method we used for many years for our large planting of paste tomatoes. We sowed winter rye, hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas in early September, following our spring broccoli and cabbage. At the beginning of May we mowed down the cover crop with our hay cutting machine and the next day dug holes and transplanted the tomatoes. We used a small shovel for our big transplants. Shawn Jadrnicek suggests using a stand-up bulb planter. The legumes provided all the nitrogen the crop needed, and the long-cut cover crop kept the weeds at bay for maybe 6 weeks. By then we had trellised the tomatoes and were able to unroll big round bales of spoiled hay between the rows. This dealt with the weeds for the rest of the season. One year in ten in our row crops rotation was no-till. We tried a few other applications of this method but generally they didn’t work as well. We were unable to direct-seed into cut mulch, for instance. Our watermelons didn’t like the cold soil, and we wanted watermelons in August, not October! To grow big enough cover crops for this to work, the food crop has to be planted no earlier than late April in central Virginia. Paste tomatoes worked well because we didn’t need an early harvest. Transplanted Halloween pumpkins and winter squash work. Fall cabbage and broccoli (on German millet and soybeans) can also work.

Bringing in biodegradable mulch (hay, straw, cardboard, paper, compost, tree leaves, wood chips, spent brewers’ grains) is the second method. The material needs to be spread thickly, usually 3″ (7.5 cm) or more and used appropriately (don’t switch plans and till in raw wood chips!). Straw can cost $750 per acre covered. A round bale covers about 200′ by 5′. We use hay bales or biodegradable plastic on annual crops, cardboard and wood chips around our fruit plantings. The existing weeds and crop residues will need to be removed first. Flaming works for small weeds, otherwise use one of the sheeting methods. Read the book to get the all-important details on how to be successful.

The non-biodegradable mulch methods are tarping (occultation) and solarizing. Tarping was introduced to most of us by Jean-Martin Fortier in The Market Gardener. For annual no-till crops, first tarp the soil using an opaque material such as silage tarps (or solarize in hot weather). After killing the weeds, uncover, spread mulch and transplant into it. Tarps will not kill docks or nut-sedge. Tarping takes from 3-6 weeks, (the shorter time in hotter weather). Allow longer if you’re bringing new land into production. Plan ahead, and tarp all winter. Silage tarps warm the soil for early spring plantings, and also prevent soil moisture from evaporating.

Solarization uses clear plastic (old hoophouse plastic is ideal). In a summer hoophouse, solarization can be as quick as 24 hours, Andrew says. When we’ve done this, one of our goals was to kill nematodes and fungal diseases, not just weeds, so we waited a few weeks. Outdoors it takes several weeks. You can see when the weeds are dead. Bryan O’Hara poked a thermometer probe through solarization plastic and found a 50F degree (28C) difference between the outside air and the soil immediately under the plastic; a 10F (6C) difference at 1″ (2.5 cm) deep and little temperature gain lower than that. Solarization does not kill all the soil life!

The growers interviewed explain which methods they use and why, helping readers weigh the pros and cons for the various crops we are growing, and our resources, climate and soils. Andrew offers some pointers on which methods are likely to work best for which situations. Several farmers tell how they transitioned into organic no-till for various crops, for instance buckwheat, compost and Weed Guard Plus paper mulch for a garlic crop, followed by two crops of lettuce. Mossy Willow Farm in Australia has a designated area for direct-seeded crops, where they use sprinklers, and the tilther if needed. The rest of their farm (transplanted) uses drip irrigation, but the soil does get too clumpy for direct seeding, and is slower to improve.

Farmers also address the things that went wrong while they were learning (thin stands of cover crops, cover crops not dying, getting the timing wrong on seeding or roll-crimping, weed seeds blowing in from elsewhere). They describe equipment they found helpful (drop-spreaders to lay down even layers of woodchips or compost, landscape fabric, the stand-up bulb planter, Tilther, Jang seeder, paperpot transplanter, broadfork). They also address timing of cover crop sowing to avoid warm-season and cool-season weeds; extending the weed suppression period of cut or crimped cover crops by adding tree leaves; pre-irrigating before digging transplant holes; and many other tips to success. A strategy for tall crabgrass is to mow it down, cover with newspaper and compost. A border of comfrey plants all-round the garden does a great job of keeping grass out. You can quickly see how this book will pay for itself many times over!

No-till beds are ready for early spring crops, even in wet regions, if the beds are mulched overwinter. Because no-till builds soil upwards, it is a good technique for land that is very rocky or with shallow topsoil. Another advantage of no-till is that you can install fairly permanent irrigation (drip or sprinklers). And you can farm intensively on small areas without needing to cater to the turning radius of large machinery. Getting high productivity from small areas is becoming an essential factor to consider.

Potatoes are a soil disruptor, and can bring up new weed seeds, so it’s worth covering the beds as soon as the potatoes are harvested. At Four Winds Farm in New York State, they plant garlic in the fall after potatoes, then mulch over the top of the garlic with a thick layer of compost. In their bigger plan, they only plant garlic in every other bed (although composting all). The following spring they plant winter squash in the empty beds, which can take over all the space after the garlic is harvested.

As I read the interviews, I started to worry: were none of these farmers having a problem using such high amounts of compost? The first problem is making or buying the sorts of quantities they are using, but the second is a build-up of phosphorus, which we have experienced on our farm. Singing Frogs Farm has studied this, testing the water run-off in the ponds at the low-point of their land. The phosphorus stays in place in their system, it does not leach. Nor does the nitrogen. The soil biology sponges up the nutrients, the 3-8 crops they grow in a year absorb them. They don’t rely on compost for fertility, but now   use pelleted feather meal, calcium and rock dusts. Their compost use is 0.5″ (< 1 cm) per year, very different from the many farmers using much more.

Daniel Mays at Frith Farm in Maine believes cover crops provide a more active kind of organic matter, which is tailored to the soil. He is seeing better results than with compost. Roots in the Ground! Hedda Brorstrom, of Full Blossom Flower Farm, Sebastopol, CA is trending in the other direction. She points out that a lot of the compost for sale is made with lots of animal manures, which does send the phosphorus levels way up. Because growing cover crops was not working for her, she researched available composts carefully. High-carbon compost is a way to avoid sending the phosphorus levels up too much. She has used 4-8″ (10-20 cm) of compost per year.

Neversink Farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains point to intensive production (“the greenhouse mentality writ large”), 5 people working on 1.5 acres of permanent (not-raised) beds, and direct sales to customers, as factors in their success. As Conor Crickmore says proudly, “Our farming practices may be radical but they have resulted in our farm being one of the highest production farms per square foot in the country.” Close to $400,000 gross on 1.5 acres!

The collected wisdom and experience in The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution can save newer no-till farmers from a lot of frustration and wasted time, money and mental and emotional energy.

Book Review: Book Review: The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration, by Chris Smith

 

The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration

Chris Smith, Chelsea Green, June 2019

ISBN 978-1-60358-807-2, 272 pages, $29.95

This brand new book is a lot of fun, and the photos are stunning. It has more about okra than you knew you “Wanted to Know”. Oil from the seeds, eating the leaves, okra-stem drinking straws, okra seed tempeh, okra marshmallow delights, okra history and geography, medical and industrial uses and so much more. It contains growing tips and recipes, but is not limited to the practical realm.

