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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Mefferd
Photo by Ann Mefferd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garlic scapes, yellow spinach, and listen-while-you-work

 

Garlic scape harvest. Photo Wren Vile

The seasons are changing, and I notice fewer people are searching my website for Winter-kill temperatures and more are searching for garlic scapes, and (sadly) sprouting green potatoes!

We’ve been harvesting scapes from our hardneck garlic for over a week now and have been tackling the sequence of tasks that scapes act as a prompt for:

  1. Weed the hay-mulched broccoli and cabbage beds next to the garlic
  2. Weed the garlic
  3. Carefully lift out the hay-mulch-and-weeds combo from the garlic beds, into wheelbarrows
  4. Take it to the broccoli and cabbage beds and use it to top up the mulch there.

This gives the garlic good airflow and helps it dry down (our scapes arrive 3 weeks before we need to harvest). I notice it’s earlier this year. We may be harvesting at the end of May, rather than in the first week of June. We need to clean and prepare the barn where we hang the garlic to cure, and service the box fans we use to help that process (our climate is too humid to cure alliums without fans). For a lot more about garlic throughout the year, see the “alliums” category of posts.

What causes spinach leaves to turn yellow?

A bed of healthy green Reflect spinach on May 3
Photo Pam Dawling
A bed of sad yellow Reflect spinach only 10 ft away.
Photo Pam Dawling

On a less happy topic, we have been puzzling over the difference between one bed of spinach (green) and another about 10 ft away (yellow)

We had two beds of transplanted Reflect spinach from the same planting that came out very differently this spring. One developed yellow older leaves, the other stayed green. Seizing an opportunity, we transplanted the troubled one (30W) directly after tilling, on 3/2, without allowing the turned-under weeds to decompose. We did spread compost before tilling. Although initially healthy, later the older leaves developed all-over yellowing (not just between the veins). The other bed (27W), transplanted 3/18, about 10 feet away, has stayed healthy and green, up until May 14. We’ve lost track of when it was tilled relative to planting. Or, because we had such wet weather, we might have broadforked rather than tilled. Both beds now have pointy leaves and are getting ready to bolt. No difference in that. Our other beds of spring spinach, transplanted 3/5 and 3/13 are between the two mentioned in color. Is the problem entirely to do with the decomposing weeds (and the micro-organisms they are feeding) tying up the nitrogen? It looks like that.

In an effort to save the yellow spinach, 30W was weeded around 5/2 and the bed was sprayed in the evening 5/3 with seaweed extract. It rained 0.1″ the night of 5/4 and again 5/5, then no more rain before the second set of photos 5/9 – could the seaweed have washed off before it could be absorbed? We did not add a spreader/sticker (soap) to the seaweed spray. There might have been overhead irrigation, which could have washed it off. We don’t remember when it was irrigated relative to the seaweed spraying.

We also don’t know if there were differences in transplanting techniques between the beds, but as both beds were transplanted by several people working together, we can probably rule this out.

The bed of green spinach on May 9 – note how the leaves are pointy – the spinach is preparing to bolt.
Photo Pam Dawling
In 2016 both beds had spring spinach (three year rotation).

30W (yellow) then had buckwheat, compost and late squash 7/18/16, followed by winter wheat.

In 2017 it had compost, tomatoes 5/2 and winter wheat.

In 2018 it had buckwheat and soy, compost and late bush beans 8/3, leaving weeds over winter.

Total about 14 months food crops.

27W (green) had buckwheat and soy followed by oats in August 2016.

In 2017 it had compost, spring turnips, buckwheat and soy, compost and lettuce in August, followed by weeds over the winter.

In 2018 it had compost, carrots 3/27, compost, turnips 8/6 and weeds over the winter.

Total about 11 months of food crops.

