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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Jewell
Photo Workman Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Workman Publishing, Timber Press

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

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

20 Heroines Revolutionizing Food Activism to Improve the Planet

 

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Thompson Reads from Going Over Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garry Stephenson

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Farmer’s Office by Julia Shanks

Book Review: The Farmer’s Office: Tools, Tips and Templates to Successfully Manage a Growing Farm Business,  Julia Shanks, New Society Publishers, 2016

Farmers don’t go into farming because they want to do accounting or develop their business skills, and yet these skills are vital to success. We all want success! Get Julia Shanks’ book, quickly understand what you need to do, make time to do that as often as you need to, and move on to your next production task. You can save the time you would have thrown away on exhausting but wasted work. Be more successful, be less exhausted! This book review will be shorter than my usual ones. Just because I’ve no intention of leading you through the technicalities step-by-step. It’s an extremely useful and well-written book.

This is a very user-friendly book. Julia understands that farming is exhausting work. Julia understands farming, and has earned her stripes growing vegetables. Julia understands accounting and business management too. She explains concisely, very clearly, and provides examples and little stories to help us get to grips with the subject. She leads us to take a clear-eyed look at where we make money and where we don’t, which empowers us to make the decisions that are ours to make. We owe it to ourselves to stop the magical thinking that if we only work harder, everything will come out OK. Too many farmers have crashed and burned that way.

Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Julia tells how (in her first year of business school) she used a computer model to help a farmer friend determine how much of each of ten crops to grow. The silly computer program answer was to grow only okra and sweet potatoes! But behind that foolish suggestion was the information that his tomatoes were only earning 12 cents/case! Now that is useful information! What would you do if that’s what your tomatoes were earning? Raise the price and explain to your customers? Stop growing tomatoes? Knowingly sell tomatoes at that low profit as a way to attract customers? Any of these decisions might be the right one for your farm.

Like all money management texts, this book has warnings: Julia has used a simplified approach good enough for agriculture but not for taxes! She tells us when we should consult an accountant, tax advisor or payroll service provider. This 250 page book has 10 chapters of 6-30 pages, a glossary and 5 appendices. Everyone is advised to start with chapters 1 and 2. After that you can pick the ones you need and plan your own DIY course of study. Always eat your elephants one bite at a time! See the chart on page xxi, which points out lines of inquiry depending on your situation.

And here’s another aspect that makes this book special: there are pointers towards videos and webinars that Julia has made, on her website. But buy the book first, and know where you’re going! The price of the book includes the download price of many of the templates. Julia tells how she took a business class for farmers, after her first year of farming. She had kept absolutely no financial records! The instructor told her to guess, so they could make a cash flow plan for Season Two. Julia used that as a road map, and it saved her from ruin. She could see what she could afford, what she couldn’t, when she needed to hustle to bring in a bit more income. It wasn’t a coincidence that she ended up so close to where she needed to be!

Glacier early tomatoes.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

This book will help you determine whether to prioritize tomatoes or cucumbers, eggs or chickens. You’ll need three primary financial statements: the income statement, the balance sheet, and the statement of cash flows. Don’t panic! There’s a webinar and a very readable chapter, with diagrams. There’s a video on depreciation! One of my colleagues calls depreciation “an enforced savings fund” – it pushes you to pace your spending and saving so you can replace a worn-out tractor. At the end of the chapter are instructions on which chapter to read next, according to your situation (creating projections about the future, or statements about your past)

Julia Shanks

Chapter 3 includes a set of questions and worksheets to ensure you have the skills you need to set out in starting your own farming business. The questions cover skills, knowledge, access to mentors or farming partners, your own energy levels, money to float your first year, tolerance of risk and uncertainty.

Chapter 4 covers the business planning process. Follow the stories, diagrams and instructions and choose between a Level One “Quick and Dirty” plan, a Level Two more detailed plan and a Level Three full business plan. You might not need the full plan to get started. Remember “A plan is just a plan” – don’t expect everything to go according to this plan! But the plan still has real value – writing it nudges you to think everything through, providing you with the resources you need to think on your feet and solve the problems that come up on the way. Julia leads us step-by-step through the process of writing a business plan, financial projections, operating assumptions (including the “Gut Check”), a list of funding sources, and an executive summary. Scale back your projections to see what it would be like if something went wrong. Test out a worst case scenario. Could you survive? What would it take?

