Book Review: Sally Morgan, The Healthy Vegetable Garden

The Healthy Vegetable Garden
Photo Chelsea Green

Book Review: Sally Morgan, The Healthy Vegetable Garden: A natural, chemical-free approach to soil, biodiversity and managing pests and diseases.

Chelsea Green Publishing, September 2021

Sally Morgan is an expert organic gardener in the UK. She is the editor of Organic Farming Magazine for the Soil Association, the nation’s foremost non-profit organic gardening and farming membership organization. Her book The Healthy Vegetable Garden is clearly and concisely written. Sally promotes building healthy soil, boosting biodiversity, creating habitats to attract pollinators and predators, making good use of water, promoting the stability and resilience of natural ecosystems, and integrating the landscape with people.

A healthy garden maintains a balance where pest organisms are at a non-damaging level, (rather than eliminated entirely). Here you will find lots of solid information to identify pests and diseases and deal with them using regenerative principles, and when necessary, making traps and lures.

The book has some info particularly for US gardeners – you’ll be able to read about Mexican bean beetle and Colorado potato beetle! You might be mystified by some of the European details we don’t have to deal with, such as raspberry beetle or flatworms. As long as you have some prior gardening experience where you live now, you can only benefit from the information offered here. Brand new US gardeners might get confused.

The Healthy Vegetable Garden has good descriptions of soil and its components, structure, assessment, and testing. It is important to nurture healthy soils producing healthy plants, with the essential minerals and vitamins we need for health. Nutrient density has declined seriously over the last 70 years, particularly levels of calcium, iron and vitamins B and C. In 2014, the UN warned that we had only 60 years of harvests left, if we continued degrading our soils. In 2020 a new study estimated that 90% of soils had only 100 years of harvests left. Soils managed with conservation techniques have much longer projected lifespans.

The second chapter is about ways to regenerate soils, by minimizing tilling or digging, adding compost, mulches and cover crops. The living mulch section is where I am hesitant. My experience and that of Jesse Frost whose Living Soil Handbook I reviewed recently, is that living mulches can out-compete the crop if we are not skilled and careful. The author does point out the need to cut back the mulch to prevent this problem. Growers in the south might find planting zucchini (courgettes) into white clover impractical as zucchini is a fast-turnaround crop for us, whereas clover is a slow-growing cover crop. The author leaves the clover growing through the following winter, to make the combo work. In the chillier parts of the UK, only one crop of zucchini can be grown in a summer, so the system makes sense. In Virginia, we plant zucchini and summer squash 5 times outdoors. Likewise, the speed with which chickweed flowers and sets seed in Virginia would make it unwise to regard it as a cover crop! I did like the idea of undersowing tomatoes with coriander, if I wanted large volumes of coriander (cilantro).

Chickweed flowers.
http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/S/W-CP-SMED-FL.006.html
Photo by Jack Kelly Clark.

The chapter on understanding pests and diseases is well-written, although we in the US have so many more than in the UK! Plant pests are listed in categories by their method of causing harm, rather than by individual names, which helps understanding. Plant pathogens likewise are described by type, as bacteria, viruses, fungi, water-molds. Fungal pathogens include biotrophs (parasitic pathogens such as downy mildews, rusts and smuts), semi-biotrophs that spend part of their lifecycle on the host, then part feeding saprophytically on the host’s dead remains (such as apple scab, Phytophthora blights, Botrytis-type molds and powdery mildews) and necrotrophs that kill their host and then feed as saprophytes. I appreciated the bigger understanding this classification of pathogenic fungi gave me.

Heed the warning that climate change is bringing new pests and diseases, and the chilling news that for every 1 Celsius degree rise in average temperature (about 2 F degrees), aphids become active two weeks earlier. Some warm climate diseases will move further towards the poles. The author recommends paying attention, encouraging good airflow around plants, sanitizing pruning tools, and planting rows of tall plants to break up the progress of air-borne fungal spores.  Growing potatoes downwind of a row of Jerusalem artichokes is a good example.

Sally is very practical on the subject of sterilizing pots and flats – your tools, boots, gloves and hands are as likely to spread spores, don’t worry about sterilizing pots! Some of the disinfectants suggested in other books can do more damage! Likewise, most spores don’t survive long on the ground, removed from their host plants, and so such diseased crops can be safely composted in a hot compost process. Practice crop rotation to deplete those that do survive in the soil, such as carrot rust flies.

Under normal conditions, predators can prevent pest outbreaks, but problems arise when conditions change quickly and disrupt the balance of prey and predator. If you see lots of pests, find a way to deal with them that won’t also kill their predators and parasites. Beware broad spectrum pesticides and fungicides, even if Organic. Encourage ladybugs and beetles by creating “ladybug hotels” and “beetle banks”. (There are some photos to inspire you.)

Plant for a continuous supply of insect-attracting blooms. Yarrow, ajuga, alyssum, dill, and fennel flower early in the year and attract predators like hoverflies, ladybugs, lacewings, tachinid flies, and parasitic wasps. Also grow early blooming flowers with pollen and nectar predators can use as alternative foods – borage is fast at producing nectar, as are dandelions. Phacelia is a very attractive to predators, especially aphid predators like hoverflies and parasitic wasps. Sow in the fall for early spring blooms. Angelica is a biennial that can flower in the spring of its second year. If you decide to trust to weeds to feed your beneficial insects, take care about how much seed they sow! This is a risk I do not recommend taking, especially in warm climates with rapid rates of growth.