Chris Smith lives in North Carolina and works with Sow True Seeds in Asheville. He is also a writer, speaker and consultant. He is an immigrant farmer, like me, coming from a climate where okra does not grow. “As a white British guy, I am fully aware that okra is not part of my culture or heritage. I have, however, fallen in love with okra and have tried to approach this book with integrity, and a deep appreciation of people and food.” Fortunately for us all, he persisted beyond his encounter with soggy, slimy, greasy fried okra to discover much better ways to use this versatile vegetable.

Burmese okra flower.
Photo by Raddysh Acorn

Chris has grown 76 varieties of okra, cooked it in many different recipes, and experimented on himself and his family with “beauty” preparations and alcoholic tinctures and beverages. He is growing another 76 different varieties in 2019. The USDA Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) holds 1099 separate accessions from all over the world. India grows the most okra, by far (over 6 million tons in 2014). Nigeria is second with 2 million tons. The US is 21st in line (producing 10,000 tons in 2014). The US also imports 50,000 tons mostly from Mexico and Central America.

In his introduction, Chris says: “Not embracing okra because it’s slimy is like not visiting the Alps because you’re scared of heights.” Okra is often dismissed these days as a vegetable people don’t like, although it used to be a favorite of many. In the 1900s, the Tabasco brand of canned okra sold well.

We need resilient crops in the face of climate change; we need to grow more of our own food, eat locally, organic, and with less or no meat, to survive the uncertainties ahead. Zero food waste has become a goal of some chefs (and no doubt, some home cooks too). The Whole Okra provides help with several steps on this journey.

Early in the book, Chris embraces the S-word (slime), including some great photos of his smiling family with okra slime face masks and okra-slice eye pads, and himself with okra mucilage hair conditioner. Although Chris is only recommending things he’s tried himself, he does mention some untested ideas, like substituting okra juice for mallow juice as a tonic. A (tested) recipe for okra marshmallow delights is included. Adding acidic ingredients (think tomatoes, lemon juice) to a recipe will effectively cut through the sliminess.

Pickled garlic scapes, okra and beets.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

If you have grown okra, you will probably be familiar with the sudden glut that arrives at some (hot) point in the summer. Here are instructions for freezing okra, pickling (both by fermenting and with vinegar), drying (best when strung on dental floss). Best of all are the okra chips (season 2 pounds (907 g) of pods with oil, salt, spices, roast at 500F (260C) for 20 mins, then 170F (75C) for 2-3 hours). 4 ounces (113 g) of tasty crunchy chips! Who knew? There’s also info on pressure canning, and okra kimchi, which can be dried, powdered and used as a seasoning.

Close up of Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Okra can be self-pollinating, but produces more seeds per pod when pollinated by insects. There is a specialized native okra bee, Ptilothrix bombiformis. Okra is not native to North America, but rose-mallow and hibiscus are. The flowers are edible cooked, but of course you won’t get an okra pod if you’ve eaten the flower. Unlike squash, okra does not have separate female and male flowers. Flowers can be dried, used in tea blends, or in vodka for tinctures and nightcaps. Only eat flowers if you have an over-abundance of pods or you are about to go away for a long weekend and don’t want to come home to a mass of woody pods. Believe it or not, Chris has uses for woody pods too! These can often be obtained free or cheap in high summer. Don some gloves. Open the pods and shell out the immature seeds, which can be cooked and eaten then, or blanched and frozen for winter. Thoroughly dry the empty pods, then powder them, and sift through a fine mesh. The pod powder can be used as a thickening agent in place of cornstarch.

Young okra plants.
Photo Wren Vile

The young leaves make appetizing summer greens and are higher in protein than the pods. They are used (mixed with yam and other vegetables) by the Igbo people of Nigeria. Choose very young leaves, or fairly young leaves of a variety without spiny leaves. Heavy Hitter is the variety to grow for large supple spineless leaves. A close cousin of okra, abika, is used as an important leafy green in some Pacific Island nations. Seeds can be bought from Monticello, under the name Sunset Hibiscus.

Deep-fried young leaves can make crisp chips, like kale chips, but different. If you are saving okra seed, you will often have more seeds than you need to grow, you can sow those for microgreens. Chris has a small aquaponics system made from a barrel. Goldfish (and tilapia in summer) are in the bottom section of the barrel and the water is pumped to the top section which grows the microgreens.

Mature okra seed has a tough hull and a nutritious kernel which can be ground into flour and used in soups, sauces, gravies, and okra seed tofu and tempeh. Back to woody pods: they can make Christmas tree ornaments, earrings, strings of holiday lights (hint: cool LED bulbs, not fire-prone hot bulbs), and painted ornamental figurines. Crushed pods can be used to grow mushrooms. I’m waiting to find out if Chris suggests using them as mulch, or as firelighters. (My Advance Readers’ Copy doesn’t have an index).

Cow Horn okra pods and flower.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

It was known in 1874 and in 1919 that oil can be extracted from okra seeds, but forgotten since. Chris describes hand-cranking his Piteba oil press, for small yields of delicious yellow-green oil. In a comparison of okra oil with that from sunflowers, safflower, soy and sesame [why only the oils that start with S?] the yield of okra oil per hectare is second only to sunflower. The yield pf protein is the highest, beating soy. Clay Oliver makes artisanal small-batch oils, including okra. In a study by Robert Jarret, the oil content varied by variety from 9.19% to 21.56%.

Okra seed flour has high levels of protein and fat, and an impressive range of amino acids. It can be made into bread and other baked goods, mixed with cornmeal. Okra seed was used as a coffee substitute during the civil war. Chris tries everything, and reports that the roasted seeds, when ground, release an appetizing coffee aroma, and look just like coffee, but the beverage tastes nothing like coffee (and has no caffeine). So much for that!

Okra stalk fiber is next – you can make cordage or crochet a hat. Okra is related to jute, kenaf, roselle, kapok and even cotton. Paper is another option. Okra paper is beautiful, strong, and you can make your own paper or twine, following Chris’s instructions. It never caught on commercially, because supply could not meet demand.

Okra seedlings in a Winstrip tray in the greenhouse.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Naturally enough, there is a chapter on growing okra. I was amazed to learn that at about 3 weeks of age the 6″ (15 cm) tall plant could have a taproot three times as long! At full maturity, the tap root could be 4½ ft (1.4 m).  This suggests okra would be sturdier if direct sown, rather than transplanted, but you work with the climate you’ve got! To avoid stunting the taproot, get the small plants in the ground as soon as you can. But it needs to be warm enough. Bruce Adams at Furman University suggests waiting until the butterflies migrate from the South.

Here’s the info you need to get your seed germinated: Warmth, soaking the seed for 8 hours in water at 88F (31C). Get the book for all the details. There are several false rural myths out there about growing okra. Okra has naturalized in the Red River floodplain in Louisiana, and also near Durham, North Carolina, where it survived some freezing temperatures.

Our mulched Cow Horn okra plants in June.
Photo Pam Dawling

Recommendations on spacing vary a lot: as close as 6″ (15 cm) in rich soil, to 24″ (60 cm) for some of the bigger varieties elsewhere. Wider spacing leads to more branches and more pods per plant, but not necessarily more pods for a given area.