Chapter 5 is all about financing: savings, loans from family and friends, loans from institutions, prepayments from customers and supporters. Be professional, look as professional as needed when asking to borrow money!

Chapter 6 is on setting up QuickBooks, the industry standard accounting software for small businesses. Other small non-farming businesses using QuickBooks could find this useful too. Julia has two webinars, and this chapter includes sample spreadsheets with the relevant bits circled. Chapter 7 shows how to use QuickBooks daily for cash management. It opens with Aesop’s fable of the Grasshopper (living in the moment) and the Ant (stashing grain for the winter). Just as we can tomatoes in summer for eating in winter, we need to set aside cash we earn during peak season for the slower times of year. 10 minutes a day, plus 30 minutes a week, plus 1-2 hours at year end. Doesn’t sound too bad.  And it’s going to help with saving time and money next year!

Chapter 8 digs into managerial accounting – how to get meaningful information about your business. It includes determining the costs of producing various products/crops. There are several examples. Inventory management is also important, and requires a quick, smooth and simple system of tracking. Here are examples.

Chapter 9 covers stabilizing your business, so you don’t fall into a hole. There are some sad stories in this chapter. Chapter 10 has the more upbeat title “Growing Your Business”. Here’s help in making thoughtful decisions when considering new projects, or expansion of old ones. This is like having an older and wiser experienced farmer at you side. One who will be very honest with you, will share your excitement, and question things you seem to be ignoring.

The appendices give examples of questions to consider at each step of the way, sample spreadsheets and a list of the templates used in the book, which can be accessed from Julia’s website. What a wealth of information for just $24.95. It will pay for itself, I’m sure! And remember, if you feel out of your depth, Julia also works as a consultant, providing technical assistance and business coaching. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather ask for help! Go to https://thefarmersoffice.com/ for more info, including a free basic accounting course, and a 6-course free Self-Paced Farmer’s Office Basic Course, available 24/7, including videos, quizzes and case studies. There’s also fuller Farmer’s Office courses for $49/month.

Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

Harness the Power of Microbes to Create Your Best Garden Ever

Storey Publishing, January 2020

  • Price: $16.95
  • Size: 6 x 9
  • Pages: 176
  • Format: Paperback ISBN: 9781635862072
  • Other formats: Ebook

Grow Your Soil! is an introduction to soil biology and gardening in eight chapters. It is written as if describing how to build a house (but starting with the roof!). Diane Miessler writes in plain English, with a light style, and her book has the endorsement of Elaine Ingham, who writes the foreword, saying that Diane’s humor and tongue-in-cheek joy make this book a joy to read. People were once told that using inorganic fertilizers and pesticides was the only way to grow enough food for a starving world. Elaine simply states “That was a flat-out lie.”

Diane’s encouragement to garden in partnership with the soil food web lists the many benefits of a healthy environment, healthy flavorful food, and the satisfaction of doing what you believe is right. She has a ten-point list of suggestions for creating healthy living soil using no-till systems, lots of mulches, home-grown fertilizers, and by encouraging biodiversity. The fundamentals of soil science are explained – soil is about 45% minerals (sand, silt and clay), 20-30% air, 20-30% water and 5-10% organic matter. A teaspoon of good soil contains more microbes than there are people in the US, more species than all the vertebrates on Earth, several yards of fungal hyphae, a few thousand protozoa and several dozen nematodes (mostly good ones). Soil is our planet’s third largest carbon sink (after the oceans and fossil fuels). Healthy soil is continually pulling carbon dioxide from the air and sequestering it in the organic matter and humus. We want to have as much sequestered carbon as possible, both to reduce the amount in the atmosphere and so that we can use it to grow food.

 Diane’s mulch recommendations are to generally aim for a mix of one-third green matter (which feeds bacteria) and two-thirds brown (which feeds fungi), but steering towards more green matter for annual vegetables, more brown for woody perennials, in line with the predominant life-form each type of crop does best with.