Borage in an insectary circle.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire.

In the section on crop rotations, polyculture and continuous cropping, Sally reports that she has moved away from a rigid crop rotation for many crops, following Elaine Ingham’s observation that nature does not rotate. This may be a place where home gardeners and production gardeners diverge. Mixed beds with several crops work well for manual work, but less so for those with rototillers, or even those hoping to make fast progress with a scuffle hoe. Mixed plantings are attractive and fun for the solo gardener, but having others pull up your delightful medley suggests it doesn’t work so well for bigger operations.

This book is not dogmatic. Rotations help disrupt pest and disease cycles, and here you can read brief descriptions of three-crop, four-crop and eight-crop rotations. You can also devise ad-hoc rotations and grow beds of different crops next to each other, in order to benefit from diversity without slowing down your hoeing or putting a bed out of commission while you wait for the last item in that bed to finish its lifecycle.

Shumei Natural Agriculture Farm, Yatesbury, Calne, in SW England has been increasing yields year by year, with no rotation, no pesticides, and no fertilizers other than material from immediately around the beds that is incorporated into the soil. You can’t successfully switch instantly to this method of growing, because it takes time and lots of the right microbes for the soil to adapt. Charles Dowding is experimenting with this at Homeacres, his garden in Somerset. Continuous cropping is a challenging idea to those of us who came up when organics was the opposite of industrial monocropping. We championed rotations.

The author provides a list of perennial vegetables she is growing: Chinese artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, globe artichokes, Good king henry, lovage, perennial kales, scorzonera, sea beet, sea kale, skirret, Babington leeks, potato onions, walking onions, and Welsh onions. No rotation is used for these no-dig crops, which grow with a layer of leaf litter on the soil.

Sally Morgan

Agroforestry is the practice of growing vegetables in wide alleys between trees. Sally has tried this by planting a row of cordon apples (trees trained to a single stem) along the edge of a vegetable bed. US readers should not follow her exact hedge design plan, as autumn olive, blackthorn and dog rose, for example, are invasive here.

Part 4 of the book is on boosting defenses, and how biocontrol works. This is the use of one organism to control a pest or disease. It is important to learn about the pests you have and their particular biocontrols. It’s not a case of opening the bag and throwing the stuff on!  Biocontrols have specific requirements, such as temperature or moisture. Timing is important.

Parasitic wasps, minute pirate bugs and predatory mites like Phystoseilus persimilis (which eats spider mites) can be introduced for their appropriate prey. Try to save biocontrols for when you really have a problem, and make sure you correctly identify the pest you want to control.

Predatory nematodes each have their own mutualistic bacteria living in their gut. When the predatory nematode works its way into its prey, it releases its bacteria, which kill and digest the prey. Reminds me of the Trojan Horse! The process happens below ground – nothing to see here! I found this fascinating! Nematodes need a film of water to live and move in, and temperatures above 41˚F (5˚C). Buy the right nematodes (and bacteria) for each job. This book has a two-page spread on which parasitic nematode to use for which pest. I have not seen this quality of information in any other book! Nematodes can be used to manage slugs, weevils, carrot rust fly, cutworms, onion fly, gooseberry sawfly, thrips, codling moth and more.

Plants have their own protective species. The introduction to the rhizosphere (microbiome around the roots) includes fascinating details on a type of morel mushroom that farms bacteria! Soil fungi are important for most crops, except brassicas and chenopods (beets, spinach and chard). We hear about the rhizosphere, but not the phyllosphere, the equivalent collection of micro-organisms on the leaves. This is mainly, but not only, composed of bacteria. About 10 billion on one leaf, and all different from the bacteria in the soil, and varying from one crop to another! Young leaves have mostly bacteria, mature leaves have more yeasts and senescent leaves mostly filamentous fungi. These microbes protect the plant’s health, supply biofertilizers, biostimulants and biopesticides. Some leaf bacteria suppress growth in caterpillars feeding on the leaf. Understanding this helps us appreciate the reasons for not spraying plants haphazardly with things that “might help”.

Plants have an arsenal of defenses. Thorns and hairs are just the most obvious. Some plants stockpile toxins to provide fast response to insect attack, others manufacture them as needed. When attacked, many plants respond by toughening up their cell walls in the area being attacked. Plants release various volatile compounds communicating with other plants and with insects (both the pests and predators of those pests). The example given is that when corn roots are attacked by a certain larva, the roots release a compound that attracts a nematode that is a predator of that larva. Sometimes, though, the attacker wins, as when certain beetles release their own volatile compounds in response to a plant’s compounds, signaling to other beetles to join the attack. Colorado potato beetles do this. This complexity calls our interventions into question: is it helpful to handpick the pests? Not if the pests call on comrades to join the fight.

Young sweet corn plants in July. When corn roots are attacked by a certain larva, the roots release a compound that attracts a nematode that is a predator of that larva. Photo Bridget Aleshire

If your soil is already healthy and rich in microbes, Sally thinks additions are not needed, including biostimulants, compost teas and foliar sprays to boost the numbers of beneficial bacteria and fungi. Biofungicides can prevent particular soil-borne diseases, but can’t cure them after the fact. Biofumigation is the process of growing a particular cover crop, chopping it finely and incorporating it into the oil, taking advantage of the allelopathic compounds released, to kill pests, diseases or weed seeds. Mustards, radishes and forage sorghum all have bio-fumigant properties.