And the important matter of deciding when a pod is mature but not too fibrous receives good attention, and a helpful photo, although Chris does warn that it’s best to develop a feel for the rigidity of tough pods. You can’t tell just by length, even within a variety you know well, as the weather will change the size of a mature pod. Chris recommends snapping the end off a trial pod. A clean snap indicates a good meal ahead. A pod that doesn’t snap or that “splinters” is too woody. Three to nine days after flowering is how long it takes to mature a pod (and 40 days from flowering to mature seed). An experienced grower suggests harvesting 4 days after flowering, regardless of length. In drought it might be 2″ (5 cm) long, in warm rainy weather 6-7″ (15-18 cm) Chris includes a hilarious description comparing reactions of Americans and British family and friends being served tough okra. As a fellow Brit, I laughed aloud. Buy the book, I won’t spoil the suspense!

Store the unwashed pods in a cool damp place after removing the field heat.. I was intrigued at the description of Zero Energy Cool Chambers (ZECC) in India, but wonder which part of India, and if this would work in a humid climate.

The back of the book includes a summary of Chris’s 2018 variety trial and includes descriptions his observations, including pod spininess, branching and productivity.

And to end this review, no, Chris did not mention what great kindling dried okra pods make, nor what great long-lasting, weed-free mulch they provide. (I recognize you need to grow a lot of okra seed to produce enough mulch to write about!) Thanks Chris! An entertaining read, and lots of practical information, and inspiring photos!

Book Review: The New Organic Grower, 30th Anniversary Edition, Eliot Coleman

Cover photo of Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower from Chelsea Green

The New Organic Grower, 30th Anniversary Edition, Eliot Coleman, Chelsea Green, published October 2018.  ISBN 978-1-60358-817-1, 304 pages, $29.95 Full color photos and illustrations throughout.

This anniversary edition comes almost 30 years since the first edition in 1989. There was also a 1995 edition, which I’m guessing is the one on the bookshelves of most people farming today. Given that carrots grow the same way they did 30 years ago you may be wondering if you need the new edition. Eliot Coleman’s wisdom was good in 1989 – how much better can it get?

The first thing I noticed is that the new book is half the thickness of the old one. That’s mostly because the quality of recycled paper has made vast improvements! This book is 304 pages, the old one was 340. Most of the reduction is in the Recommended Tools and Suppliers section. Eliot recommends using the internet. Of course the internet doesn’t say which work well for Eliot, but he can be seen talking about which tools he likes on videos and in Johnny’s seed catalog.

Much of the text remains just the same. The new preface is the same as that of the 1995 edition, with a bit more travel and research trips. The drawings have gone, to make way for the photos by Barbara Damrosch. The addition of color photos is the second most obvious change, and mouth-watering they are! I do regret the loss of a few specific drawings, especially the crop spacing ones and related chart. With hindsight, I realize the previous editions contained several crop spacing charts. To my relief, these have not disappeared, but have been consolidated and rationalized in the chapter about setting out transplants. The newer chart is more functional if less characterful.

The other main kind of change is the introduction to newer tools and equipment: Jang seeder, 4-row and 6-row seeders, Quick-Cut greens Harvester, Cool-Bot, screen pyramids, and Quick Hoops.  Coldframes have ceded to low tunnels; large soil blocks have been replaced by 6″ pots. The 15-page historical progress of moveable hoophouses has gone, to focus 6 pages on the current preferred type/method, but no diagrams. The Season Extension chapter has lots new.

As I started reading I was disappointed at so little new. But then I started to find information I had forgotten, or not registered on previous readings! If, like me, you have not opened this book for 10 years, you’ll probably find useful tips. And Eliot only writes about things that have been tested out on his farm. Naturally, for those of us in different climate zones, this brings limitations. We’ll have to look elsewhere for more regionally appropriate details, but we can rely on the truth of what Eliot says works in Maine, and extrapolate from that.

There is a new little chapter The Self-Fed Farm, on combining vegetable and small-livestock farming, which I welcome, for its plain common sense on how to be resilient and get the best food supply from a small farm.

There’s a 2-page section by Barbara Damrosch on cut flowers, which can often be a way to bring in higher income to balance the national expectation for cheap food (yes, it would be good if we could change this expectation, but meanwhile we need to survive to tackle that challenge over the long haul.)

Much has gone from the 1995 28-page Winter Harvest Project chapter, which is now a slimmer 7 pages. Perhaps the extra material is covered in the Winter Harvest Handbook.

The annotated bibliography has only a few additions. The notes that used to be in the margins are now collected up at the end of the book. The metric conversions are now in place in the text, everywhere needed. No longer do we need to make our own conversions, using charts. I’m happy about that, and it will make the book easier to use in the large metric part of the world.

The chapter A Final Question – Why Farm? has been replaced by The Adventure of Organic Farming, which is Eliot’s answer to his earlier question. It’s a potted memoir of how rock-climbing led him to organic farming, along with his perspective (which is a long one, remember) on the Organic Farming movement. He quotes Eric Hoffer “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” We now have “organic” dairies of thousands of cows, and “organic hydroponic” vegetables grown without benefit of soil. Only by buying direct from the farmers can people be sure of good quality and care for the environment and the planet’s long-term future. Or by growing your own, of course. Have at it!

If you haven’t opened any of Eliot’s books for ten years, it’s time you did. If you haven’t got the 1995 edition or the 1989 edition, buy this. If beautiful photos will help inspire you or your crew, buy this.

Book Review: Farming While Black, Leah Penniman

Farming While Black, Leah Penniman, Chelsea Green, November 2018

ISBN 978-1-60358-761-7, 368 pages, $34.95 Full color photos and illustrations throughout.

 

This timely book is Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. As Karen Washington says in the foreword, it “sheds light on the richness of Black Culture permeating throughout agriculture.” It’s practical, political, spiritual, uplifting and inspiring.

Before I go any further, I should say I’m white. I’m a farmer, a first generation immigrant, an enthusiastic reader of good farming books, and someone who likes to pass things she learns on to others. I love that this book brings farming wisdom from African and Caribbean cultures, gems like information on the susu Caribbean community mutual lending groups and inventive methods of farming with small material resources. I love that this book opens our eyes wider to the historical and current, shamefully unjust treatment of people of color as they farm. The title is perfect.

Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer who has been working as a farmer for 20 years and as an anti-racist food activist for 15 years, and a mother for some years too. She is a founder of the ten-person Soul Fire Farm in New York, which supplies low-cost healthy food to people living in places where they would otherwise be without good food. The farm offers training programs to Black, Latinx and Indigenous new farmers, as well as Black youth who would otherwise have received punitive court sentences, and anti-racism workshops.

Throughout the book are sidebars with the title “Uplift”, bringing wisdom from the African Diaspora. There are also tales from her own learning curve, such as letting the excitement over finding land blind her to the impoverished nature of the soil there, and the lack of road, electricity or even a house. She passes on to us her 13-point list of characteristics of suitable land, and her three essentials for farming: land, training and material resources. She knows the conventional resources, the unconventional ones, and how to tap into them. For instance, squatting land and activating an adverse possession claim after paying taxes for enough years, or making use of the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative programs.

As a result of decades of USDA discrimination and white injustice, the percentage of farms owned by Black farmers in the US has gone down from 14% in 1920 to less than 2% today. USDA is starting to make amends by offering some greater resources to “historically disadvantaged” farmers. There is a long way to go, to undo past harm. Land injustice continues today. Over 80% of food eaten in the US is grown by Latinx workers, but only 2% of farm managers are Latinx. A bright spot during the Great Depression was the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, an interracial organization that used nonviolent protest to demand their fair share of government support.