The cover crops section first describes the plants, then how and when to use them. I had a brief worry that people would go out and plant buckwheat or sweet potatoes in winter, until I read on! In fact, Diane does suggest you can sow buckwheat whenever you like, and it will be dormant until the right spring weather occurs. In our central Virginia climate this does not work. Buckwheat seed rots in cold wet soil. Buckwheat can germinate in a warm early spring spell and be struck down by a following frost before it has made much growth at all. As always, it pays to discuss ideas you haven’t tried before with nearby gardeners.

This book has a good basic description of the Soil Food Web, for new gardeners or anyone who is a bit mystified about what’s happening in the soil. And for those over 50 whose biology classes only included the two plant and animal “kingdoms”, here are explanations of the classes of bacteria, fungi and archaea, the main types of soil microbes. Archaea are neither bacteria nor eukaryotes (tiny organisms that have their DNA in a nucleus). Archaea are similar to eukaryotes in some ways, but have more resistance to extreme conditions. In the soil they work as decomposers.

Next up are the algae, protozoa and nematodes. The algae spectrum goes from one-celled photosynthesizing life-forms to giant kelp. In the soil they provide nutrients and increase plant resistance to diseases. Protozoa are one-celled animals, which release excess nutrients from their meals of bacteria and fungi, in a plant-available form. They help balance the numbers of bacteria in the soil. Nematodes are (mostly) microscopic roundworms that are mostly benign, from our perspective, and healthy populations keep the destructive nematodes in check. Arthropods (including insects, spiders, mites, ticks and scorpions) are shredders of organic matter in the soil (while eating smaller life-forms).

Bigger soil-dwellers include worms, slugs, snails, and small mammals. By the way, Diane explodes the myth that coffee grounds can control slugs, and claims to have videos to prove it untrue. And she tells us that fence lizards eat harlequin bugs. (I think she lives in California). Western fence lizards are centered in California, and according to the National Wildlife Federation, Eastern fence lizards are found between New York and northern Florida and as far west as Ohio and Arkansas. I want some!

The next section of the book explains Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), a measure of how many positively charged ions (cations, nutrients like Mg, K, Ca, ammonium) can be held by the negatively charge soil particles. Diane likens this to the pantry. Soils with a low CEC can’t hold many cations, and the key to increasing the CEC is to increase the soil organic matter content. Clay soils may have a high CEC, but the nutrients may be held too tightly to be useful to plants. The solution to this problem is also to increase the soil organic matter content.

Diane offers several ways to increase the organic matter, and one of her favorites is biochar. Biochar in its original form is more or less sterile, not nutritious at all, but in the soil it can act like humus on steroids – it is very good at absorbing water, hosting microbes, reducing plant diseases and lasting a long time in the soil. I have been skeptical about some of the claims for biochar, and of the net gains in reducing global heating. Diane does not make any wild claims (she’s not selling the stuff). She is open about the fact that the mechanism for suppressing disease is not yet understood.

As I said, Diane is not selling biochar. In fact she describes how to make your own on a small scale with an “upside-down” outdoor fire (with all due safety precautions). Big pieces of wood are arranged on the ground in an open airy stack, and a small fire is lit on top with tinder and kindling. This means the fire produces little smoke (all smoke is air pollution). The fire is thoroughly doused with water once everything is glowing but not flaming. Those wanting to make biochar on a bigger scale are referred to a double-barrel biochar burner on YouTube.

Diane Miessler

The next section is on photosynthesis, minerals and soil testing. Diane describes the effects of too much, too little and just right amounts of the main soil nutrients first. A deficiency of phosphorus shows up as blue-purple colors on the older leaves. She doesn’t mention phosphorus surplus, although she does confirm that excess phosphorus added to the soil will usually be locked up and become inaccessible to plants. Potassium deficiency can cause yellow leaf edges. Next up are other macro-nutrients, such as Calcium, magnesium and sulfur. Calcium deficiency leads to stunted new growth, brown around the edges, perhaps with yellowing between the veins. Bulb and fruit formation can be damaged, as with blossom end rot of tomatoes, caused by insufficient calcium reaching the fruits. By contrast, a magnesium deficiency leads to older leaves becoming yellow between the veins and around the edges, perhaps with purple, reddish or brownish discoloration. Sulfur shortage can lead to “unthrifty” plants. Shortages of any of these can be remedied by the addition of more organic matter.