The chapter on barriers, lures, traps and sprays includes recipes, and the caution that many homemade sprays kill beneficials as well as pests, as do some of the Organic commercial sprays like neem, Spinosad, quassia. Use these only as a last resort, and pay attention to dilution rates, time of day to spray and frequency of use.

Here you can find instructions for carefully treating seeds with a disease-fighting hot water treatment before planting. You can also find cautions, such as not heat-treating peas, beans, corn, cucumbers, lettuce or beets. Or old seed, as the germination rate might deteriorate too far.

Part 5 of the book is an A-Z of Pests and Disease. First are aphids – there are so many kinds of aphids! The lifecycle of aphids starts in spring with eggs hatching into wingless females that give birth via parthenogenesis to more females. Within a week, one female can produce 100 clones, which can repeat the process at the age of one week.  This continues until adverse weather or predators trigger production of a generation of winged female aphids that moves to new plants. Later in summer male aphids are born and females lay fertilized eggs that overwinter on host plants, to hatch the following spring.

Pepper plant with aphids. Photo Pam Dawling

Handpicking aphids is likely impossible, so start by blasting them off the plants with a water jet from a hose. This may decrease the population enough for natural predators to begin control. Failing this, a soap spray can be effective, although aphid predators will also be harmed. If you plant before any aphids arrive, you can use a fine mesh netting to keep them off, but monitor to make sure no aphids have got inside the net. You could try trap crops of nasturtiums to draw aphids away from your crop, but how much of your space do you want to devote to nasturtiums, and how do you deal with aphids then? The same choices of water and soap.

The list of pests continues through the alphabet. For some, nasturtiums can act as a repellent rather than a trap crop. Cucumber beetles are a good example. Nasturtiums are a brassica, and will attract cabbage caterpillars if there are no other brassicas around. There are two pages on making the garden inhospitable to slugs and snails and three pages of control options including beneficial nematodes, ducks, coffee grounds (acidic and non-specific) and iron phosphate pellets.  Finally, there are whitefly and wireworms.

The disease chapter starts with various blights, including two pages on potato blight (both types). Cankers, club root, damping off fungi, mildews, molds, rots, rusts, spots, scabs, viruses, and on with the sad list to end with wilts. It makes sense in an organizational way to end with the problems, but it makes for a sorry place to leave off.

This book is good on detailed info on soil micro-organisms and the general theme works globally. I recommend checking against local Extension Service or eOrganic before following any of the specific techniques, to ensure it’s likely to succeed where you live.

Book Review: Pawpaws, The Complete Growing and Marketing Guide by Blake Cothron

Pawpaws: The Complete Growing and Marketing Guide by Blake Cothron, New Society Publishers, 2021, $29.99

“Blake Cothron is an authority on pawpaws, and provides a clear, detailed guide for commercial success in growing this “oddly appealing species” (his own words). The supply of this exotic, trending, easy-to-grow fruit has not yet met the demand. Blake shares the wealth of his knowledge, including challenges, and when he doesn’t know, he says so (and it’s probable that others don’t know either.)”

This is the advance praise I wrote for Pawpaws, now inside the front cover. Last fall I reviewed Michael Judd’s For the Love of Pawpaws, a permaculturist’s take on growing pawpaws among diversified crops. Blake’s book, while mainly intended for small-scale organic commercial growers, is equally useful for the backyard enthusiast. Blake ensures you have the information you need to choose what to grow, where to buy it, how to plant it, keep it thriving, prune and harvest. Depending on your scale, you can try the nine exquisite recipes here, or sell gourmet pawpaws online, or make value-added products such as craft brews, jams, and baked goods.

Blake and his wife Rachel Cothron, own Peaceful Heritage Nursery, a 4-acre USDA Certified Organic research farm, orchard, and edible plant nursery, near Louisville, Kentucky, the perfect climate for pawpaws.

America’s almost forgotten native fruit looks tropical and has an exotic appeal, but is an easy to grow temperate climate tree, and very cold hardy (US Winter hardiness zone 5, -20˚F/-29˚C). It is ripe for 4-6 weeks in late August-September. Although mostly grown in the South-east and Mid-Atlantic, pawpaws will grow in portions of 26 US states. Avoid confusion with the tropical papaya, which is sometimes also called pawpaw. The North American pawpaw is Asimina triloba.

The book is studded with cultural gems such as that you can sometimes locate the site of an old native American village by the clusters of pawpaws still growing there.

Blake Cothron

There are some false myths about pawpaws, including the idea that they are secretly tropical and related to bananas, papaya and mango, They are not. The second myth is that they grow best in shade. Also not true! They can grow in shade, but will not produce good fruit unless in full sun. A third myth is that they are ripe when blackened by frost. Oh no! They are usually ripe weeks before frost. Frost is not a benefit, but a cause of damage! (This myth is not true of persimmons either.) Another myth is that the flowers smell really bad. It’s just not true. Lastly, a myth that would be nice if true: pawpaws are not immune to all diseases and pests. Certainly they don’t suffer from as many health challenges as apples or peaches, but there are pawpaw troubles as Blake explains. All these stories show how important it is to have a trustworthy guidebook.

