Book Review: For the Love of Pawpaws by Michael Judd

For The Love of Pawpaws: A Mini Manual for Growing and Caring for Pawpaws From Seed to Table

Michael Judd, Published August 2019 by Ecologia, Distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing, ISBN 978-0-578-48874-5.

This wonderful new book is inspiring and appetizing, practical and beautiful. About 150 pages of glorious photos, technical details, mouthwatering recipes, and anything else you might need to start growing pawpaws or to make better use of wild pawpaws on neglected trees nearby. Here you can learn the reasons to plant named cultivars that have been selected for size, flavor, and high yields.

Michael Judd, his wife Ashley and son Wyatt live at Long Creek Homestead in a round house on a homestead in the Maryland Appalachian foothills, where they grow many food trees and other fruits, and hold an annual Pawpaw Festival each September .

Pawpaws are related to custard apples and cherimoya, in the sugar apple family, and yet they grow in the temperate zone, having moved north as Ice Age glaciers receded. Flavors of mango, banana and pineapple come from this creamy fruit. But if you don’t know what you’re doing and you let them get bruised, or you pick them under-ripe, you can end up with a bitter taste in your mouth, or a bellyache. So get this book!

Learn how to spot wild pawpaws in a forest edge or along a river bank. They need full sun to develop good flavor, although the trees will grow in the shade. If you want to grow your own, you can of course grow them from wild seeds (that you keep damp and plant right after eating the fruit).

Growing Pawpaws
The four key elements of successful pawpaw production:
  1. moisture (minimum of 32” (81 cm) annual rainfall or access to continuous soil moisture);
  2. well-drained soil, preferably fertile;
  3. warm humid summers with 160 frost-free days;
  4. cold winters including some freezing temperatures and at least 400 chill hours.

USDA Winter-hardiness zones 5-9 are most-suited. If these factors are addressed, the pawpaw can be an easy-care fruit tree. We have all those factors in our area of central Virginia, and we have wild trees along the South Anna river. We also have cultivated varieties planted near our houses. Given the right conditions, pawpaw trees grow to an attractive 25 ft (7.6 m) pyramid shape, and can bear 50 lbs (23 k) of fruit each year.

It’s best to have two or more genetically different trees close together, for good cross-pollination and heavy fruit set. Individual flowers cannot pollinate themselves, and although each tree can self-pollinate, the yield might not be large. The unusual purple-brown flowers are fairly inconspicuous.

The chapters on growing the trees includes collecting seeds, germinating them, planting, grafting, choosing rootstock and the importance of soil fungi. Read about companion planting with nitrogen-fixing plants (such as lead plant, false indigo, black locust, which will need cutting back later) and soil-covering “mulch” plants (such as comfrey, yarrow, lemon balm, fuki, white clover). The tree-care chapter includes fruit thinning, and pruning (avoid climbing these brittle trees by keeping them 8 ft (2.4 m) tall).

Cultivated Varieties

If you have only eaten wild pawpaws, you’ll be amazed at the cultivated ones – much bigger, with a more balanced sweet flavor, delicious aroma and smooth texture. Michael offers advice on choosing a variety and choosing and planting potted seedlings. He introduces us to Neal Peterson, who he calls the Mahatma Pawpaw. Neal has created most of the best pawpaw cultivars. I profiled his work here.

Factors to consider include when the fruit ripens and whether all fruits ripen within a small window; whether the fruit softens quickly; whether the skin is thin (undesirable if you are selling or attempting to store the fruit); whether they tend to split in rainy weather; whether they need a lot of fruit thinning to preserve the health of the tree; how big the fruit is (4-6 oz (114-170 g)? 8oz (227 g)? 16 oz(454 g)?) ; the seed:pulp ratio (some big fruits have huge seeds – an ideal range is only 4-8% seeds). Michael offers profiles of the seven Peterson cultivars, the three Kentucky State University cultivars and Jerry Lehman’s two named cultivars. For the wannabe-grower in a hurry, there is a summary of the best cultivars for several factors, and for the person who has no time to read or experiment, Michael suggests sticking with the long-proven wild-sourced cultivars Overleese, Sunflower, PA Golden and NC-1.