Micronutrient shortages can also be helped by organic matter, although in Virginia I have noticed that we do sometimes need to add boron on its own (in tiny amounts).

Diane describes how to test soil, understand the results, and remedy the situation. Try adding organic matter first, and only tinker with the specifics if the general remedy is not enough. For instance, if your soil biological activity is low, you may find that piling on organic matter doesn’t help. Use compost to add  some more life to the soil and get a better balance of diners to dinners. There is a helpful one-page “Order of Operations for Fixing Soil”: Correct the pH; correct the calcium level; correct any excesses (usually by adding gypsum); correct the macronutrient deficiencies and lastly correct the micronutrient and trace element deficiencies. Clear instructions like this are so valuable to newer gardeners!

There is a chapter on making compost and compost tea. She suggests thinking of compost as a sourdough starter, and mulch as the flour. Both are valuable, and they work well together. Making good compost is a valuable skill to learn. Try for the a good balance of high nitrogen materials and high carbon materials, with enough water. Turn the pile, assess its progress, add what it seems to need. Rinse and repeat. Diane recommends against spending money on fancy compost bins. “Compost needs love, not a container.” There is value in turning the pile and seeing how it’s doing. If it’s fully enclosed in a tumbler, you might miss the signs that it needs a specific kind of care. Here is encouragement to learn the art and science of compost making.

Worm bins are a great way to use kitchen scraps to produce worms and compost, especially in winter, as worm bins need to be in a non-freezing place to stay alive. I disagree with Diane about using the liquid leaching from the bottom of the bin as a “compost tea” See my review of The Worm Farmer’s Handbook by Rhonda Sherman. This liquid might not be good for your plants. To make compost tea, put some of the wormcastings in water and bubble air though it. Instructions are in Diane’s book a few pages later.

Another small industrious worker is the black soldier fly. The (harmless) maggots of these (harmless) flies will out-compete other (disease-carrying and/or biting) flies in eating up kitchen scraps in an odorless way. They are also a favorite food of poultry, and there are clever ways of setting up a bsf bin so that the pupal stage will “self-harvest” by walking up a ramp and dropping into a collecting box. See YouTube for all the details.

After explaining these various aspects of growing good soil, Diane pulls everything together into a chapter on Building a Garden That Feeds Itself. Here you can learn about sprinkler irrigation,  mulching, planting, and selecting good tools. The next chapter covers being a good neighbor, by having a good-looking, good-smelling, productive garden that gets frequent attention. Diane advocates for pulling weeds and dropping them on the bed, without worrying about weed seeds or plant diseases. I can see this would work best in a smaller garden where things don’t get out of control, and in drier climates with fewer diseases and less chance for weeds to re-root. There’s a panel about roses that I didn’t read. (Roses are a great trap crop for Japanese beetles; I’m not a flower grower!)  A big help to beginners is the glossary at the end, and the bibliography of books on soil life.

If you are a beginner organic gardener, or you’re looking for a book for someone in that category, this book has a clear user-friendly approach. It won’t scare off newbies with too much detail.

Book Review: Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening

Book Review: Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening. Innovative Techniques for Growing Vegetables, Grains, and Perennial Food Crops with Minimal Fossil Fuel and Animal Inputs. Chelsea Green, 2015

In 1971, Will Bonsall went back to the land in Maine, with his wife, Molly Thorkildsen, and their two sons. They built the farm over the course of five years, “one foundation stone and one exquisitely harvested and finished piece of wood at a time. As neat and efficient as a ship’s cabin, Khadighar Farm rises up on a hillock in the midst of 85 acres.” (Press Herald 2014). Will Bonsall runs the Scatterseed Project, (as featured in the documentary “Seed: The Untold Story“), an organization for the collection, preservation and sharing of seeds. Jim Gerritson, in his endorsement says “The risk of describing [this book] as a gardening book is that the aspiring reader may miss the reality that it is really a book on life, centered as a good life should be, around a garden.”