Wild pawpaws are found as thickets of suckers growing up from the enmeshed roots of older trees, or as clusters of seedlings around a mother tree. They may feed wild animals, but will not grow the large tasty fruits humans want. Suckers are clones of the mother tree, and as pawpaws are rarely self-fertile, these thickets do not produce fruit. For human food, pawpaw trees need full sun, well-draining soil and plenty of space. Not what you might have assumed. Read this book!

Wild pawpaws are most often found in moist lowland areas near water, but in well-draining areas, not swampland. They are often on sunny slopes (not northerly sides). They can be found along edges of clearings, trails and old roadways. In Kentucky, Blake reports about 25% of the wild pawpaws are tasty, 50% are edible and 25% are “spitters”. If you’ve experienced anything other than the top 25%, this book can be your encouragement to try some cultivated types.

When you buy pawpaw trees, go for potted 1-4ft grafted trees at $30-$50 each. These will survive for 15-20 years and provide harvests for 10-15 of those. During that time you can plan where and when to plant your next pawpaw grove. Cheap bare-root seedling trees will save you money, but they won’t earn you money or appreciative friends. Premium fruit comes from premium trees, well cared-for.

Pawpaw trees can mature at 20ft tall, or you can keep them pruned to be 7-15ft and avoid high ladder work. The diameter of a mature tree can be 20ft in full sun, with an attractive pyramid shape.

Peaceful Heritage Nursery,

When planning your orchard site, remember “the more sun, the more fruit”. 12-14 hours is best, but 7-8 hours of direct, strong, undiluted sunlight will be enough for a decent fruit set. Pawpaws are not too exacting about soil, apart from the need for good drainage. Soil can be improved, but heavy wet soils need improving years before planting!

If you plan to mow with a tractor, you’ll need to plant rows 18-20ft apart. Otherwise 15-18ft between rows and 8-12ft between trees in the row will be enough. You do need genetically different trees close enough to cross-pollinate.

There are three colors of fruit: yellow, orange and white, with the orange ones having the strongest flavors (“banana/honey/persimmon/pumpkin”). Yellow-fleshed cultivars have more of a “banana/cocoa butter/Mexican flan/nutty/marshmallow/caramel flavor”, very sweet, with an aroma of citrus, pineapple, cantaloupe and strawberry. The white-fleshed ones are the mildest, with a “vanilla/light banana/cantaloupe/coconut/tropical fruit” flavor and a high sugar content.

Pawpaw fruit should be creamy, not watery or hard. There should not be any bitter or unpleasant after-taste! Another feature to consider when choosing varieties is the seed-to-pulp ratio. Ideally the seeds will comprise less than 10% of the total weight. Wild pawpaws can be 50% to 75% seeds.

Page from Pawpaws by Blake Cothron, showing fruits and seeds. Photo New Society Publishers and Blake Cothron

Blake includes 57 pages of good, bad and interesting facets of all 50 cultivars he could find in 2020. Some are widely available, others need to be tracked down through the North American Pawpaw Growers Association (NAPGA) or the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX). Don’t rely on nursery descriptions, but use Blake’s notes, where he has worked hard to be fair and objective. This book costs less than one tree, and can save many mistakes!

Blake distinguishes between Early Ripening (Aug 20-Sept 5), Mid-Season (Sept 5-30) and Late Season (after Oct 1). The dates are for zones 5b-6b, and outside that area they offer a relative idea. There is a grading scale (incorporating different professional opinions) based on size, flavor, texture, reliability and yield. Choose As and Bs unless you have a good reason to do otherwise. Size grades are Jumbo (16oz+), Large (12-16oz), Medium (7-12oz) and Small (3-6oz). Commercial growers don’t mess with the little ones.

A matter to face with pawpaws is that eating under-ripe ones can cause nausea. Some people cannot tolerate cooked pawpaw, Some speculate that it is the combination of cooked pawpaw with grains (as in baked goods) that give them trouble. Be ready for these possibilities but do not let them discourage you (or potential customers!) There are also people who sometimes experience mild euphoria after eating pawpaws, without harm. The one thing to never make or consume, is pawpaw fruit leather! It can cause 24 hours of serious intestinal distress. This is the “warts and all” part of the book. Avoid these problems and enjoy everything else about pawpaws.

Thinking how to incorporate pawpaws into your diverse farming? You do need to keep the grass and weeds down somehow. Grazing, mowing or mulching are the usual methods. In damp eastern regions, mowing will need to be done once a month from April to October. Mulch needs to follow the 3:3:3 rule: 3ins deep, 3ft wide around each tree, keeping 3ins away from the trunk. Cardboard topped with organic mulch is one option. Landscape fabric is another. Wood or bark chips can work well.

Blake tells cautionary tales about planting a new pawpaw orchard and not providing irrigation. Climate change is making rainfall more erratic and we get both extremes of quantity.  There is no substitute for water in a drought, so install an irrigation system before you plant, or immediately afterwards. Once the orchard is established, you might not need to water much.  Blake recommends orchard tubing with two emitters per tree, providing a gallon of water per tree per day.