The Uplift sidebar about the New Communities Land Trust particularly interested me. This, the first community land trust in the US, was set up in 1969 as a 5,700 acre farm collective owned in common by Black farmers. Yes, they were shot at by some white neighbors, and suffered thefts. They were denied emergency drought relief in 1981-82, while white farmers received funds. In 1985 they had to fold and sell the land. In 1999 they settled a civil rights case for $1.2 billion and re-established on a 1,600 acre former plantation, renamed Resora.

This book contains many useful resources I have not found in such concentration elsewhere! Contact lists for farm training programs, and in particular, ones led by people of color, with an awareness of the political implications of white-led programs that ask people to work for no pay, doing work that benefits the landowner. She tells of some specific acts of reparation where a European-descent person with means transferred a portion of their land to the descendants of those who created the wealth. She encourages people of color to be specific in asking for reparations, suggesting “If you want advice, ask for money. If you want money, ask for advice.”

When it comes to asking for loans, many Black people do not have access to conventional credit because of the legacy of structural racism. Alternative resources such as susu are needed. These are microfinance membership groups that pool subscriptions and fund one member at a time. Leah Penniman offers models of financial sustainability that question capitalism and reinforce the understanding that land has belonged to people in common for much longer than it has been owned privately. Those who have known want don’t assume that the world owes them/us anything, and so will want to pay close attention to financial agreements.

Sharing work via the konbit system is another way for people to support each other to get timely tasks completed. Every farm gets the chance to receive the help as well as provide it. This book provides a great deal of help. In return, don’t look for the cheapest place to buy it! Pay the fair price, or even offer reparations if you are from a family that benefited from historical exploitation of people of color.

The book offers help with clarifying your mission and goals, and making a farm business plan. Soul Fire’s goals include training and empowering aspiring Black, Latinx and Indigenous growers and young people, providing healing, offering education in environmental justice, food sovereignty and other transformative justice, supplying good food locally at affordable prices, sharing their farming model, collaborating with other Black land justice networks and being a culture that cares for the well-being of its workers.

There are work songs! Learn them at www.farmingwhileblack.org. There’s an explanation of Cultural Appropriation and Appropriate Use on page 69. Share, don’t seek to control or get private gain.

Leah Penniman
Photo Credit: Jamel Mosely Mel

There’s a whole chapter on restoring degraded land, which Leah Penniman surely knows well, having started with soil listed as marginal and unsuitable for growing crops. She addresses remediating soils contaminated with lead, an especial problem in urban soils which are more likely to be available at lower prices, financially speaking. She shares specifics about Haitian farmers’ work to remediate the soils they inherited after colonialism, using vetiver perennial grass planted on contour to prevent further erosion. Leah Penniman gives step-by-step instructions on soil testing, chelating the lead (acidifying the soil), using specific plants for phyto-remediation, removing the mature plants for disposal as hazardous waste, and retesting your soil.

There are details of how to measure the slope on your land using only a line level and string. This is so you can mark contour lines and create terraces, plant fruit trees and stabilize the soil. There is a very clear description of using tarps to smother weeds without tillage. (I am so relieved we can now call this process “tarping” rather than the cumbersome “occultation”!) The Feeding the Soil chapter explains the difference between the “energy-drink” effect of chemical amendments and “nutritious-meal” amendment with compost, rock dusts or seaweed. Cation Exchange Capacity is beautifully explained with a hip-hop metaphor comparing the number of binding sites to the number of vocalists!

The Crop Planning chapter offers crops unusual in the US as well as staples. I was tickled to find Soul Fire Farm calls their high tunnel “North Carolina” because its microclimate is more like that state than New York. We called ours (in Virginia) Trinidad for similar reasons! I like the idea of using a piece of wire mesh (hardware cloth) on top of an open flat to help with seed spacing.

The Tools and Technology chapter gives advice for simple affordable hand-made equipment (such as worktables at the right height), and using fingers, knuckles, hand-spans and length of stride as measuring instruments that will always be with you. There is a one-page equipment checklist which includes a hammock for after-lunch siesta!

The chapter on seed-keeping tells of the 2013 success of the Haitian Peasant Movement G4 in winning the Global Food Sovereignty Prize for their rejection of a large donation of seeds from Monsanto despite the challenges caused by the huge 2010 earthquake. That takes courage as well as wisdom and long-term thinking.

Unlike most crop production books, this one includes chapters on raising livestock, plant medicine (with recipes), cooking and preserving, healing from trauma, building a movement and how white allies can be helpful in uprooting racism. There is also a chapter on Honoring the Spirits of the Land.

In the Urban Farming chapter we learn more about the Great Migration which pushed 6 million African Americans from the rural Southeast into the cities of the North, Midwest and West. They were moving away from lynching, land theft and other forms of racial violence, as well as share-cropping, loan discrimination and other unjust practices. By 1970, 80% of African Americans lived in cities. The National Housing Act of 1934 institutionalized housing discrimination, ranking Black neighborhoods (marked in red on the maps) too risky for mortgages. This led to lowering of property values, and decline of Black neighborhoods.  Veterans returning from World War II were entitled to zero-interest mortgages, but these were illegally denied to African American veterans. Sadly, white “pioneers” have co-opted urban farming in many African American neighborhoods, getting grants that were denied to the Black leaders of area improvements. This chapter provides information on starting and maintaining urban farms, all the way from finding land (look at tax maps of vacant lots, find the most recent owner, open negotiations), through navigating “nuisance ordinances”, making land-use agreements, collecting rainwater, growing in small spaces and vermi-composting.

The Youth on Land chapter is about including young people in farming, Working outdoors provides physical, emotional and spiritual well-being; reduces stress, social anxiety, depression, disease and impulsivity and increases focus, creativity, agility, eye sight, life satisfaction and more. It provides a sense of a life worth living. For three years, Soul Fire Farm had a Project Justice which trained court-adjudicated youth at their farm for 50 hours, instead of them being persuaded by the lawyer to accept a plea bargain for a lighter sentence than they would get if found guilty (whether they were guilty or not). Once young people have a criminal record, they are more likely to become a target of law enforcement, and the pipeline from school to prison becomes cemented in place.

Book Review: Start Your Farm, by Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk

Start Your Farm: The Authoritative Guide to Becoming a Sustainable 21st Century Farmer.  Essentials for Growing and Raising Vegetables, Fruits, Livestock, Grains for Market. Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk, The Experiment, New York. ISBN 978-1-61519-489-6

This is a book for new farmers, from two Virginia farmers. It is not an instruction manual on growing crops or raising livestock, nor on accounting and marketing. It is a book of suggestions on what aspiring sustainable farmers need to ponder, reflect on, take a cold hard look at before starting a farm of their own. It is a hybrid of insights, self-help wisdom, business savvy, and experience at the pointy end. The book addresses the huge problem of finding affordable land, and coming up with retirement plans that let you pass the farm down to the next generation, rather than selling it so you have a retirement fund. Their goal is to inspire as many new farmers as possible, so the focus is on small-scale manageable operations, which can provide success, and a very satisfying, joyful experience, along with the long hours of hard work.