The yellow spinach (no greener) on May 9.
Photo Pam Dawling
  • Possible causes of yellow spinach leaves include poor drainage, soil compaction, damaged roots/poor root growth, high soil pH, too much or too little water, too low or too high a temperature, or perhaps cold temperatures followed abruptly by very warm temperatures, 80°F or greater; nutrient deficiencies or disease. In our case, the beds are close together, receiving identical weather. Perhaps 30W is a bit drier.
  • Nutrient deficiencies may occur due to insufficient amount in the soil or because the nutrients are unavailable due to high soil pH, or nutrients may not be absorbed due to injured roots or poor root growth. Our roots grew OK, we don’t tend towards alkaline soil
  • The most common nutrient problem associated with chlorosis is lack of iron, but yellowing may also be caused by manganese, magnesium, boron, zinc, or nitrogen deficiencies.
  • Iron deficiency starts on young leaves and may later work towards the older leaves (which initially had enough iron, as a transplant). Can occur in water-logged soil. The veins can remain green. Not the problem we have – our older leaves are yellower.
  • Deficiencies in manganese, zinc or nitrogen develop on older leaves first and then progress upward.
  • Within older leaves, magnesium is transported from the leaf’s interstitial areas to the veins, resulting in yellowing of the areas between leaf veins. This creates a marbled appearance, a typical symptom of magnesium deficiency. Our leaves were yellow all over.
  • Nitrogen deficiency. Overall yellowing (including veins). The lower, older leaves appear yellow first as the plant moves the available nitrogen to the more important newer leaves. Spinach is sensitive to inadequate nitrogen. Our main suspect.
  • Boron deficiency also yellows the leaves and stunts spinach plants. We do tend to run short of boron, and my approach was to add boron before brassicas. We haven’t added any for several years and the only brassicas in these beds were turnips in 27W in spring 2017 and fall 2018. Did we add boron in 2016/2017?
  • Spinach is a heavy feeder. Feed with compost tea, manure tea, or fish emulsion when plants have four true leaves. Side dress with compost tea every 10 to 15 days. Mix 1 tablespoon of fish emulsion and 2 tablespoons of kelp extract per gallon of water; use about one cup per one-foot of row on a weekly basis until plants are about 4″ (10 cm) tall; then feed two more times before harvest. Add mature compost to planting beds twice each year.
  • Fusarium wilt or fusarium yellows (also called spinach yellows) is a fungal disease which infects plant vascular tissues. Fungal spores live in the soil and can be carried by cucumber beetles. We certainly have lots of striped cucumber beetles! But these plants did not wilt. See the photos here:
  • Harvest to Table is a great website with lots of reliable growing information.
  • Identifying nutrient deficiency in plants
  • Guide to Symptoms of Plant Nutrient Deficiencies
Listen While You Work

Harold Thornbro of The Small Town Homestead interviewed me about hoophouses and you can listen to the interview here. It’s about 50 minutes.

I also gave an interview for the Yale Climate Connections

This one is short (1 min 30 sec) and more about Twin Oaks Community than farming in particular.Play it directly above, or See the webpage here

There is also a link to a longer CNN story about Twin Oaks

Rainy day garden reading (listening and viewing)

New Format Website

After all this time, my website was due for some spring cleaning. In particular, the old format didn’t work well on smart phones, and this new one does. So I hope that makes life easier for lots of you! I’ve also moved the Categories and Recent Comments so they are easier to find. Let me know  if you have ideas for improvements.

Our Weather

It’s cold and rainy here as I write this (almost sleeting). I will need to plug in the heat mats under the pepper, eggplant, cucumber and squash seedlings, cover the tender potted tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse with rowcover, and pull rowcover over the newly transplanted beds of tomatoes and squash in the hoophouse. I’m expecting a third night with temperatures around 25F (-4C). Hence I’m in the mode of staying indoors and doing some reading. Here’s a big round up of good stuff.

Root Crops and Storage Crops

In A Way to Garden Margaret Roach interviews Daniel Yoder of Johnny’s Seeds on Mastering Root Vegetables. Read, or listen to her podcast how to grow root crops: Carrots, beets, radishes, parsnips. Lots of tips, and links to more articles/interviews

An earlier article discusses how to store garden vegetables for winter. Margaret covers the basics of temperature and humidity, along with details of some crops and ideas for preserving crops that don’t store well.

Ticks and Tasks in Virginia

The Garden Shed is a monthly online newsletter published by the Piedmont Master Gardeners.  It provides all gardeners in Charlottesville-Albemarle County area of Virginia with a science-based, reliable source of gardening information, monthly tasks and tips, and other gardening related features. Here are a couple of the most recent ones:

Managing the Tick Problem by Ralph Morini

Identifying the culprits, understanding the medical risks and tickproofing your environment

March Tasks in the Vegetable Garden by Ralph Morini

Of Wet Soil, Pests and Hope…

Note that the link in this article to VCE Publication 246-480 “Vegetables Recommended for Virginia,” does not work. It looks like the Extension has taken the publication down. Ralph Morini suggests that the next best reference is 426-331 Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates

Diversify and Profit

10 Most Profitable Specialty Crops to Grow

This post by Craig Wallin for the Profitable Plants Digest gives info on lavender, gourmet mushrooms, woody ornamentals, landscaping trees and shrubs, bonsai plants, Japanese maples, willows, garlic, bamboo and herbs. I’ll add a big caution about bamboo, as we have found many bamboo varieties very invasive and hard to control. Links on the site provide info on ginseng, microgreens and more.