Harvesting Pawpaws

Harvesting is both art and science. Under-ripe pawpaws can lead to belly-ache. Mishandling pawpaws can quickly lead to poor results. Windfalls that have lain on the ground for several days will likely be funky in smell and bitter in taste – don’t let your first experience of pawpaw be like this! The ideal is to hand-pick ripe fruit, and as the transition from rock-hard unripe pawpaws to ripe is very sudden, you’ll end up checking the same fruits more than once. Some cultivars change color, others don’t. Check daily! Ripening can finish later if they have begun ripening before you pick. The harvest period lasts 2-4 weeks (July in the Deep South, late August and early September in central Virginia, October in the Great Lakes region).

Photo Michael Judd
Post-harvest

Be very gentle in handling these delicate fruits. Eat within 72 hours of picking or refrigerate (for 1-3 weeks, with the longer period being in a large cooler with a big air volume) Pawpaws exude large quantities of ethylene when ripening. This colorless, odorless gas causes other crops in the same storage space to ripen more, or to sprout, or in the case of carrots, to taste bitter. Alternatively, pulp and freeze (or freeze and pulp). This is one of the places where you learn time- and money-saving secrets – freeze the fruits whole, remove from the freezer after 12 hours, warm them for half an hour, then peel as if they were potatoes, pry them open and pop the seeds out cleanly. Put the frozen chunks back into the freezer until you have more time. There are tips about keeping the yellow color, and which food mills and sauce-makers can pulp pawpaws.

There’s info on the nutritional content of pawpaws: 3.5 oz (100 g) provides 80 calories, including 1.2 g of protein and fat, and all of the essential amino acids.

Pawpaw Recipes

The next section of the book is recipes and mouth-watering photos. (Cheesecake! Ice-cream!) First are the recommendations on eating pawpaws fresh off the tree, and in other ways raw. Next are the cautions about baking with flour which can mask the more subtle flavors and leave something that could be mistaken for banana pie or butterscotch tart. There are vital guidelines on how to use pawpaw pulp in recipes, and what not to do (do not boil or dry the fruit). Many pawpaw recipes are high in cream, butter and sugar, which you might relish. However, here are also some recipes that are healthier, including some vegan recipes. There’s also a simple recipe for unsweetened pawpaw jam, which they cook on a rocket stove, and one for pawpaw butter that includes some sugar and some bourbon. And beer, mead and kombucha.

Pawpaws and Permaculture

The first appendix is “Pawpaws and Permaculture” – here’s one of the special things I like about this book. First we learn about this particular tree crop, and bit by bit we see practices we associate with permaculture – swales, mulches, companion plants. It all makes sense. Here is an explanation for those of us who are not filled with religious zeal at every awed utterance of the word “permaculture”. I’m not the type to believe a theory then fit my practice into that theory. I’d rather practice, observe, learn about options, choose from the most likely to succeed, evaluate, tweak, do a small experiment with a different method, and so on. Here’s “Permaculture for the Rest of Us.” In the past I have been put off by the religious zealotry of some permaculturists – the all or nothing, good or bad, I-know-better-than-you attitude, which does not lead us closer to co-operation, mutual learning or world peace. This book is refreshingly different from that branch of permaculture and I am very grateful for that.

I also got insight into what permaculturists mean when they talk of “Food Forests”. They don’t actually mean acres of food trees. They mean small clumps of trees within a lawn. Agroforestry is the name for the type of farming that includes trees as windbreaks and crops, and pawpaws are a good candidate for inclusion. Goats don’t eat pawpaw trees! In this part of the book, the place for pawpaws in Hügelkultur beds (piles of wood covered in soil); greywater berms (shallow trenches funneling sink water into the landscape; and rain gardens (areas that store rainwater in the soil to irrigate plants) is explored.