Pawpaws go dormant in winter, unlike some other fruits that can be planted in the fall in milder climates. Plant in spring or early summer, digging large holes, breaking up the edges of the hole, supplying amendments, and having mulch on hand. This book gives clear step-by-step instructions. Staked tree protectors are essential for trees shorter than 30ins (seedlings) or 18ins (grafted trees). One main purpose is to protect the young trees from UV radiation. Tubex and Blue-X tree shelters are suggested.

While the trees are young, you can use the aisles for something else, such as grazing, or growing hay or another crop. Whichever weed control method you use, you will need to hand weed the small inner circles around each tree, including clipping suckers coming up from the rootstock. This gives you an opportunity to study each tree up close and see how it’s doing.

The pests and diseases chapter is complemented by color photos. With pawpaws, there is still much that is not known (or was known and then lost). Insects that attack pawpaws do not usually do much damage, although the list is long and includes borers, stinging caterpillars, a webworm, a leaf roller, the ubiquitous Japanese beetle, slugs, snails aphids, mites, thrips, scale insects and the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly.  Jeremy Lowe at VSU has a very good PowerPoint presentation with superb photos.

I have been fascinated by the ZSB since reading about it in Michael Judd’s book, where I learned that the butterflies arrive at the time the pawpaws flower. Since then, I’m on the lookout each spring. The pawpaw is the ZSB’s only host, so do not kill all their caterpillars in your pawpaw trees – they have nowhere else to live! The eggs are laid between June and August. The caterpillars, which grow to 2ins long, eat the leaves and the damage to young trees is a real concern. Blake recommends hand-picking the caterpillars and carrying them to a wild pawpaw patch, or to some mature cultivated pawpaws, where they do little damage. Also, avoid destroying nearby wasp nests as the Ichneumon wasp Trogus pennator is a predator of the caterpillars, and nature may balance out.

For many pests and diseases, the key to healthy trees is good sanitation, keeping a clean orchard floor (mulched or mowed, I don’t mean bare soil!), and removing diseased wood or leaves.

Deer bite off buds and young shoots, and rub their antlers on the trunks. Goats do not eat pawpaw trees, although they can do damage rubbing their horns against the trunks. Other large pests include raccoons, possums, small rodents, and sapsuckers (small woodpeckers).

Diseases include Phyllosticta leaf spot, a fungal pathogen., and a few others, including Black Spot (Diplocarpon spp) which strikes in rainy seasons.

The condition of the leaves will show you if your fertility program is adequate. Healthy leaves are a deep vibrant green and bigger than human hands. Young trees should make 16-24ins of growth each year after the first one, until they are mature. Fertilize heavily from March-June in zone 6.

Pawpaw fruit cluster.
New Society Publishers and Blake Cothron

The chapter on flowering stages and cold tolerance of each (information that is hard to find elsewhere) will save you from disappointment. See the helpful photos showing blossom stages. Unlike some tree fruits (apples, pears), pawpaws bloom over a period of time, resulting in flowers at different stages, giving insurance against all being killed by one frost. In zone 6 the very cold-hardy Velvet Bud stage, when fruit buds start to develop, is in mid-February and full bloom starts in early April.

Pollination is conducted by various flies, beetles including lady bugs and ants, and spiders. Not by bees. So for good pollination, plant insect-attracting flowers in your orchard. Fruit takes 4-7 months to mature.

Pawpaw trees begin to fruit in year 3-5, with 5-10lbs/tree and double that the next year. A mature tree will yield a bushel (30-40lbs). Harvesting needs to be done gently (no vigorous tree-shaking!). Use sharp bypass pruners and set the fruit in a single layer in cushioned boxes. Ship immediately or use refrigerated storage for a couple of days. If picked ripe but firm, pawpaws can be stored for 3-4 weeks under refrigeration. They won’t be as delicious as tree-ripened fruits.

You can sell pawpaws at 2-3 times the price of apples, maybe $5-10/lb. Because the demand is not widespread, do not rely on farmers’ markets. The marketing chapter suggests 8 channels for selling pawpaw fruit. You will need to provide information and an attractive display or stunning photos if selling online. Avoid the question “What do we do now with a hundred or even thousands of pounds of soft, dripping ripe pawpaw fruit?” by planning months or years ahead.

If selling remotely, make it really clear that pawpaws are only available to ship in August and September (or whatever is true in your region). Ship out only perfect unblemished fruit picked that same day, and ship only Monday-Thursday. Weekend shipping can go very wrong! Pack the fruit with enough lightweight packing material so that when you shake the box, nothing moves. (I learned this tip packing garlic for shipping.) Shipping fruit across the country is a strange business with a large carbon footprint. Consider if you have better options selling locally, including specialty groceries.

Sales to restaurants can work well, as long as you have clear agreements, including price ($1-$3 per pound). Be perfectly reliable, make the chef’s life as easy as possible. Deliver early rather than late if you can’t be on time.

One feature of modern pawpaw marketing is that currently most Americans prefer crunchy fruit (even crunchy peaches) and the pawpaw is far from crunchy. Describing the texture as similar to creamy avocados, but sweet, seems a promising approach.

You could sell fruit as frozen pulp (deseeded!) to restaurants, bakeries or breweries. You could make value-added products from the less-than-perfect fruit yourself. As well as the items mentioned earlier, don’t overlook the possibilities of ice cream, chutney, food supplement pills and jewelry made form pawpaw seeds. Find out about the Cottage Food Laws in your state. Blake recommends the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association with 29 handouts about NA Pawpaws.