Will Bonsall’s gardening (life) is focused on Veganism and Eco-efficiency, looking deeply into replenishing the soil by considering each organism’s intrinsic energy as a food in proportion to the food energy (or soil fertility) required to produce it. Only photosynthetic plants actually produce a net increase over the soil-derived nutrients they consume. All animals have a negative ratio. This is not to say all livestock are bad (or for that matter, that people are bad). Different animals vary in their Eco-efficiency and different terrains respond to different treatment. As the author says, you can pick and choose from the ideas presented, without needing to agree 100% with his ideology. And before anyone imagines that Will Bonsall advocates isolationist self-sufficiency, note that he points out that the most stable solutions for hard times involve cooperative, collective, community action.

The book starts with building soil fertility, moves on to growing and saving seeds and propagating plants, then discusses growing particular crops (vegetables, grains, pulses, oil seeds, and “permacrops”. Part 4 explains how these strategies are integrated to make best use of the land, and how to deal with pests and diseases. The book closes with some ideas for using and preserving the foods grown. As with all agriculture, there is not a linear progression of topics, but a network of ideas.

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

The bottom line on soil fertility is that how we balance the efficiencies of tilth-building imports will determine the long-term sustainability of our farm (and our planet). What are the true costs of bringing in soil-building materials? Here are good instructions on making compost, from the variable ingredients you are likely to have. Will uses 900 pounds (408.2 kg) per 180 ft2 (16.7m2). For some time I’ve been curious about how much compost other growers use. We use about 46 gals/100 ft2 in our hoophouse. Most other professional compost-using growers who I know of use 12-40 gals/100 ft2. How to compare weights with volumes? Perhaps 3.5 lbs/gal? At that density, Will’s rate is 143 gals/100 ft2. It does look very generous in the photo, but perhaps I have miscalculated. He does not report excess phosphorus in his soil, which is one of the main concerns about using lots of compost. Because he commends buckwheat as a cover crop for making soil phosphorus available to plants, I deduce he doesn’t have a surplus. Perhaps the relatively closed nutrient system on his farm reduces the potential problem. Perhaps it is the lack of animal manure.

Among other cover crops discussed here, sweet clover comes out well, for tolerating sodium, making deep roots, fixing nitrogen and bringing up more phosphorus. And growing so tall it can be mowed and the top growth taken for compost-making. Alfalfa has similar features, but is not so cold-hardy. (Khadighar Farm is in Maine.)

While Will’s farm is veganic agriculture, he is still a grass farmer. He uses wood ash and ramial wood-chips (chipped small branches and brush) to improve his grassland, reckoning this more sustainable than farming cattle.

Golden Glory zucchini in late May.
Photo Pam Dawling

Will describes chopping out circles of cover crop to transplant squash into, as a way of extending the valuable life of the cover crop until the last minute. I’d caution southern growers about trying that. When squash grow fast they can quickly run over cover crops and make life difficult. I tried winter squash with buckwheat once and the crew never quite forgave me, as we had to wade in and pull up the buckwheat to prevent seeding.

I was very interested to read that his squash plants, having grown surrounded by oats and peas (flattened and covered with tree leaves) never get troubled by striped cucumber beetles (one of our more pesky pests). Ramial wood chips are a great way to build soil, if spread on the surface rather than turned in. Fungi will break down the material overtime. The key is to get the woody material locally, to be eco-efficient. We ask our electric co-op to unload their line-clearance chips near the end of our driveway.

Because importing minerals and other soil builders over large distances is not sustainable, it is wise to conserve minerals and recycle those nutrients on your own land as long as possible. Humanure is worth considering, if you are not selling Organically-Certified produce to others, as long as you can be sure it doesn’t have medications or diseases in it, and you are quite choosy about which crops you apply it to.

Will says “boron is most vulnerable to erosion via the marketplace”, meaning selling produce can deplete your soils of some minerals.

Woodash is a valuable resource (although I reckon southern growers get less wood ash than northern growers).Wood ash can help reduce soil acidity, but probably don’t apply more than 10-15 lbs/1000ft2 (4.5-6.8 kg/92.9m2).

Sun Gold cherry tomato in our hoophouse.
Photo Pan Dawling

The second section of the book is about understanding annual, biennial and perennial plants and how to propagate them by farming seeds, and storing them well to keep them viable. He doesn’t just work with open-pollinated varieties. He points out that some hybrids don’t contain much genetic diversity, “a detail no one wants you to know”. Many hybrid tomatoes will grow surprisingly true to type, as the parent lines are not very divergent to begin with. He suggests Sungold tomato as one example.