Commercial Pawpaw Farming

For those venturing into commercial pawpaw growing and marketing, there is a profile of Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard in Maryland, where trees are 8 ft (2.4 m) apart in rows 15 ft apart (4.6 m), and produce 6,000 lbs (2.7 metric tons) annually. Their best varieties are Shenandoah, Allegheny, Susquehanna and PA Golden, and grafting onto wild rootstock has given them better drought tolerance. They have tips on commercial-scale pruning, thinning and fertilizing.

Onward and Upward

I was thrilled to learn that the zebra swallowtail butterfly has a single host – the pawpaw! We have these butterflies (in small numbers) and I didn’t know much about them. The caterpillars do not do significant damage to the leaves of grown trees, and the acetogenins from the leaves make the insect unpalatable to predators.

I have one little quibble with this book, which is that it would have benefited from tighter editing in some places. It’s not at all verbose or convoluted, but sometimes a piece of info has become detached from its colleagues, and occasionally it gets repeated. But all the info here is good, and actionable. And if you don’t read the whole book at one sitting, as I did, it won’t even be a problem!

After you’ve enjoyed the book, if you are anywhere nearby, book in for one of their open days between March and June, and in September and October at Long Creek Homestead near Frederick, Maryland. The annual Pawpaw Festival is in September. No! No! don’t just show up at their home at some random time of your choosing! See their website www.ecologiadesign.com

The Judds’ round house. Long Creek Homestead 
Photo Michael Judd

 

Hear Chris Smith In Defense of Okra at Heritage Harvest Festival

Chris Smith, author of The Whole Okra

I’m a big fan of Chris Smith and his work. I reviewed his book The Whole Okra on this site and I want to tell you that you can hear him speak at the Heritage Harvest Festival.

His talk In Defense of Okra is on Friday, Sep. 20th: 1:30 3 pm at the lovely Woodland Pavilion. Click here to buy tickets.

Go if you love okra. Go if you hate it – you might change your mind!

The workshop description says:

Calling all worshippers of this much-maligned, tasty vegetable (that is technically a fruit). And okra doubters beware — we’re about to change … your … life.

Join Smith, author of the newly released book The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration, for an interactive and entertaining exploration of the culinary (and non-culinary) uses of okra. Having grown 125 varieties, Smith will share and sample many of the incredible uses of the plant, including okra kimchi, pickled and fermented okra, okra flower tea, okra-seed coffee and okra oil — not to mention the world-renowned delicacy, okra marshmallows.

Participants will learn to enjoy (yes, even LOVE) and appreciate this disparaged underdog — from pod to stem. Take home delicious recipes that will have you profusely apologizing for ever uttering the word “slimy” in its presence.

The future of okra rests on your shoulders. Do the right thing.

Cow Horn okra flower and pod.
Photo Pam Dawling

Author of The Whole Okra, expert okra enthusiast Chris Smith writes regularly for The Heirloom Gardener, the Mother Earth News blog, and the Farmers’ Almanac blog. His presentations on the versatility of okra have delighted audiences at food and farming festivals and fairs throughout the Southeast. He is the Executive Director for The Utopian Seed Project, Communications Manager for Sow True Seed in Asheville, North Carolina, and serves on the board of The People’s Seed. A native of the UK, Smith has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Manchester. His short stories have been published in Nashville Review, Mid-American Review, and The Manchester Review.

Yes, he’s a fellow Brit. He’s very funny. He’s very knowledgeable about seeds and growing vegetables.

Monticello hosts the annual Heritage Harvest Festival

Get Info on Other Workshops here

Get Tickets here

Book Review: Dale Strickler: The Drought Resilient Farm

Book Review: Dale Strickler: The Drought Resilient Farm, Practical Strategies for Drought Resilience on Farm and Ranch.