Aside from selling fruit, you could sell seeds, seedlings or grafted potted trees. Seedling trees can be unpredictable, but if you start with good parents, you improve the chance of getting good seedlings. You can use seedlings as rootstock for grafting, or sell them to people growing food forests where productivity is not the main concern.

Seeds removed from ripe fruits need to be washed, cleaned, sterilized, labeled, stratified at 35-45˚F for 90-120 days, ensuring they don’t freeze. Seeds are sown on their sides, and can take 6-12 weeks to emerge above the soil. 2-3 year-old seedlings are used for grafting rootstock. Grafting is fairly easy, and KSU has some very good free videos.

The book includes a pawpaw calendar, cost analysis and some troubleshooting. Tips include not to worry if your new trees only grow a few inches the first year. This is probably because growth is happening underground, establishing strong roots. It could be a sign of root damage during transplanting, so if you are about to plant more, improve your technique! Damage caused by sunburn, dehydration, nutritional shortages, attacks by beetles, sapsuckers, string-trimmers, Phyllosticta disease, borers, deer, and winter sun, are all covered.

The cost analysis deals with start-up costs (not minor when trees cost $30 each). For an acre containing 295 trees that’s $8,850. Tree protection fencing can add $1,376. Landscape fabric and irrigation together can equal the fencing cost.  Other smaller costs add in to a total close to $10, 700 for the acre. Try for a wholesale tree price between $15 and $25, and your total is more like $6,260.

Production costs are estimated by KSU at $1,650/acre; harvest and market costs at $6,200/acre, including labor for pruning and harvesting at $12.50/hr. Total variable costs come out at $8,400/acre. Gross returns could be $9,600/acre, if you sell wholesale at $1.75/pound. Don’t quit your day job yet, but pawpaws can be a good addition to an existing operation with compatible markets.

The two-page Pawpaw Orchard Calendar is a quick reference guide for annual maintenance, and the dates where you live may need to be as much as one month later in spring and one month earlier in fall. The resources section includes books, supplies, and groups, including Peaceful Heritage Nursery.

Blake has created a highly readable, enjoyable and very intensive exploration into the cultivation of North American pawpaw.” This book is practical, useful and fascinating.

Here’s a one-hour webinar from New Society Publishers:

Book Review: The Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost

Cover of The Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost

The Living Soil Handbook

The No-Till Grower’s Guide to Ecological Market Gardening, by Jesse Frost, Chelsea Green Publishers, July 2021. 304 pages, $29.95

Jesse Frost, the host of Farmer Jesse’s No-Till Market Garden Podcast, has now made a lovely how-to and why-to book for us. No longer do we need to imagine the pictures while listening to the podcasts! The book is generously illustrated with color photos, charts, and diagrams and also hand drawings by Jesse’s wife Hannah Crabtree. The text and photos make plain the experience behind the suggestions. A glance at the bibliography shows how deeply Jesse educated himself on soil biology, chemistry and physics – it’s a list of detailed articles, not a list of books. I was interviewed by Jesse’s collaborator Josh Sattin for Farmer Jesse’s podcast, in November 2019.

Jesse and Hannah farm at Rough Draft Farmstead in central Kentucky, winter hardiness zone 6b with 55” (140 cm) of annual rain on average. While writing the book, Hannah and Jesse moved farms, gaining road frontage for on-farm sales!

The book revolves on three basic principles of professional no-till market gardening: disturbing the soil as little as possible, keeping soil covered as much as possible, and keeping it planted as much as possible. The phrase “as possible” in each of the three principles remind us to be reasonable, and aware of the context. No-dogma is as important as no-soil-disturbance. Sometimes a short-term soil disturbance will ultimately create a healthier soil: you might need to incorporate compost or amendments, or break up compaction. We are not feeding the plants. Nor the soil. We are farming the micro-livestock.

Appendices include notes on cover crops (when to sow, what to pair each cover crop with and how to terminate it); valuable material on critical periods of competition (for weeds or interplanting); resources and chapter notes from world-wide sources.

The topics have been carefully teased apart and the chapters are digestible by busy farmers during the growing season. No need to wait until winter! There are things you can do in midseason to head in the direction of less tilling and more soil-nurturing.

The first section, “Disturb as Little as Possible” includes a fine primer on the science of living soil. (Now you can explain photosynthesis to an inquisitive child.) Don’t skip over this basic soil science. Understanding is the key to good stewardship. The carbon cycle includes plants absorbing carbon dioxide, making root exudates that stream out into the soil, where they feed microbes, which respire most of it back into the air. The plants are not sequestering carbon, as we might wistfully hope in these days of an overheating planet. They are cycling it. It is true that some of the carbon that plants pass into the soil does remain there, in the tissue and exoskeletons of dead organisms, especially when there is no tillage. Some carbon converts to a stable form holding soil particles together.

Most growers probably know that frequent rototilling damages the soil (especially at the same depth every time, or when the soil is too wet or too dry). Soil care can include disturbance of various human kinds. Silage tarps can cause compaction when they gather rain, snow or ice, and stay in place a long time. Microplastic particles can crumble off old tarps into the soil, where they can be eaten up by the microfauna. Polyethylene can prevent beneficial gas exchange between the soil and the air. The soil life also “disturbs” the soil, churning it. Be guided by your observations of your soil, not by a particular belief in a certain method.