Siberian garlic.
Photo by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Pick High Yield Crops

Practical Farmers of Iowa offers an interactive list of Farmer to Farmer Vegetable Yield and Production Data

Get an idea of what a reasonable yield is (at least in Iowa!) of the crops you grow and compare various crops to help with your decision-making.

Control Weeds the Easy Way

Extension offers Solarization and Tarping for Weed Management on Organic Vegetable Farms in the Northeast USA which can, of course, be modified for those of us in other regions.

Reusable Black Tarps Suppress Weeds and Make Organic Reduced Tillage More Viable

A black plastic tarp laid over full-length crop beds. Photo credit: Haley Rylander.

Remediate Contaminated Soil

 


Most public universities – and many private companies – offer mail-in soil testing for a nominal cost. Photography By Humannet / shutterstock.com

Urban Gardening 101: How to Deal with Contaminated Soil It’s hard to find much information on this topic for organic gardeners, although Leah Penniman does also offer help in her book Farming While Black

 

Listen to Podcasts

Modern Farmer Ten Great Farming Podcasts to Listen to Now

 

Watch a Movie on Heirloom Seed Preservation

Al Jazeera, in their Witness series, has a 25 minute film The Seed Queen of Palestine
Can one woman’s mission to revive ancient heirloom seeds inspire a celebration of traditional Palestinian food? Vivien Sansour is distributing rare, ancient heirloom seeds to Palestinian farmers. Click here and search for The Seed Queen of Palestine

Track the Progress of Spring

The Nature’s Notebook phenology site

Join more than 6,000 other naturalists across the nation in taking the pulse of our planet. You’ll use scientifically-vetted observation guidelines, developed for over 900 species, to ensure data are useful to researchers and decision-makers. On their website, learn about the National Phenology Network Pest Patrol which is seeking observers to report their sightings of insect pest species that cause harm to forest and agricultural trees. Your observations as part of this campaign will help validate and improve the USA-NPN’s Pheno Forecasts, which help managers know when these species are active and susceptible to treatment.

——————

Heed the Warnings for Agriculture from the Fourth National Climate Assessment

The U.S. Global Change Research Program has released the Fourth National Climate Assessment, an examination of the effects of climate change on the United States. Chapter 10 of the Assessment is on “Agriculture and Rural Communities.” This chapter contains four key messages regarding productivity decline, resource degradation, livestock health, and rural-community capacity to respond.

Consider Water-saving Hoophouse Crops.

Texas High Tunnel Workshop

Texas high tunnel study expands

The Texas High Plains and Southern Plains continue to experience reductions in irrigation water from the Ogallala Aquifer as water levels decline, and producers need some way to improve their revenue from their farming systems. They have the potential to get a pretty good return and be able to take better advantage of the water they do have, using high tunnels to grow regular vegetable crops and also use them for seed production, cut flowers, small fruit.

Consider our own Impact

Here are 6 personal Carbon Footprint Calculators

from Mother Earth News

Be Amazed

Bug Tracks blog
Bug Tracks logo

Bug Tracks Charley Eiseman Life in a Cubic Foot of My Lawn. This inspiring article is one of many by this expert in leaf miners as well as other insects. It’s such fascinating stuff! And his photos are exquisite. There are over 40 in this post!

Learn about Vegetable Grafting

Members of a Specialty Crops Research Initiative Grafting Project Team have organized a grafting webinar series. The webinars each cover a different topic about the science and technology of vegetable grafting. While not specifically about organic production, upcoming topics that could be of interest to organic growers include Grafting to Increase Production for Small-acreage and High Tunnel Tomato Growers, by Cary Rivard of K-State University; past topics include Making Grafting Affordable and Beneficial to US Growers by Richard Hassell of Clemson University. Past presentations in the series were recorded and archived. Find the recordings on the project YouTube channel here, and learn more about upcoming webinars here.

See Enhancing the Utility of Grafting in US Vegetable Production, by Matthew Kleinhenz of the Ohio State University, below.

If you are a gardener, you may be interested in another webinar by Cary Rivard about grafting for home gardeners: Demystifying Grafted Tomatoes: The Why & How for Gardeners, which is part of the 2019 series of Advanced Training Webinars for Master Gardeners sponsored by Oregon State University Extension. Find out more information here.