Storey Publishing, June 2018.

200 pages, color photos and drawings throughout, $24.95

We all need to read more books like this, to prepare for climate chaos and global heating. Alone, we can’t control how much it rains, or when, but we can improve our farming so that rain penetrates deep into the soil, is stored there and is able to keep plants and livestock alive through dry times. The author farms and ranches cattle in Kansas, using less than 4 acre inches of rain per year. This book is mostly addressed to livestock farmers, not vegetable growers like me. I skimmed some sections, although not much, as the same principles of caring for the soil apply to all farmers. This book is not about Organic Farming. Selective use of herbicides is advocated. But you decide. Selectively graze this book, taking only what you like!

[Oh why are books on sustainable agriculture in the US printed in China?]

The first part of the book is about creating a water-efficient soil with three approaches: getting more water into the soil; keeping water in the soil for longer; and helping plants get more of that water. The second part of the book is about providing for livestock: ensuring a reliable water supply; creating drought-tolerant pastures; providing emergency forage in a drought; and livestock decisions after a drought.

Part 3 of this very practical book is Looking to the Future, and includes water-efficient agriculture for semi-arid regions. There are resources for further reading, metric conversion charts and a glossary, and of course an index (without which no practical book is actually practical!) Buy this book to get the checklist of actions to take to prepare for future droughts, and cope with them as they occur.Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl should be required viewing, says Dale Strickler. We need to learn from history. Dale learned as a young man that the fantastic corn yields in Iowa were not due to that state having more rain than Kansas, but to the better soils. He also learned it is possible to get better yields on less rain. Poor soils are unable to hold onto the rain they do get. And this is something we can do something about. Dale increased his soil’s ability to hold water from 3” in 18” depth to 12” in the much-improved 6 ft depth after 11 years. Yes it takes time – start yesterday! The three key parts of this feat are:

  1. Get the water in (not running off)
  2. Keep it stored in the soil
  3. Ensure the plant roots can get the water out when they need it.

Getting more water absorbed into the soil depends on creating a good soil structure, with good-sized water-stable aggregates and large-sized pores. Minimizing heavy tillage (think compaction) will help towards this goal, as will increasing the organic matter, using organic mulches, including crop residues (Dale’s excellent example shows the true costs of baling corn stalks for emergency fodder and selling at $60/ton, while incurring costs of $30/ton and losing the fertilizer value of those stalks at $49/ton). After several years of this treatment, yields go down and the soil loses structure. Over-grazing leads to similar results. Bare soils cannot easily absorb water – keep roots in the ground, and preferably some foliage above ground, at all times. Animal manure on the surface also improves water infiltration – the worms and beetles that feed on the manure make burrows that allow water to reach deeper into the soil.

Dale recommends feeding hay in the fields, either unrolled or with bales spaced around the pasture. Uneaten hay and the manure add a lot of organic matter and fertility. Mycorrhizal fungi on plant roots exude glomalin, a stable gluey compound that greatly improves soil structure. The fungi themselves act like root hair extensions, increasing water uptake ability. Earthworms make burrows (air and water conduits) and line them with slime, which helps soil aggregation. Decayed plant root channels also let water deep into the soil. For best results, combine fibrous-rooted cover crops (grasses, buckwheat) with tap-rooted cover crops (brassicas, sweetclovers, sunflowers).

Sunflowers are a deep-rooting cover crop.
Photo Pam Dawling

Terracing, or other ways of working on contour help to reduce runoff and make full use of the water that does arrive. Swales, keyline shaping (contour ridges), retention dams in seasonal waterways, all aim to slow down runoff and give more opportunity for water to soak in.

The next step is to bank the water in the soil for longer. We do not want soils that rapidly evaporate all the water, leaving a brickyard. Peat bogs store lots of water, but this isn’t what we need either. How best to manage the water once it is in the soil?  Soils lose water in three ways: it gets sucked up by plants, it evaporates from the soil surface, or it leaches down below the root-zone.