The chapter on breaking new ground describes several ways to make a no-till garden from a lawn, pasture or old garden. Deal with any soil compaction up front, either mechanically, or with an extra growing season and big-rooted plants.

Start with the no-till methods Jesse and Hannah use most often. “Shallow compost mulching” involves keeping a 4” (10 cm) layer (not deeper) on bed surfaces year-round, topping up as needed. With a 4” layer, the roots can reach the soil quite soon. Their second preferred method is grown-in-place mulch. Terminate a thick stand of cover crop and plant into the mulch as soon as it has wilted down.

If you don’t need to till before starting your vegetables, you can mow at soil level, and cover with a tarp for two summer months or 3-5 winter months. If you are mowing in the fall, you could spread cardboard and compost to form the beds, then tarp everything until spring.

Silage tarps and plastic mulches can be particularly helpful during transition, to salvage beds when things go wrong, or as emergency tools when a mulch supply line collapses.

The second section, “Keep it Covered as Much as Possible”, discusses compost, mulch, cover crops, flipping beds (transitioning from one crop to the next) and path management.

Composts come in four types (recipes included):compost

  1. Inoculating composts are expensive, fine textured and biologically active. Vermicast (worm manure) is one example. Good for compost tea.
  2. Fertilizing composts such as composted poultry manure are fine textured nitrogen sources to use before planting.
  3. Nutritional composts supply organic matter, microbiology, nutrients, minerals, and ample amounts of carbonaceous material. They can be used in larger amounts.
  4. Mulching composts are high in carbon, maybe 20 C:1 N, and relatively low in nutrients.

Mulching retains moisture, prevents compaction, reduces weeds, provides habitat, provides foods for some creatures, and reduces the impact of heavy rain or heavy feet. Straw can be expensive. Hay gives better weed suppression, but may itself be a source of weed seed. Spoiled hay has fewer live seeds, comes at a better price, and is messier to spread. Hay is more nutritious for the soil than straw. You could solarize your hay bales for 3-8 weeks before spreading, to kill seeds.

Paper and cardboard give excellent occultation compared to loose straw and hay, and provide an effective mulch with less depth (easier for transplanting into).

Wood chips, sawdust and bark mulch can sometimes be free, from workers clearing under power lines. Tree leaves and leaf mold are nutritious materials for mulch or in compost. Cover crops may be mowed or crimped to kill them, usually leaving them in place as a newly-dead mulch.

Peat moss is controversial. Peat bogs are very effective carbon sequestering habitats, and based on this, we should not use peat without restoring the bogs. Coconut coir is sometimes used as an alternative to peat moss, but we are mining the thin tropical soils when we import it.

Plastic mulches stop weeds, warm the soil, and conserve moisture. Landscape fabric is durable, and some growers burn holes for transplanting certain crops, and reuse it many times. Organic regulations require plastic mulch to be taken up at the end of the growing season, and they do not accept biodegradable plastic mulches.

Jesse Frost

Chapter Five is about flipping beds (replacing one crop with the next). Chopping plants off at the surface and/or tarping are two main no-till methods.

Jesse provides a valuable table of no-till crop termination methods for 48 vegetables and herbs. Whenever possible, leave the crop roots in the soil. Some can be cut at the surface (lettuce, baby greens, cucurbits and nightshades), some need to be cut slightly below the surface (brassicas, beans, corn, spinach and chard) and most others are harvested as root crops. Roots are a valuable source of carbon and root exudates, and help air and water pass through the soil.

Flail mowers, weed whackers (with a bush blade rather than a nylon line), scythes, hoes and knives can all be used to cut down old crops, depending on the particulars. When a crop is terrminated, deal with soil compaction if needed, amend the soil, keep it damp, get mulch in place, and replant the same day if you can, to help preserve microbes. If the previous crop was a cover crop, your fertility is supplied by that, and no more amendments are likely needed.

Tarping (introduced into English by Jean-Martin Fortier as “occultation”) is an effective no-till method. Silage tarps can kill crop residues, warm the soil and germinate weed seeds, which then die in the dark. Prepare an area by mowing it close – it is important that the tarp is in close contact with the soil, to break the plant matter down quickly. Tarps need to be well battened down. Jesse tells us that 2600 square feet (242 m2) is about as big a piece as any one person will want to move.  Say, a 25 x 100ft (8 x 30 m) piece.

Leave tarps in place for two summer weeks, 3-4 weeks in spring and fall, and two months or more in winter. Avoid PVC tarps (contain endocrine-disrupting phthalates), be wary of polyethylene (may contain phthalates), but woven landscape fabrics are made from polypropylene, which does not contain phthalates.

Solarizing is a similar technique using clear plastic to heat the soil, kill weed seeds, disease organisms and crop residues. Bryan O’Hara in No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture has popularized using old hoophouse plastic. Solarizing can produce temperatures of 125˚F (50˚C) compared with 110˚F (43˚C) under tarps. You may need only 1-3 sunny days to kill crop residues with solarization. Cover crops take about 7 days. The heat will not go deep in that time: more of the soil life will survive than with tarping. Good edge securing is vital for success.

The necessary (but less profitable) task of path management is next. The goal is to make pathways do work, retaining moisture, housing microbes, and generally contributing to a healthy environment. The first priority is to get rid of weeds.