Read up on New Research

eOrganic recorded presentations on current organic research from the Organic Research Forum organized by the Organic Farming Research Foundation at Organicology. The following presentations are freely available now and more will be added to their playlist on the eOrganic YouTube channel and mentioned in upcoming newsletters. Find the program here and click here to find the recordings on a YouTube playlist.

Help Beginning Farmers in Virginia

In partnership with First Baptist Church, Tricycle Gardens in Richmond, Virginia, are developing Charlotte Acres Incubator Farm with graduates of the Urban Agriculture Fellowship & Certification program launching their businesses and farming this beautiful land. They ask for donations: Please consider a generous gift today in support of beginning farmers. 

Diversified Vegetable Apprenticeship Manager Dan Dalton meets with Apprentice Jess Hermanofski at host farm Plowshare Produce, an organic CSA farm in Huntingdon County, PA

Become a Farmer Apprentice in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Registers Its First Formal Apprenticeship for Farmers

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry approved the Diversified Vegetable Apprenticeship on March 14th, making it the first formal apprenticeship program for farmers in the state.

Enjoy a Garden Walk in Virginia during Historic Garden Week April 27 – May 4, 2019

Springtime begins with Historic Garden Week At Monticello, Charlottesville, Va

In addition to Monticello’s regular guided Gardens and Grounds Tours, the annual observance of Historic Garden Week in Virginia will include talks, behind-the-scenes tours, and an open house at our Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants.

Insider’s Tour with the Vegetable Gardener: Discover great gardening ideas from Jefferson’s kitchen garden during this Q&A walk with Monticello vegetable gardener Pat Brodowski. Tuesday, April 30, 10-11:30am

 

What can you do if spring is too wet?

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

As growers, we do not have control over everything that happens. The main thing outside of our control is the weather, and it’s only going to get more chaotic as climate change bites. Heavy rain events can leave soil impossible to work, because the water can’t drain away fast enough. What can we do when it’s too wet?

Laura Lengnick in Resilient Agriculture views climate change as yet another production risk to assess and prepare for. The vulnerability of your farm has two components: exposure and adaptive capacity. As far as exposure, the most immediate key exposure is water issues (too much and too little). As for adaptive capacity, the main feature is our personal capacity to respond and plan. We need to pay greater attention to the climate as a critical factor in our decision-making.

Be Prepared

  • See Weatherspark.com for easy-to-understand graphics showing the average weather in your locality. Figure out which crops are most marginal already in your climate, and decide whether they are worth keeping in your crop portfolio, and whether they are important enough to be worth providing more protection for.
  • Using raised beds can help excess water to drain sooner.
  • Raised beds will drain and be ready to plant sooner after rain.
    Photo Ezra Freeman
  • Increasing the organic matter content of the soil helps it absorb more water in a manageable way, without compacting and going anaerobic. Compost improves the soil structure, organic matter and humus. The effects last longer than cover crops and crop residues, especially in humid conditions where the breakdown of plant material is very rapid.
  • Maximize the volume of living roots (food crops and cover crops) throughout the soil profile (use both deep-rooted and shallow-rooted crops).
  • Cover crops. The root channels improve the soil structure — fine roots make up 70% of the root biomass of crimson clover, vetches, and field peas, and when the cover crops are mowed, these roots support microbial growth, form active organic matter, and rapidly release N to the plants. Keeping roots in the soil all the time, or as much of the time as possible, will help prevent erosion.
  • Consider no-till cover crops which become mulch.

    A no-till cover crop mix of winter rye, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas and crimson clover.
    Photo Bridget Aleshire
  • Avoid “bare fallow” at times of year when you could get a lot of rain. That might mean not just hurricane season, but year-round. Low-growing non-invasive cover crops can be planted in pathways.
  • Minimize tillage because tilling accelerates nutrient burn-up and hence the loss of organic matter. Avoid tilling or disking right before a forecast of heavy rain.
  • If water drainage is a big issue where you are, you may need to consider a “grassed waterway” Your NRCS office can help with the design. See their publication Grassed Waterway and Vegetated Filter System, Conservation Practice Job Sheet 412. This is really a very large gradual swale with a grassed surface, which you can mow (think home-grown mulch!).
  • Another option is a “drywell” or French drain, a big hole full of rock. We calculated that for our hoophouse, ours would need to be 11′ × 11′ (3.4 × 3.4 m) and 4′ (1.2 m) deep. It would have been a big area and a lot of rock (and money), and not inconsiderable maintenance to keep it free of sediment and leaves.
  • Field tile drainage
  • Keyline plowing (along contours).
  • Swales (also called “infiltration trenches”) allow water to gradually seep into the soil, while sending sudden large volumes downhill to an area which can absorb more water. A swale 18″ (45 cm) wide by 8″ (20 cm) deep in averagely draining soil can infiltrate approximately 1.6″ (4 cm) rain per hour per 20 ft2 (1.86 m2) of contributing area.