Not every drop of water sucked up by plants is helping us – manage or eliminate weeds to leave more for the crops. Preventing a pound of smartweed growth can save 678 pounds of water! Better to grow a pound of crop plants. Overcrowded plants grow taller, but not stronger, as the roots are restricted. Get weeds early, we all know that. If you’ve forgotten why, this book will remind you of the science! In pasture, many weeds are crops, as far as the livestock is concerned. Sometimes rotating different types of livestock will make best use of the plants you have.

As the amount of CO2 increases, plants become more water-efficient. This is because they don’t open their stomata so wide to get enough CO2, and less water transpires out. Increase the CO2 held in the plant canopy by reducing tillage (which instantly flushes out lots). Organic no-till systems allow natural decay and slow release. Keep lots of organic matter on the surface, and if your soil is acidic, add lime.

To reduce evaporation, provide shelterbelts and windbreaks, which cut the wind speed. Research has shown that woody windbreaks increase yields from an area ten times their height. And yet, when times get hard, some farmers pay good money (that will never come back) bulldozing hedgerows to gain a tiny amount of land, with no understanding of the coming decline in yield. Protecting the soil from excessive sun can also reduce evaporation (minimize bare soil). The book has a convincing photo comparing tall healthy corn planted into hairy vetch mulch, with a shorter, curled leaf droughty corn on bare soil.

Dale explains the Law of the Most Limiting Factor, which is helpful to overwhelmed farmers seeing lots of problems. Tackle the factor that is the first to limit the growth of the crop, whether that is sunlight, nitrogen, water or something else.

Organic matter in the soil improves water-holding capacity (both the depth of water penetration and the amount per inch). Increasing soil organic matter comes up next. Anyone over 50 might have been taught that it is not really possible to increase soil OM at a reasonable price. This is not true! By good soil husbandry you can indeed improve soil OM. Conserve crop residues, add cover crops, add manure or compost, reduce tillage and observe the C:N ratio needed for humus production (1 part N: 10 parts C) and don’t forget the sulfur. Some studies seem to show that feeding the crop residues to livestock, letting the manure stay on the fields can increase yields even though the measurable %OM is not higher than if the residues had been left on the field.

The focus then moves on to helping plants get more of the water out of the soil. Improving root depth is key, but sub-soiling is not usually a good way to do this, although Dale concedes that in the Southeast, it can work for one year at a time, perhaps replacing the heavy frost heaving that happens in winter further north. If possible, find other ways to reduce compaction. The more water there is in the pore space, the less oxygen there is. Field tile drainage can help remove excess water, and prevent a low level of oxygen limiting root growth. Earthworms, deep-rooted plants, increased OM, improved aggregation all help increase oxygen flow to the roots. Increase root water-efficiency by ensuring adequate fertility; enlist mycorrhizal fungi by using an inoculant if needed.

I’m considering photocopying the chapter summary pages for a Cheat Sheet on those Practical Strategies. As I said, I skimmed the livestock farming details, but the information on the impact of drought on livestock farmers and ranchers gave me compassion for those faced with suffering animals. Having to make decisions in a hurry to prevent undue suffering can lead to long term problems for the farm. Sometimes row crops must be sacrificed to provide fodder, when pastures become “crispy brown exercise lots”. Dale has the experience. He tells of neighboring farmers getting together to net all the fish from all their ponds before the ponds dried up. They had a neighborhood fish fry, and he ate fried snapping turtle that day.