The last chapter of the book, “Go!” can stand alone as a wonderful encouragement to new or beginning farmers – or actually old and retiring farmers too! The chapter is beautifully poetic. It leads us step by step through Your First Day, Your First Harvest, Your First Sale, imagining what that will be like. Next follows the caution: “It’s not rainbows and sweet breezes all the time.” Here’s encouragement to be prepared, to do what you have to, to respect the forces of nature, and be ready for the amazement, the unexpected awe and respect for nature. “The only thing we know for sure is that when we pour our passion into what we love, we end up with more than we give.”

Forrest Pritchard

Forrest is a seventh-generation farmer, raised on a 2000 acre farm that has provided corn, soybeans, apples, cherries, cattle, pigs, chickens. When his turn at the helm came, he transitioned the farm to sustainable livestock. Ellen is a first-generation farmer, growing vegetables since she was a teenager. She was hired in the 1990’s to manage one arm of Potomac Vegetable Farms, and went on to own this much admired and successful operation. This book provides different sorts of wisdom from each author. Hence each writes the chapters they have most expertise in, with some cross-fertilization of ideas. Both are very engaging writers.

Ellen Polishuk

As recently as 100 years ago, almost 40% of Americans were full-time farmers. Today it is less than 2%. The responsibility for feeding our society rests on the independent, altruistic farmers who devote their efforts to produce food for everyone else. Forrest calls them volunteers.

The authors caution that farming is for pragmatists, not perfectionists. Getting something 100% right in farming is not only rarely possible, it’s also rarely necessary. It’s better to be able to hoe beans quickly, with a few casualties, than to spend forever hoeing perfectly. There’s just too much to get done in a timely way. Good enough is better than perfect. Time is as valuable as money. In the short-term, you may be able to use off-farm income to help you get your farm up and running. Long-term (or sooner!) you’ll need to make enough for the farm to pay for all work done, and also make a profit (for retirement, kids’ college fund, a new tractor, another hoophouse).

Each chapter ends with a few searching questions, to help you get the most out of what you just read. Questions to help you assess your strengths and weaknesses, explore things you were ignoring and generally prepare yourself for the exciting huge task ahead. They also caution against biting off more than you can chew initially. Don’t grow every vegetable and flower and raise every possible kind of livestock! Start simpler and build up to your ideal level of diversity.

Don’t assume you should start by buying land. Life will be easier if you find land to farm that you don’t have to buy. The key is access to land, not acquisition, and the authors provide many models of how this can come about. There is a whole generation of farmers who want to retire, help a new generation of farmers start farming and see their land continue in agriculture. Debt-financed land purchasing is their least-recommended route. If that’s what you have to do, bypass conventional banks, go to the Farm Services Agency, which offers farm-friendly financing options, or look around for companies specializing in loans to farmers.

Forrest explains the blind-spot many of us have about compensating for the value of the land. The land, as an investment, needs to provide a financial return, in the same way that you’d expect from a pile of cash equal in value to the land. You wouldn’t leave the pile of cash under the mattress – you’d invest it so it would grow in value at least as much as annual inflation. And yet it can be hard to see that if we don’t get a similar return from a piece of land, it becomes an asset that steadily loses value that we are subsidizing with our time.

Forrest explains how the nation came to expect cheap food, and the consequences this has for farmers, and farming land. He explains how, from the sixteenth century onwards, land in North America was given free (we know who they took it from) to those favored by the people in power; to soldiers returning from the Revolutionary War; to those willing to farm in Florida (by Spain), or California (by Mexico); and then under the 1862 Homestead Act 270 million acres were given to 1.6 million farmers, a practice that continued as late as 1986 in Alaska. This lead generation after generation to not account for the value of the land properly. And so, cheap lettuce, cheap hamburgers, and a big challenge for farmers today to make a living and buy land.

Ellen writes an important introduction to soil physical composition, chemistry, biology, and explains replacing nutrients removed in crops. When visiting potential farms, give the soil good attention. This topic comes up again when Forrest writes about the importance of “putting things back” whether that’s tools or soil nutrients.

Ideas of complete independence and creative freedom as farmers can be a figment of our imaginations. We get a clear explanation of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and how this is going to have effects (which we have no control over) on our costs and our income. Your hard-striven-for crop might end up losing in the competition with an imported bumper crop being sold at rock-bottom prices. I’m also thinking about this year’s US soybean farmers whose markets in China have been strongly damaged by tariffs. For maximum independence from uncontrollable factors, look for sustainable markets that are less dependent on mainstream commodity system supplies or outlets. Identify a need, find the angle that is the best fit between your local customer and your strengths, foster your relationships.

Ellen’s chapter on Tai Chi Economics suggests methods to deal with uncontrollable outside economic forces, such as regional competition, government policies, national drought, international competition. What we can charge for tomatoes in Oregon is impacted by the price of natural gas in Pennsylvania, or the wages of underpaid farm workers in Florida. In Tai Chi, use grace to meet incoming force, engage that force until it wears itself out, and learn from your opponent. “The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and the strong” (Lao-tzu). Develop holistic skills to make a profit while growing nutritious food for the world. “Those who say it can’t be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

“Profit” is not a dirty word – profit allows the farm to grow and develop, pay decent wages, and provide security in case of disaster, and generally fund your life. The Tai Chi opportunity: make a profit while achieving the triple bottom line of a sustainable business: ecological stewardship, social justice, and economic viability.

Veggie Compass is a free farm management tool for diversified fresh market vegetable growers. It uses a spreadsheet to help farmers compute the real costs of growing a hundred crops and several different marketing channels. This tool can help farmers find which crops are their most successful, and which are the losers. The choices become clearer. If you are selling eggs at $6 a dozen, but they cost you $7 to produce, you’d do better just handing out dollar bills and not keep the hens at all. Let the antiquated notion of cheap food flow right past you! No other business apologizes for supplying a high quality product at a fair price. Record-keeping (noticing and writing down what happens and how well it worked) enables you to make improvements, rather than random changes.

Forrest introduces the Money Triangle. Financial stability depends on your potential to earn money, save money, and give money, in a balanced way. Savings are the catalyst for financial success. He suggests the 10% Plan. Make at least 10% net profit, save at least 10% of the profits (invested at 10% interest), give away 10% of what your investments make for you. It’s also a good rule for debt: never borrow more than 10% of your gross annual income, or pay more than 10% interest, preferably not more than 5%.

Three rules for beating the odds in farming: 1. If it’s broken, stop and fix it (relationships as well as tools); 2. Put it back where you found it (soil nutrients as well as tools); 3. Do what you say you are going to do (your customers’ trust, as well as faith in yourself.)

Forrest points out the wisdom of accepting that you won’t be able to function as a superior producer, an excellent bookkeeper and an all-star salesperson for more than a couple of years – you will need to get some help. Perhaps temporarily hire a professional salesperson who seems a good match, to identify good sales channels for you.

Ellen writes on Love, Work and Harmony. Grumpiness should be reserved for the time working alone! Build up relationship skills, you’ll need them with workers, friends and customers. To earn an annual income of $40,000 to $50,000, you would need to grow, harvest and market $125,000 worth of agricultural products. This is very difficult for one human alone. You need a workforce, and for that, you need good communication. Interns are students, not unpaid workers. The farmer has an obligation to educate, coach, encourage, and train any interns. This takes time away from production. Communication dramas can be the hardest part of farming. Learn early on how to speak your truth without criticism or blame and learn how to listen without taking offense. Keep time for the important people in your life, learn to leave the stresses outside your house, stick to daily finishing times. And don’t expect too much of yourself. “If you think you can farm and parent small children at the exact same time, you are doing neither activity well.” (Jean-Martin Fortier). If you have more than six people working for you, then keeping them, happy and productive is a full-time management job (Chris Blanchard). Don’t expect to cope with farming on your own in a place where you don’t know anybody – make a priority of finding folks to connect with.