    A caterpillar tunnel and a plastic mulched bed at Potomac vegetable Farms in November.
    Photo Pam Dawling
  • Physically cover the soil: hoophouses and caterpillar tunnels can help keep crops from deluges. Large structures do have the issue of runoff, but you can plan ahead for that and make a drainage system. When we built our hoophouse, we made a ditch around three sides of it, to channel runoff downhill. Some people who have roll-up or drop-down sidewalls install plastic guttering on the “hipwall” lumber that these structures need, and collect the rainwater for irrigation. Bear in mind that the water catchment barrel will be low down and the water will need pumping or dipping and hauling to be useful. Read the NRCS Code 558 Roof Runoff Structure.
  • Before the storm moves in, cover the soil where you plan to plant: temporary caterpillar tunnels (field houses), low tunnels, plastic mulches and tarping (occultation) can keep some of the soil dry, at the expense of causing runoff that makes other areas wetter. This can help get crucial plantings done in a timely way, leaving the wider problem to resolve later.
Fast-growing Red Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

First Aid if you can’t plant when you want to

  • Consider transplanting instead of direct seeding. We did this one year with our winter squash, when the plot was hopelessly too wet. We were able to transplant the squash fairly young, and did not have a big harvest delay.
  • Consider a different, faster, variety that you can sow later and catch up. Some leaf lettuces only need 46 days (Salad Bowl, Bronze Arrowhead, Tom Thumb), while Romaines can take a lot longer (Crisp Mint, Winter Wonderland 70 days, Webb’s Wonderful 72 days). Baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days from mid-spring to mid-fall.
  • Consider a different, faster, crop that you can sow or transplant later. Keep your crop rotation in mind, as well as the next crop you intended to plant in that spot. Here are some fast-growing crops:
    • Ready in 30–35 days are some Brassicas such as kale, arugula, radishes (both the fast small ones and the larger winter ones); many Asian greens (Chinese Napa cabbage, Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, pak choy, Senposai (40 days) tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy). See my Asian Greens of the Month category of posts
    • One summer we sowed Tokyo Bekana as a lettuce substitute. 20 days to baby size, 45 days to a (large) full size.
    • Also ready in 30–35 days are spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) and winter purslane.
    • Ready in 35–45 days are corn salad, land cress, sorrel, parsley and chervil.
    • Ready in 60 days are beets, collards, kohlrabi, turnips and small fast cabbages (Farao or Early Jersey Wakefield).
  • The International Cooperators’ Guide Grafting Tomatoes for Production in the Hot-Wet Season recommends using eggplant rootstocks for tomatoes when flooding is expected.

First Aid if you can’t till

  • Could you mow? This will prevent weeds seeding, and prevent the cover crop or previous food crop from getting any bigger. It will be easier to till once that does become possible.
  • If you can’t get a mower across the beds, can you use a weed whip (string trimmer) or a manual weed whacker or a scythe? This will buy you some time.
  • Could you use a broadfork? This will open up the soil, allowing it to dry faster.
  • Could you lay tarps over the whole mess, and wait for the cover crop or weeds to die?
  • Could you use a flame weeder to kill the existing vegetation? Flamers are intended to kill small weeds, not big ones, but we successfully used our wand-type flamer to kill weeds in the potato patch one spring when it was too wet to hill the potatoes.
Flaming (pre-emergent)
Photo Brittany Lewis

Dealing with Floods

  • If your soil floods, drain it promptly, or you may end up with drowned plants (insufficient air) and with a high salt level caused by evaporation. Dig shallow trenches to let the flood water flow away.
  • After the flood recedes, you could lose yield from loss of soluble nutrients. The soil may have become anaerobic, reducing available nitrogen. If you have a suitable source of nitrogen, apply some. You may also get a flush of weeds, competing with your slow-to-recover crop.
  • See How to Rehab Your Soil after a Flood on the Hobby Farms website for five steps to repairing the damage: Clean Up, Remove Water, Beware of Contamination, Level the Land, Rebuild the Soil with Cover Crops. See also the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Expert Tip: How to Handle Flooded Fields for information about food safety.
  • Consult your local Extension service before selling any produce that has been in standing water, as the water may have become contaminated. See the US Food and Drug Administration Guidance for Industry: Evaluating the Safety of Flood-Affected Food Crops for Human Consumption
  • There is more about dealing with floods  and disasters in general, in The Year-Round Hoophouse.