There are several reasons to keep livestock out of ponds – one is danger from ice.
Photo Ezra Freeman

Providing surface water includes keeping well-maintained ponds that livestock do not trample down. Dale shows how to provide a livestock “beach” with geotextile and gravel, and old tires forming a fence in the water. He shows how to set up a siphon to bring water out of a pond; how to set a living willow hedge to protect steam banks and pond edges; how to build a shade roof for cattle that catches and provides rainwater; how to build temporary ponds with rubber sheeting and hay bales or earthbags; how to drill a shallow well; and how to enclose a spring to protect it from trampling and provide clean water. Here’s info on addressing water quality issues such as excess nitrates, blue-green algae, salt, and sulfates; and on the use of fish trap gates to encourage livestock to move themselves to the next paddock when they need water.

The next chapter is on creating drought-tolerant pastures. Test the soil, and choose pasture plant species carefully. Here is a good explanation of the three photosynthesis pathways, discovered so far. C3 plants have 3 carbon atoms in the first product of photosynthesis. Cool-season grasses and almost all shrubs, trees and broadleaf plants (think brassicas and legumes) are in this group, which has the poorest water-efficiency, and on hot sunny days can use only about 50% of the available sunlight. The book explains why. While the plants have plenty of water, they can use it to cool the leaves; but if it’s hot and the soil is dry, growth is restricted.

C4 plants include warm-weather grasses (including corn), pigweeds, and lambsquarters. They grow best in hot weather, and are unproductive in cold weather. While they are more water-efficient, they are less digestible and low in protein. It is wise to interseed C3 and C4 grasses, adding appropriate mycorrhizal fungi for the C4 grasses, to speed up establishment and provide better long-term productivity. Add deep-rooting plants (chicory or alfalfa).

The third photosynthetic pathway mentioned is the Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) pathway, and it has by far the best drought tolerance. This pathway is found in succulents such as yuccas, cacti, pineapples. They close their stomata during the day, having stored CO2 for photosynthesis. These otherwise promising-sounding plants grow very slowly. They may have a place as drought rations, once the spines have been burned off, or the whole plants have been ground to a “soup”.

Calculating and maintaining a sustainable stocking rate will prevent the downward spiral that comes from overgrazing. Stock conservatively such that only 40% of the foliage is removed in the worst years. There are no financial savings from overgrazing. Removal of more than 40% of the leaf area results in a loss of root growth, hindering recovery. You make more money from conservative grazing than from exploitative grazing. The book has the research to prove it. Consult your local NRCS, who can calculate a suitable stocking rate (free of charge). In wet winters, it is often better to make a woodchip mulched winter feeding lot with spaced hay bales, than let the soil get “pugged”.

There is technical information here about growth stages of different grasses – it’s most important to avoid too much defoliation of cool-season grasses in late spring; warm-season grasses benefit from a rest in late summer. Plants with growing points near the ground can survive close grazing better than those with elevated growing points.

Author Dale Strickler.
Photo courtesy of Storey Publishers

Chapter 7 delves into providing emergency forage in a drought, as an alternative to reducing stocking levels and thus reducing income (hard for any farmer to do). Hopefully, using the previous info, your pastures will be improved and more drought-resilient, and you are less likely to face this emergency. If you do, the first place to look is failed rowcrops, which you can graze or cut and haul (grazing is better). Beware the urge to make silage, as it loses 20% of the feed value in fermentation. And it’s heavy to haul. Also, it leaves your fields denuded, unless you immediately sow a cover crop, which is tricky in a drought. Strip grazing using electric fencing is a better way to go, and also lets you force a better balanced diet of grain and stalks on your livestock, reducing the risks of acidosis, excess nitrates or prussic acid poisoning from young sorghum growth.

Another source of emergency rations is crop residues, such as corn stalks, strip grazed as for failed crops. It is important to understand the nutritional limitations of what you are feeding. There are feed additives used by some ranchers to increase the digestibility of some feedstocks.

Winter cover crops are another emergency feedstock in desperate winters. Tree branches, or felled trees, can save the season occasionally (obviously not every year). Plan ahead and cut poles of cottonwood or willow (whichever grows locally) and plant your own emergency feedlot. It can serve as shade and shelter in non-drought years until needed. Possibly thinning the trees the first time round could actually improve the health of the spared trees.