Wood chips and sawdust can perform well as path mulches. Sawdust mats down into an effective weed-preventing layer, and 2” (5 cm) is often enough. Get sawdust in place ahead of leafy greens, so that it doesn’t blow into the crop.

Living pathways sound wonderful, but can be very challenging, and it’s best to start with a small trial. Choose a non-spreading grass or a mix of clovers, grasses and herbs. Mow every week until the path plants stop growing.

Another option is to grow cover crops in the paths, mow-kill or winter-kill them and leave the mulch in place. Timing is critical. The crop needs to be planted and harvested either before the cover cop grows very tall or after it is dead.

Section three, “Keep it Planted as Much as Possible” has three chapters: fertility management, transplanting and interplanting, and a gallery of no-till crops, pulling together various materials and methods.

Test soil organic matter each year. Jesse points out that although organic matter is largely dead organic materials, a truly living soil must contain a fair amount of it! 5-10% OM is a healthy percentage; more is not better. OM above 12% can cause water retention problems and poor aggregation. Seedlings can struggle to germinate and establish.

You can improve soil performance with compost, mulches, cover crops, gypsum for clay soils, and cultivated indigenous microorganisms (as in Korean Natural Farming). Use good inoculating compost or compost tea in the root zone. Microbes aggregate the soil into various sizes of crumbs, improving the soil structure.

Be careful using perennial cover crops as living mulch around cash crops – the yield is almost always reduced, and sometimes the quality is compromised too.

If you are running a compact commercial market garden, growing cover crops may be out of the question, and you will rely on outside inputs. With a slightly bigger plot you can grow cover crops before long-season food crops, and use outside inputs for intensive short-term crops. Larger farms may find cover cropping more efficient than large-scale mulching. Winter-kill, classically with oats and spring peas sown in late summer, will provide a light mulch for early spring crops.

Cover crops can be terminated by crimping at the milk stage and tarping. Jesse shows a crimping tool made from a bed-width board with a foot-sized metal hoop at each end and a string or rod as a handle. This is a variation on the T-post tool advocated by Daniel Mays in The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm.

Crimping and tarping gives more flexibility on timing than does crimping alone. Crimping and solarizing can be even quicker. Crimping or mowing, then topping with cardboard and mulch compost is another method, if you have sufficient supplies. Plant a shallow-rooted crop in the compost layer, don’t bust through the cardboard unless you have let the cover crop die for a few days before covering.

For side-dressing long-season crops, Jesse uses the EarthWay seeder with the pea plate. This never occurred to me! Another surprise suggestion was to use silage tarps white side up, to germinate carrots in the summer! Check daily, and remove the tarp late in the day to save the tender seedlings from frying in the mid-day sun.

Interplanting is best approached cautiously, with small trials and good notetaking. Interplanting can cause lower yields and poorer plant health when combinations and timing are wrong. Measure yields and weigh the costs and benefits. Popping lettuces into random lettuce-sized gaps rarely goes wrong, and you might keep a tray of lettuce transplants handy at all times.

Peppers take 60-70 days before bringing in any money. If you plant an understory of lettuce, you can generate income much sooner, and the lettuce will be gone before the peppers need the space. Growing two crops together reduces the impact of a crop failure, and makes unprofitable crops more worthwhile.

Read about the critical period of weed control, when crops are most affected by competition from weeds, sister seedlings or an intercrop. Like other good mentors, Jesse is quite open about his mistakes. Don’t confuse tall plants with healthy high-yielding plants! They may be striving for better light. Seedlings suffer more than transplants from being out-shaded. Transplants are past perhaps half of their critical weed-free period before you even set them out.

Relay cropping is a method of adding in another crop after the first is established but before it is harvested. A sure-fire way of keeping living roots in the ground! With careful planning you can sometimes run a multi-crop relay sequence.

To implant these ideas firmly in our minds, Jesse discusses seven example crops, including varieties, seed quantities, bed prep, weed control, seeder, spacing, pest control, harvest, yield, intercrops, marketing, tips, and notable failures (no need to make the same mistakes!). The examples (carrots, arugula, garlic, lettuce, sweet potatoes, beets, and cherry tomatoes) can be extrapolated for almost anything else. I took notes: there’s always good tips to be learned from other growers. Buy the book, you’ll quickly save the price! And more of your growing can succeed!

I originally wrote this review for the upcoming June/July 2021 issue of Growing for Market magazine.

Book Review: Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers

Greenhorns

Book Review: Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor Paula Manalo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor Severine von Tscharner Fleming

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

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

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

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

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

Editor Zoe Ida Bradbury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch a YouTube book trailer here:

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

Book Review: The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Joseph Tychonievich
Liz Anna Kozic

Book Review: The Chinese Greenhouse, Dan Chiras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Dan Chiras.
Photo Dan Chiras and New Society Publishers

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this YouTube of Dan Chiras talking about the Chinese Greenhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Mays
Photo Storey Publishers

Book Review: Freedom Farmers, by Monica M White

Freedom Farmers Cover image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Washington Carver, Tuskegee Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Soil Science for Gardeners, by Robert Pavlis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by NCSU Crop Soil Undergrad course

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

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

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

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

Photo by Usu.edu Soil 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black farmer with mule team. NRCS photo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black farmers. Photo USDA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young black farm-worker. Photo USDA

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

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

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

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

Pete Daniel. Photo Wake Forest Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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