Challenges with hoophouse squash

 

Gentry yellow squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

We grow one bed (90 ft or so) of yellow squash in our hoophouse, to extend the season earlier. This year it is a dismal failure. We have had splendid success some years, with good harvests for several weeks before our outdoor squash are ready. What has changed?

One aspect is climate change including more variable temperatures in spring. This makes it harder to get frost-tender crops started in our greenhouse, and causes us to delay transplanting into our hoophouse, to avoid a wipe-out. We do have good thick rowcover to put over the hoophouse crops, but rowcover can only do so much. Also, it’s not simply a matter of life or death. Extended cold can permanently stunt tender plants.

Striped cucumber beetle in squash flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Striped Cucumber Beetles

Our second biggest problem is striped cucumber beetles. We reckon if we can deal with the cucumber beetles in the hoophouse, we’ll be dealing with the mothers of that year’s population, and things won’t get so bad outdoors. Or, rather, if we don’t deal with them in the hoophouse, they’ll get really bad outdoors (we’ve seen that happen on nearby watermelons and squash).

Our approach is to nip the beetles in the squash flowers first thing each morning, with tweezers. It’s important to tackle them early in the morning, because as the day warms, so do they, and they take off flying around, making them hard to catch. We ignore the more numerous, smaller, cucumber flowers, because the beetles prefer squash flowers, and we’re only prepared to spend a limited amount of time on this task.

The hunting season for cucumber beetles here is on average about a month long. In 2017 it was early and only 8 days 4/25 to 5/3. This year we didn’t start till 5/4 and we’re still finding some 6/5.

One year we tried trapping the beetles using pheromone lures from Johnny’s. We hung the pheromone with a yellow sticky card from the wire hoops that previously held up the rowcover. I thought they were successful, but others on the crew didn’t want to use that method again.

One year we sprayed with Spinosad, which is organic and was very effective, but we try to avoid any spraying if we can. Recently we revisited the decision, and re-committed to hand picking.

Yarn-wrapped tweezers intended to kill cucumber beetles and pollinate squash at the same time (with prey).
Photo Pam Dawling

To attempt to deal with our third problem while addressing the second, I just tried wrapping yarn round the tweezer arms, thinking they might do some pollinating for no extra effort, while I hunted beetles. It wasn’t very successful. The tweezers we’re using are very pointed and the yarn slides off. Too much yarn prevents the tweezers closing aggressively enough.

Unpollinated squash
Photo Pam Dawling

Unpollinated squash

Our third problem is unpollinated squash. The baby squash are hollow, and sometimes rot at the ends. We spend too much time removing the unpollinated ones to encourage the plants to try harder producing new squash, and to prevent the spread of molds which sometimes grow on the hopeless squash.

We look for bush varieties, as we don’t want sprawling vines in the hoophouse. In order to get harvests as early as possible we choose varieties that are fast-maturing. Since 2008 we have usually grown Gentry, a hybrid yellow crookneck squash with a bush habit, that mature in just 43 days from sowing in normal temperatures.

Early in the season some varieties of squash produce a lot of female flowers, which can’t get pollinated until some male flowers appear. Low temperatures and high light intensity promote this female sex expression, ie female flowers rather than male flowers. But our problems went on beyond the arrival of male flowers.

In 2006 we grew Zephyr, a beautiful bi-color hybrid yellow squash with green ends, which is our favorite for outdoor crops. It takes 54 days to maturity. In 2007 we grew Zephyr and a few Supersett, a 50-day hybrid crookneck yellow squash. We didn’t choose Supersett again, so I suppose we didn’t prefer it. What did we grow in the first few years 2004-2005? We didn’t keep good records.

In 2015 we tried Slick Pik YS 26, a 49 day hybrid, attracted by the claim to spinelessness. It didn’t do well for us, and we came to call it Slim Pickins. Some of the plants were weird. About 4 out of about 45 plants had darker green leaves and no female flowers. The male flowers were abnormal, halfway to being leaves. The petals were thick and greenish, and the flowers were small. Then the flowers dropped off, producing no fruit, so we didn’t grow that variety again.