Forrest writes on the Beautiful Paradox of Failure. No two seasons are the same. “Sustainable farming is built around the expectation that things change, that adaptability and innovation remain paramount, and that failure, when it occurs, is a critical teaching tool.” Failure arrives in many forms, despite all efforts to prevent it. And yet, without failure, we are less likely to improve. Forrest also discusses failures of faith, periods of despondency (mostly during droughts). He invites us, in the end-of-chapter questions, to think back to our biggest failures, how they shaped us, what we learned, and whether it still feels like a failure, in hindsight. Mine was the year I left the sweet potatoes in the ground too late, hoping for more growth to make up for a late start. Fall turned wet and cold and the sweet potatoes rotted or got chilling injury. It was a big mess. I learned a lot more about sweet potatoes as a result. It does still feel like a failure, although one of understandable ignorance. No-one around me knew any better at that time. I think it lead to me doing more research and record-keeping, perhaps even helped shape my path as a writer.

Ellen writes about how to appreciate the beauty around us, the daily moments of wonder, and our healthy lifestyle, although perhaps not the midnight struggles in the rain to set some emergency to rights. We do learn that it doesn’t matter if we have a headache, or feel lazy or sad, somethings just have to be done. Ellen calls this the priority of biology over attitude. We can call upon the grounding resources of clean air, vibrant plants, as remedies for our off days. We know producing food is a good and noble cause. If you read the final chapter first, read it again now!

Lettuce slideshow, Mother Earth News Fair, FaceBook Live, Top summer blogposts, upcoming events

We drove home seven hours from the Pennsylvania Mother Earth News Fair yesterday through the rain. The remnants of Hurricane Florence. We were among the lucky people. Earlier forecasts for Florence had the hurricane raging across central Virginia.

At the Fair, I gave two workshops: Fall and Winter Hoophouses and my new Lettuce Year Round, which you can view right here. Click the diagonal arrows icon to get a full screen view.

I had a bit too much material for a one-hour time-slot, so those of you who were there and felt disappointed at what I had to leave out, you can see it here.

While I as at the Fair I did a FaceBook Live Interview about gardening in hoophouses, with another author, Deborah Niemann. Look on Facebook for Deborah Niemann-Boehle or click the topic link above. She has several books: Raising Goats Naturally, Homegrown & Handmade, and Ecothrifty.

Shade cloth on a bed of lettuce in summer.
Photo Nina Gentle

Meanwhile, Mother Earth News tells me that my post 20 Tips for Success in Germinating Seeds in Hot Weather is in third place for most popular posts this summer.

The winner  An Effective and Non-Toxic Solution for Getting Rid of Yellow Jackets’ Nests by Miriam Landman got 43,328 views in 3 months!

Weeding rowcovered spinach in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

Looking at my own website statistics, I find that for this week, the most popular posts are

  1. Winter Kill Temperatures of Winter-Hardy Vegetables 2016
  2. Soil tests and high phosphorus levels
  3. How to deal with green potatoes
  4. .Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2018
  5. Alliums for September

For all-time, the bias is naturally on posts that have been around longest,

  1. Garlic scapes! Three weeks to bulb harvest! Is most popular, followed closely by
  2. Winter Kill Temperatures of Winter-Hardy Vegetables 2016.
  3. How to deal with green potatoes is still #3.
  4.  The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month,
  5. Harvesting Melons
  6. Book Review, Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier
  7. Wnter Hardiness
  8. Book Review: The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman and
  9. Setting out biodegradable plastic mulch by hand
Rolling biodegradable plastic mulch by hand
Photo Wren Vile

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I’ve updated my Events page again, now that the September- April  “Events Season” has hotted up. I’ve added in a couple of new ones and updated some others. Click the Events tab to find conferences and fairs near you, and be sure to come and introduce yourself!

Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, at the Heritage Harvest Festival Tomato Tasting.
Photo courtesy of Monticello

The Heritage Harvest Festival  is September 21-22 Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia

I’m giving a Premium Workshop on Friday Sept 21, 3-4 pm Classroom 7. Click the link HERE to book for that.

Feeding the Soil

In this workshop I will introduce ways to grow and maintain healthy soils: how to develop a permanent crop rotation in seven steps, and why your soil will benefit from this; how to choose appropriate cover crops; how to make compost and how to benefit from using organic mulches to feed the soil. Handouts.

Book-signing Friday 4.15 – 4.45 pm.

On Saturday there are events all day from 10am to 5pm. $26 general admission.

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Saturday September 29, 2018  Allegheny Mountain Institute Farm at Augusta Health,  Fishersville, VA 22939. 9 am – noon

I’m giving a two-hour Class on Season Extension, followed by one-hour Q&A teaching tour of the hoophouse and greenhouse.

Book Review, The Bio-integrated Farm by Shawn Jadrnicek

Publisher: Chelsea Green. ISBN: 9781603585880

This book, by Shawn and Stephanie Jadrnicek, was hidden in my “to read” pile for too long! The title doesn’t make it clear enough that this is an authoritative text on all kinds of water management on the farm: integrating ponds, swales, ditches, water catchment, heat storage in water, irrigation, water for light reflection in winter, fish and shrimp-farming. Chickens and black soldier flies, compost-making and vegetable production in hoophouses and outdoors are all part of the bigger picture.

This book speaks from Shawn Jadrnicek’s experience at the Clemson University Student Organic Farm in South Carolina, and at his own homestead. The author tells us honestly when things he tried didn’t work out, and why. It is a permaculture book written for non-believers as well as the converted. It does not mystify with strange jargon. It does not make unsubstantiated claims about how things ought to be. Full disclosure: I suffer from having read too much permaculture writing that was obscure, convoluted, not backed with direct experience and written for people with a lot of time and only a small piece of land. This book is a breath of fresh air! The ideas have been tested on a farm scale, with a close eye on efficiency. It’s written for market farmers, homesteaders and serious gardeners, showing how to make best use of natural resources to help feed the world. Each technique has to have at least seven functions to qualify for inclusion in the author’s farming practices and the book.

You may not want to follow all of the author’s methods. I, for one, am not going to grow hydroponically. (I doubt that fully nutritious food can be grown without soil, with just the nutrients we know to feed in.) You may not want a hoophouse that is almost all pond. But you may be very happy to find a book that describes how to build a hoophouse on sloping land; very happy to learn how to grade your land to move rainwater away from where you don’t want it to sit, to where you do want it to improve growth of your pastures. You may be very happy to learn how to use a pond to grow minnows (tadpoles in the non-minnow season) to feed chickens. You may like the idea of filling your hoophouse with sweet potatoes or cowpeas in summer to act as a “smother crop,” dealing with weeds while keeping the soil alive. Perhaps you’d like to try freshwater prawn (large shrimp) farming? The regulations are easier than for fish-farming. Giant river prawns can weigh as much as a pound, they are easy to process and cook, and they sell at a good price.