Next he explains various ways to clone plants (replicate them asexually) via suckers, layering, cuttings, grafting. I just learned that blood, sweat and tears are bad for grafting, as the cambium cells will be ruined!

The third section of the book (150 pages) is about various crops. These are divided into vegetables, grains, pulses, oilseeds and permacrops. Will Bonsall is, after all, aiming to grow a complete vegan diet. In the vegetables chapter, Will focuses on areas where he has a unique approach, or at least one not widely known about.

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

There is a valuable tip about not planting peas too early. Plant a week later, when the soil is warmer, and your harvest will start a few days later (not a full week later) than it would have, and more importantly, the yield will be higher. Early lettuce or Egyptian onions make good space-sharing companions with fava beans. Rather than pine because they are too far north to grow lima beans, the family grows white-seeded runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) to use as dry beans. I loved runner beans as a green bean in England and here I learn that many white runner beans have names with the word “Lima” in them. Confused? No wonder!

I might follow Will’s tip and grow only Early Jersey Wakefield, Danish Ballhead and a red storage cabbage. I’ve spent years seeking the perfect combination of cabbages for early eating, storage and sauerkraut. Perhaps this is it? I like the EJW well enough already, although I also like the hybrid Faroa. A trick Will has for getting best use of space is to plant the EJW at 18” (45 cm) spacing, with kohlrabi transplants in between. The kohlrabi are harvested first, leaving space for the cabbage to reach its (small) full size. Lettuce is another option.

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

It’s always gratifying to read another garden author advocating for something we do too (bare-root transplants). He has details for growing your own bulb onion sets from a mid-July sowing (in NY). The keys to success include sowing thickly in very rich soil, and finding the right variety, as well as the right date – early enough to grow a plant bigger than a wispy seedling, but late enough so they can’t move straight into making seed heads the next spring when replanted. The plants need to die back and harden off for storage. It takes skill!

I’m going to look out for Chinese broccoli (B. oleracea var. alboglabra), Bonnie Best and Siletz early determinate tomatoes, yellow-fleshed potatoes (especially Granola) and Baxter OP sweet corn.

I appreciated reading Will’s explanation of the causes of the Irish Potato Famine. Food justice is as important as good gardening skills. Let’s stop blaming Late Blight (Phytophthera infestans) and look instead at the English landowners shipping out wheat, barley and beef, reducing their peasant workers to a diet of potatoes and dairy products, which (although very unjust) was adequate as long as the supply of milk lasted and until the reliance on a single variety of potato (Lumpers) brought them to starvation and desperation.

I just learned that cucumbers are rich in soluble silica, important for healthy teeth. Will describes this silica-dissolving property as “eating rocks”!

It’s often said how it’s hard to judge the mood behind someone’s email – are they angry? Tired and grumpy? Making a joke? Sometimes I was left wondering at some passages in this book. He starts one story out by mentioning his “patronizing chuckle” at his wife Molly’s suggestion of mulching their grain plots, follows it up with telling how well it worked when he did try it and how he always mulches grains now. He ends the paragraph with “Yep, I’m totally convinced that’s one of the best ideas I’ve ever had,” but I have to give him the benefit of my doubt. He’s sailing close to obnoxious realities that most women have had to endure.

I appreciated the section on the types of millet. I’ve often been confused about the different types and how best to use them as cover crops. Naturally, I need my “climate zone glasses” on – Virginia has different weather from New York, and what’s true there is not necessarily true here.

Japanese millet – not frost hardy, not suitable for human food (tight hulls)

Proso millet – not frost hardy, short, early maturing, not much biomass, loose-hulled. All are very attractive to birds once seeds form.

For those wanting to venture into small-scale grain-raising, this book has the basics for wheat, triticale, barley, oats, rye, millet, rice, field corn, buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa.

Pulses are dry peas, beans, lentils and other legumes. Not many books have the detailed information found here.