Rotting unpollinated squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

Another option we once tried is a parthenocarpic variety. Parthenocarpic crops can set fruit without pollination. Some squash varieties, like Sure Thing (48d), Partenon (48d), Cavili (48d), and Easypick Gold (50d), are sold on the strength of being very good at setting fruit without any pollinators. See this article for all the details.

It’s not an all-or-nothing attribute – a number of squash varieties have some level of parthenocarpic capability.

In one study of zucchini (see the article link above), fruit set without pollination varied from zero to 42%, depending on the variety. In the 1992 study, 33 varieties of yellow summer squash were compared. Follow-up studies in the next few years. Chefini (51d  Breeder: Petoseed Co (SQ 28) Seems not to be commercially available any more), Gold Strike (a yellow straight-neck squash, likewise seems unavailable), Black Beauty (50d) and Black Magic (50d)  all did well. In a study including yellow squash and zucchini, most of the high-parthenocarpic producers were zucchini rather than yellow squash. Of yellow squash, Gold Strike seems unavailable, but Gold Rush (52d), Golden Glory (50d) look promising

See also Steve Reiners’ paper Producing summer squash without pollination – Ranking varieties

In that study Golden Glory (50d) is the big winner. Runners up are mostly zucchini: Dunja (47d), Noche (48d), Partenon (48d), Costata Romanesco (52d semi- bush variety), Safari (50d), Multipik (50d yellow squash). After that there are several that scored 29% down to 6% in the trial, and then a bunch of zeroes. Our much-beloved Zephyr scores zero in that trial!  I read that the retail demand for yellow squash is less than for zucchini, so most of the research goes into zucchini.

Next year, I’ll propose we try Golden Glory and Noche (a zucchini that does well for us in hot weather). Or perhaps Dunja, which scores higher.

A bee pollinating squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

Encourage pollinators

This is something else we could pay more attention to next year. We have now got honeybees again, after several years without. We could also plant a succession of flowers that attract pollinators, timed to flower the same time as the squashes. If we plant them in big pots we can cycle them in and out of the hoophouse for their “work shifts” and retire them when they stop flowering. See this blog post from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: 10 tips for Attracting Bees and other Pollinators and Harvesting Great Cucumbers, Squash and Melons. Carolina Farm Stewardship Association also has some useful info about native squash bees. I’ll need to study up before next spring!

Import pollinators

We could buy boxes of bumblebees from Koppert. But that gets pricey. I prefer attracting existing pollinators.

Squash bugs making more squash bugs.
Photo Pam Dawling

Minor Problems; Squash bugs

We also have squash bugs, but they aren’t such a big problem for us.

Squash bug eggs.
Photo Pam Dawling

Spinach Trials Update, National Ginger & Turmeric Conference, FLAG Organic Farmers in Disasters, Organic Broadcaster

Hoophouse spinach trial 3 April. Avon, Acadia, Escalade, Renegade just harvested.
Photo Pam Dawling

Spinach Trials Update

The spinach trials in our hoophouse continue, with a lot of harvesting! I’m always amazed to see how many stumps of cut leaf stems there are on each plant, showing just how prolific the spinach is being when we harvest it one leaf at a time like this. When I say one leaf at a time, I mean by cutting individual leaves and leaving the plant to continue to produce more. Our rule is “Leave 8 for later” – cut off large outer leaves close to the base of the plant, being sure to keep at least 8 of the inner leaves growing on each plant. Over-harvesting leads to decline. Our goal is sustainable harvesting. In the photo above, the area shown has just been harvested. In the second photo the section further down the bed from the labels has not been harvested for maybe a week. Reading from left to right, the varieties are Avon, Acadia, Escalade, and Renegade.

Close up of hoophouse spinach trials 3 April before harvest.
Photo Pam Dawling

The plants have not changed much in the last month, although in comparison with the February photo below, you can see the leaves are starting to become pointed in shape. We are waiting to see which of the varieties bolts first. The smoother-leaved Renegade definitely has thinner leaves now, and would yield lower weight (if we were weighing them). There was a stage at which it had the largest leaves, so its advantage in central Virginia hoophouses is probably as a faster-growing type.

The same spinach plants as in the top photo on February 5.
Photo Pam Dawling

National Ginger & Turmeric Conference, October 17-19, 2018, Richmond, Virginia will focus on the production, marketing and health benefits of ginger and turmeric. Click the link to see beautiful photos of Virginia farmers and their ginger and turmeric. Save the date!