Water management fills over half of the book, complemented by 30 pages on chickens, 33 on compost, 13 on fly farming, 28 on field layout and drainage, and 56 pages of case studies. Most of the vegetable production mentioned takes place in hoophouses (high tunnels). The book includes various ideas for heating the indoor crops, using hydronics (indirect heating with water in pipes warmed in outdoor ponds or compost piles), indoor ponds with solar pool covers, and compost piles leaning on the sidewall of the hoophouse. The information on rainwater harvesting includes checking your roofing material for toxicity (there is a special coating you can put on if necessary), how to avoid leaves clogging gutters (cleverly designed downspout filters), regulations about harvested rainwater, how to make gravity flow toilets and gravity drip irrigation systems that really work, and how to find the data and do the calculations. The level of detail in this book inspires confidence!

The chicken-farming system in this book uses a permanent coop and alley (mulched corridor) along with temporary pens made with electric netting. This makes better use of resources than free-ranging, unless you have only mature trees and grass. The birds get 30% of their dietary needs from the landscape, if rotated every 6-12 days onto perennial clover and grass pasture that has regrown to 4-8″ in height. This system ensures the chickens can always reach shade, and you can reseed bare spots in the resting pens with rye, wheat, millet, sunflowers and buckwheat, and reduce their feed costs by 30%. I liked the careful thinking and observation behind this scheme.

And then we come to the black soldier flies. The mesh flooring of the chicken pen lets the manure fall through into a fly digester below. The fly larvae digest the manure and grow, later becoming chicken food themselves. I wasn’t initially attracted to the idea of deliberately breeding flies, but the system has a lot going for it. Black soldier flies (Hermetia illucens) are not a pest. In fact they out-compete houseflies and thus reduce their numbers 95%! The adult soldier flies live only 5-15 days – they have no functioning mouthparts, and they don’t vector diseases. They are native in zone 7 and warmer, especially in the Southeast, so consult your Extension Service to find out if you’ll need to mail order them or just set out a nice digester once it’s warm enough. This sounds better than worm-bin farming! The flies tolerate a wider range of conditions and consume waste faster than earthworms. The large segmented larvae will “self-harvest” into buckets, if you have a well-designed digester. Two commercial models are available, the larger ProtaPod (4 ft diameter) and the smaller BioPod. They have internal ramps that the pre-pupae will climb, and a curled rim that prevents escape. The creatures launch themselves down a tube into a lidded bucket. All the details are in the book! Add fresh waste daily, and empty the bucket at least weekly (to prevent adult flies hatching out and setting up residence where you don’t want them).

The section on compost-making includes how to extract heat from your compost pile to warm your hoophouse, and how not to extract so much heat that the compost stops working. My beef with some other books about methods of heating greenhouses is that they fail to address the unintended side-effects, such as having very humid air go into your living space, or having little space left to grow plants because the greenhouse is full of heat-storing devices. Make good compost, and warm your hoophouse a bit.

The section on field application of these ideas is not about growing vegetables, but about field layout and drainage. It includes useful calculations on using drip irrigation. It also discusses keyline plowing, which had previously been just a bit of permaculture theory to me. Shawn says, “keyline pattern cultivating intrigued me for years, but I first had to implement the technique before becoming a convert.” There is no need to buy the special equipment some advocates suggest, if you have a box scraper with ripping tines. Keyline plowing (ripping 4″ deep in lines through pasture or grassways to direct water from a valley to a bit of a ridge) helps build soil and increase grass growth. Reading Shawn’s results, I now understand why others said it was a good idea.

I recommend this book to any small-scale farmers who are interested in learning efficient techniques to increase productivity while reducing use of resources.

Stephanie and Shawn Jadrnicek
Photo Chelsea Green

Book Review: The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables: More In-Depth Lean Techniques for Efficient Organic Production, Ben Hartman

Book Review: The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables: More In-Depth Lean Techniques for Efficient Organic Production, Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green, $29.95, publication November 2017

When I read Ben Hartman’s first book, The Lean Farm, and wrote my review in October 2015, I was on the path from curious and enthusiastic skeptic to enthusiastic-fan-with-reservations. I rejoiced in the ideas of reducing wasted effort, being more efficient, more successful at producing food, happier, less stressed. Ben Hartman, Jean-Martin Fortier and Curtis Stone are three successful commercial vegetable growers who clarified for me that a small-scale farm could be more efficient, more sustainable and certainly more pleasant if worked mostly with manual tools and a walk-behind tractor (rototiller) than with a ride-on cultivating tractor, which was the direction I had been looking in. We really didn’t want to be spending our time on a tractor, or under it, maintaining it. We didn’t want a class of tractor-driving gardeners divided from a class of hands-in-the-soil gardeners. Nor did we want to re-format our gardens and give up all the space to allow a tractor to turn around.

When I heard about Ben’s new book, which he describes as “a how-to manual, with a lean twist,” I sought it out. Here are the many helpful details to improve how we do our vegetable growing. His introduction reviews the five core Lean Principles, so if you haven’t read his first book first, you can still understand the thinking behind his systems. With Ben’s first book, I expected push-back from crew members who would judge his ideas and techniques as inflexible, too detailed, nit-picky. Was this just my projection? I found it very thought-provoking, and I was constantly assessing our farm as I read it. I had a rough triage of inner comments: “ah, we already do that (well)” “oh we really need to do that” “ooo I’m not happy with that idea.”

By and large I valued the actual techniques and strategies. I bristled against his classifying planning, organizing and other managerial tasks, as well as bed prep, hoeing, weeding, thinning seedlings as type 1waste (muda, in Japanese). That just didn’t sit right with me. Perhaps it’s a word that doesn’t translate well. A commenter on my blog clarified this for me. She likened type 1 waste to Stephen Covey’s Quadrant 2 (Important but Not Urgent) in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Quadrant 2 includes maintenance, advance planning, being prepared. Preventing problems, or dealing with them to minimize their impact is important. I could never call it wasteful. In fact, I see attention to Quadrant 2 as a sign of good leadership, good farming. We need to make time for the important tasks that are not yet urgent. Scout for pests, don’t ignore them till they overwhelm your crops.

In this second book there is acknowledgement that while muda is usually translated as waste, not all muda should be completely eliminated. Simply minimize the time and energy given to non-value-adding activities. OK, I can go with that. In fact, the list of 10 forms of muda doesn’t say a word about managerial activities. Or about reading books, or writing reviews!

Ben takes a Lean look at crop planning, bed prep, compost-making, seed starting, transplanting, the Japanese paper pot transplanter, direct seeding, weed and pest control, sales, seven crop case studies, greenhouses, and finding good land and building a farm. There are valuable appendices with recommendations on tools, crop varieties, dollar-value-per-bed, a photo gallery of seven more crops, a Japanese glossary, and a book list.

I’m a fan of careful crop planning, and I acknowledge that doing it efficiently is important. There is definitely such a thing as “over-planning.” I think experience teaches us what we need planned and what we don’t. When the same people grow the same crops on the same farm year after year, lots can be taken as decided. When we have built fertile soil and there are no new plagues, we can get away with minimal crop rotation. At Clay Bottom Farm (in Indiana), Ben, Rachel and their crew are earning their living from less than one acre, growing and selling specialty produce to restaurants, farmers markets, and through their CSA. They grow a lot of salad greens and tomatoes, along with some root crops, peppers and eggplants, zucchini and cucumbers. Sweet corn, beans, peas, winter storage crops don’t feature much or at all. They have found the crop mix that works for their customers (that is one of the 5 Lean Principles). The situation in our gardens seems more complicated, but the point remains: streamline the planning, don’t over-work it.