Another approach is to cut hay on areas that would otherwise get mowed, such as roadsides or parks or serve wetland plants, weeds, lawn clippings, dormant grasses (those bison weren’t wrong!). If you can supplement the protein with legume hay or oilseed meals, do that. For low protein feeds such as dormant grasses, choose mature, non-lactating animals. Planning ahead, it makes sense to shift the birthing season to the beginning of the high-quality grazing season.

There are various (sometimes painful) livestock decisions to make during droughts and in the aftermath. Dale recommends making a written plan, which will save revisiting the decisions each day, and will reduce the stress of making decisions in the thick of it. Deciding to reduce the herd size is easier if you have some animals that you find easier to let go of. Having such “stocker animals” that you intend to sell at some point reduces the decision to when to sell. Having some pre-set trigger dates when decisions need to be made will help you ease into it. Set an initial date to decide the stocking rate for the season, and another when half the growth of the grass will have occurred, for both your cool season and your warm season pastures.

Another strategy is to have some of your livestock be able to survive in buildings or dirt yards for a while. Far from ideal, but in a drought, we are already far from ideal, and climate chaos is going to throw us into situations we have never seen before. Make a priority list of which animals must be first to go when a reduction is needed.

When you’ve done all the things mentioned, and you still have animals to feed, look thoughtfully at hay, silage and grain. It is better to start feeding some hay while the pastures are still in good shape than to overgraze and then have only hay. You want your pasture to respond quickly as soon as rains do arrive, to regrow and be stored for winter. Have a sacrifice lot or pen, where you feed hay, and keep the animals off the pasture, so it can recover sooner. Or graze for a few hours, then feed hay in the lot.

Whatever else you do, keep notes of your observations, your actions, the results and anything you think would have been better. This will position you for better results next time.

The last part of the book looks to the future. The cautionary tale of how the Dust Bowl was created by poor farming practices is relevant to all of us. The lessons are: Farm to suit the land, the climate and the plant species already growing; don’t believe theories (“Rain follows the plow”, “Use dust mulch”, “Deeply tilled soils will catch more rain”) disseminated by people living far away, or companies that are set to gain from farmers following their advice; don’t move hundreds of miles and expect to farm the same way you did “back home”; check the research for results you can depend on, think it through for yourself, and watch what is working for farmers around you, before trying something really different.

Reading about how the Plains are suited to grazing is instructional for anyone who thinks animals should be eliminated from agriculture. Living in central Virginia, I am not in a place to make an informed judgement, but Dale Strickler is. He has a system of capturing falling rain in grasses or cover crops, converting 40% into meat or milk (by grazing, which adds manure to the soil) and leaving 60% to cover the soil. In drought years, maintaining a flexible mind, using those decision-point dates to make best choices for the current year, having some “flex-pastures”, considering all your options rather than panicking, are going to help.

Also see this article picked up by ATTRA on research using sheep to graze cover crops and vegetable crops

 

Book Review: Worm Farmer’s Handbook

 


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

Chelsea Green, 2018, 247 pages, $29.95

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Rhonda Sherman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Mefferd
Photo by Ann Mefferd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration

Chris Smith, Chelsea Green, June 2019

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

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

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

Burmese okra flower.
Photo by Raddysh Acorn

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

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

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

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

Pickled garlic scapes, okra and beets.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

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

Close up of Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

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

Young okra plants.
Photo Wren Vile

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

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

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

Cow Horn okra pods and flower.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Farming While Black, Leah Penniman

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leah Penniman
Photo Credit: Jamel Mosely Mel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forrest Pritchard

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

Ellen Polishuk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weeding rowcovered spinach in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeding the Soil

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

Book-signing Friday 4.15 – 4.45 pm.

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

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

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