The oilseed chapter proposes the less usual idea of using the ground oily seeds in food, rather than extracting the oil from the seeds, adding it to cooking, and then dealing with a byproduct. I have not read much on this subject since I reviewed Cindy Conner’s book, Grow a Sustainable Diet. In this chapter, Will discusses sunflowers, pepitas, flax, poppies, hazelnuts and some experimental crops. In their climate, peanuts, olives, oil palm, safflower and sesame won’t mature. They don’t grow rape/canola as a seed crop because they value it more as an early greens crop. I was fairly horrified to read that they are trying chufa (tiger nuts) because we have serious weed problems with both yellow and purple nut sedge, also known as chufa. Will says that this food crop is not invasive, and will die with the frosts. I’m not going to try that in Virginia in case it hybridizes with the weed kinds – that would be too terrible!

Admiring a cluster of blueberries.
Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier

The “permacrops” are tree nuts like chestnuts, hazels, acorns, pea-shrub and honeylocust, and tree fruits, cane fruits, blueberries, hardy kiwis, autumn olive (invasive in Virginia), dogwood cherry (cornelian cherry), rose-hips, ribes, apples, plums, pears, medlars, mulberries. Then there are the non-woody permacrops such as Jerusalem artichokes (terrasols) and apios. I’d never heard of those – they are groundnuts (but not peanuts), and they can get invasive. Various minor tuberous crops are discussed, such as cattails, Chinese yams, crosnes, daylilies and nanny-berries (wild viburnum).

The fourth section is “The Garden in Context” (Rocks, water, land; pests and diseases; and “smaller footprints” – ways of increasing yields from a given space). There are clear instructions on digging trenches to drain overly wet areas. I am still unclear though, on how big (deep, wide) drains need to be if you fill them with rocks. When I was doing calculations for our hoophouse, I concluded that the size of the drains if filled with rocks would have to be enormous, as most of the trench would be occupied by the rocks, leaving little room for the water. Obviously, the gradient of the ditch makes a difference too, as well as the quantity of water we’re talking about. Worth careful consideration before digging! I like Will’s drawing of a stone culvert in the bottom of the trench, to preserve some open space for the water to run in.

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

As for increasing yields from a given area, Will clarifies the differences between Old World agriculture (many crops, methods, tools, livestock shared across a large area) and New World agriculture (more isolated, fewer crops (mostly frost-tender annuals), cultivation mostly in the lowlands, no plows, no livestock, mostly slash and burn cultivation with long crop rotations). Old World crops lend themselves better to close planting, although the vining New World crops make better use of vertical space, and fit better with mulched no-till systems.

I appreciated Will’s take on companion planting – it’s not so much that different crops “like” each other, as that they have few quarrels. Peas grow up a trellis and spinach, chard, lettuce or carrots can occupy the rest of the bed without competing with the shallow-rooted peas. The carrots use all the nitrogen from the soil, while the peas are self-sufficient. Edamame can grow in the aisles between sweet corn rows – Will sows the edamame seeds in the same furrows as the corn seed. The corn yields normally, but the edamame yield is reduced by about 50% compared to growing it in separate rows. But the overall yield of corn-plus-edamame is greater for the space. Will has tried and true examples and pointers on factors to consider when designing your own combinations: timing, root depth, fertility requirements, access to light.

Will Bonsall

There is something inherently unnatural in any kind of farming.” “Chaos, change and instability are more the norm; the best we can do is exploit them to our temporary advantage.” We must deal with pests! Will’s recommendation is to haul all vegetable crop residues to a hot compost pile, even if no disease is apparent. And to practice serious crop rotations. Animal pests are a problem in inverse proportion to their size: big deer can be excluded. Flea beetles are a bigger problem. Will recommends brewing toxic rhubarb leaves, being careful not to have them anywhere near human food in a way that could cause lethal mistakes. Apply as a fine mist.

The last section is on using the harvest, including milling, baking, sprouting, freezing, fermenting and drying. I didn’t take so many notes on this section, but for those wanting to mill wheat and corn, make buckwheat noodles and bake breads, the info is there. Also for sprouting, malting, freezing, fermenting and dehydrating. Also using oilmeals rather than pressing oil

At the back of the book there are lists of recommended tools and resources and a few thoughts about energy use and alternative technology. This is an excellent book for those wanting to produce as much of their needs from the land as possible, and also for those who enjoy reading about quirky persevering hard-working folk who are doing just that, perhaps with an eye to inching in that direction themselves. Even relatively experienced growers will find something new in this collection of detailed information based on lived experience.

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!