The concept of load-levelling (heijunka) is valuable – look at the plan for the year and keep it manageable every month. And plan in a vacation for everyone. We try to stagger our vacations so that there are always a few people who can run things, taking turns. We tried reducing the August workload, moving one big task to September, and taking a few weeks off from lettuce production. Ending our watermelon harvests at the end of August and our winter squash at the end of September were helpful in keeping fall work manageable. We’ve got better at “doing-in” plantings of beans, cucumbers and summer squash if they are getting to be oppressive.

I was particularly excited to see instructions to build a seed germination cabinet à la Hartman. Like Ben, we use discarded refrigerators. Ours rely on incandescent light bulbs, which are a dwindling “resource”. Some would say “good riddance” but we are actually using the heat the bulbs generate, as well as the light. Ben’s clever design uses a pan of water heated by an electric element, on a thermostat. This could be our next germinator!

I’ve read about the Japanese paper pot transplanter before, and concluded it’s best for plants set out at 6″ spacing or less, and fairly large plantings of one thing. I’m intrigued – would love to try it, even though we do more direct sowing of close-planted crops than Ben does. I love the idea of a carefully-designed manual machine for transplanting, especially as my knees get older, and like squatting less. This chapter is worth the price of the book to anyone about to buy the transplanter. So many tips, including Ben’s Paper Pot Cheat Sheet. The direct-seeding chapter explains the Jang JP-1 seeder, and the same message applies about buying the book if you’re buying the seeder.

Weeds and pest control without muda – Yes, of course, focus on prevention, rather than managing. Ben gives 5 Steps to No Weeds. Yes, time saved there would pay for the price of the book too! Pests, Leaned Up is about Biological IPM: rowcovers, beneficial insects and biological sprays if needed.

The sales chapter looks at transportation logistics, sensible delivery vehicles. As Ben says, “Big vehicles, we learned, don’t by themselves lead to large sales”. Avoid over-production. Set up your market booth for smooth flow.

The case studies explore how Clay Bottom farmers decide which varieties to grow, where and when, and of course, how much. The case study crops are tomatoes, baby greens, kale, head lettuce and romaine, carrots, other bunched roots, and peppers. Here’s good information from someone who has paid exquisitely good attention to what works and what doesn’t.

The chapters on finding good land and setting up your farm in a well-organized, Lean, way will save new farmers some costly (livelihood-threatening) mistakes, and help the rest of us think twice about why we store our tools where we do, and so on. The greenhouse chapter is brief, and yet full of gems about design.

Holiday Season approaches, I’m just sayin’. Or invest in your farm, with this worthwhile business expense. In other words, buy this book!

Book Review, The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook, by Andrew Mefferd

The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook,  Organic Vegetable Production Using Protected Culture. by Andrew Mefferd. Chelsea Green.March 2017, $34.95. ISBN 978-1-60358-637-5

I was lucky enough to be asked to write an endorsement for this book, and was sent an uncorrected proof to read. Now I have the full color, published version, and I’m poring through it once again. Andrew Mefferd is the editor and publisher of Growing for Market magazine that I sometimes write for. Prior to that job, he worked at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, in the research department for seven years. Born in Virginia, he apprenticed on farms in six states on the west and east coasts, then farmed in Pennsylvania. He now farms in Maine, and has a good appreciation for the difference a different climate can make.

This is not an “Everything you always wanted to know to get started with a hoophouse” book, nor a compendium of greenhouse crops, pests and diseases. On the contrary, this book focusses down on the precise details of successful practices to grow what Andrew has determined to be the eight most profitable crops using protected culture: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, greens, microgreens and herbs.

This is a book to come back to each time we want to know more about one of his topics. If I were about to launch into microgreens, I would follow Andrew’s methods. I tend to read quite widely on vegetable growing topics and I’ve read some very fussy time-consuming microgreens-growing instructions for home gardeners. I haven’t seen another book be so down-to-earth with an efficient and professional growing method that uses only simple tools and supplies. Those wanting to grow microgreens in quantity, and make a living from it will find plenty of information to get started or to fine-tune their operation.

The part of the book I’m most excited about right now is the information on what plants need at different stages of growth, in terms of balance between temperature, humidity as it affects transpiration, daylength, light intensity, carbon dioxide, oxygen, water and nutrients; and how to use this information for “crop steering” – adjusting conditions to select for leaf growth or fruit development. Here are the details to get it right. I once got a light meter to compare the light transmission through clouded old glass and new glass (I wanted to know if it was worthwhile to replace the glass in our greenhouse). But then I didn’t know how to use the information. Now I know that 1% less light will lead to about a 1% lower yield. Specific information like this can be hard to dig up bit by bit on the web. Here the gold nuggets have been screened for us, and the mud left behind.

The book starts off with a sixty page section on the basics of protected culture: the why, what and how of the various options of structures and utilities you might be choosing among, with a chapter on economics and efficiencies. The main part of the book then dives into the specific practices that help the eight crops do best. Chapters on propagation, pruning and trellising; temperature control and crop steering; and grafting are applicable to many of the recommended crops. Next follow chapters on each of the crop groups, and appendices on hydroponics, pests and disease and tools and supplies.

Andrew is obviously a very attentive farmer, and one who keeps good records. And here we can all benefit, whether experienced growers looking to improve our game, or beginners wanting to grasp success from day one. Serious backyard gardeners could use this book too, not only commercial growers. Facts are facts, results are results. Not everyone will want to follow all of the recommendations immediately or perhaps ever. In our hoophouse in Virginia, we grow two beds of early tomatoes in our hoophouse with just enough trellising to keep them upright, and minimal pruning. As soon as our outdoor tomatoes are producing well, we pull out the hooophouse rows. Our climate doesn’t warrant keeping them in the hoophouse, and in fact, it may get too hot in there for them. Our climate is full of fungal diseases, so crop rotation is very important to us, and the sooner we don’t need tomatoes in the hoophouse, the sooner we can remove them and their fungal spores!

But I do remember growing tomatoes in a glass greenhouse in northern England, and how we cherished those plants! I had started to experiment with side-grafting 25 years ago, in hopes of having sturdier tomatoes. We pruned and twined, and every ripe tomato was precious to us. It was late September when I moved to Virginia, and I helped the garden crew harvest Roma paste tomatoes, which were grown sprawled on the ground. That in itself was a shock – gosh these people don’t hold their tomatoes in very high regard, they let them rot on the ground! The crew member working next to me shocked me further: “Stomp on the green ones” she muttered under her breath. Apparently so great had been the harvest of these paste tomatoes that the crew was exhausted from harvesting and wanted to be done!

So, select the sections of Andrew’s book that speak to your needs and your climate. There’s something for everyone. You don’t need to abide by it all to want the book. It will easily pay for itself if you find only one new practice to adopt this season. But read the whole book anyway, and you can develop a fuller understanding of the big picture, a new management strategy and a set of skills to deal with the challenges that arrive unbidden. Andrew has tested all these practices as a small-scale grower himself, and he does this because he’s a passionate supporter of local food, sustainably grown, and sees protected cropping as a way to increase local food production by increasing on-the-ground crop insurance in the face of the unpredictable.

Young tomato plant in our hoophouse in April.
Photo Kathryn Simmons