With growing interest in ginger and turmeric, many health professionals, researchers, farmers, and food and beverage professionals are turning their attention toward these healthy spices. In order to cultivate new ideas and further grow the industry, Virginia State University is hosting the first National Ginger & Turmeric Conference in Richmond, Virginia this fall. The three-day conference is targeted at the agricultural, health, and culinary professionals who work or are considering working with ginger and turmeric. It will showcase the latest science and technology related to production, product development and health, as well as feature success stories and marketing strategies.

The organizers (Virginia State University and  Virginia Co-operative Extension Service) are sending out a Call for Abstracts at this point, to all individuals and organizations that may have information to share on the medicinal and nutritional, sustainable production methods and/or sales side of the industry. Abstracts are now being accepted for oral and poster presentation Submit your abstract now.

Ginger growing in our hoophouse.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

FLAG Farmers’ Legal Action Group

Farmers’ Legal Action Group is a nonprofit law center dedicated to providing legal services and support to family farmers and their communities in order to help keep family farmers on the land.

FLAG has produced a new resource that is intended to assist organic farmers in time of disaster. It looks at two important issues. First, the extremely challenging effects of a flood on an organic farm. Secondly,  a relatively new form of crop insurance —Whole-Farm Revenue — that could benefit organic producers going forward.

Download FLAG’s  Organic Farmers in Disasters – Flooding and Whole Farm Revenue Crop Insurance

 

Laughing Loon Farm

Photo courtesy of Organic Broadcaster and MOSES

The March/April Organic Broadcaster is out.

There’s a great article by Matt Leavitt on planting spring cover crops. An article by Kelli Boylen advocates for integrating livestock into cropping systems to improve soil health, spread farm risks (eggs in more baskets) and improve efficiency by reducing waste and other losses. Bailey Webster writes about the Food Safety Modernization Act, fondly known as FSMA (Fizma).

There’s an article on conducting on-farm variety trials by the Organic Seed Alliance, who have published a 55 page Grower’s Guide to Conducting On-farm Variety Trials which can be downloaded at the link. Working together to discover which varieties work best under organic cultivation can help us all.

There’s much more besides: news, events, politics, items for sale, employment opportunities

Growing and eating healthful produce

Organic crops need healthy soil.
Photo keep the Soil in Organic

I’ve written before about my queasiness about hydroponics  recently and also earlier this year here and here. Big hydroponic “organic” industries have lobbied and got included as certifiably Organic, when most of us realize that growing food without soil is the opposite of Organic, with or without a capital O.

The Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (fondly known as SSAWG) has posted in their E-newsletter Seeds of Sustainability, about the Great Nutrient Collapse. This article written by for Politico. You can read it all here.

Irakli Loladze by Geoff Johnson for POLITICO

Irakli Loladze (a mathematician by training)  was in a biology lab in 1998, studying for his PhD at Arizona State University.

Biologists had discovered they could grow algae faster by shining more light onto them— which should have helped the zooplankton which lives on algae, by increasing their food supply. But although the algae grew faster, the zooplankton did not. They had plenty to eat—but more food did not lead to more growth.This was a paradox.

The increased light was causing the algae to grow faster, but they contained fewer nutrients. By growing faster, the algae had turned into junk food! The zooplankton had large quantities of food, but it was less nutritious, and they were starving. Irakli Loladze used his math training to help measure what was happening. He and the biologists devised a model of the relationship between a food source and a eater of that  food. They published their first paper in 2000.It didn’t make a huge splash because not so many people care deeply about zooplankton or algae.

Irakli Loladze was intrigued by a much bigger question that the experiment raised in his mind. “What struck me is that its application is wider,” Loladze explained in an interview. Could the same problem affect grass and cows? What about rice and people? “It was kind of a watershed moment for me when I started thinking about human nutrition,” he said.

The real-life issue isn’t that plants are getting more light than they used to. It’s that  they’re  getting more carbon dioxide than they used to. Carbon dioxide is as vital as light for plants  to grow. If extra light results in faster-growing, less nutritious algae, then it is reasonable to assume that increasing carbon dioxide could do the same. What could this mean for the  people eating those plants?

It is well-documented that CO2 levels have been rising, but little research had been done on how that affected the quality of the plant foods we eat. For 17 years, Loladze searched the scientific literature for studies and data. The information all seemed to acknowledge that the junk-food effect he had learned about with the zooplankton and algae was also occurring in farms and forests world-wide. Loladze reported: “Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising. We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.” To demonstrate, he tossed sugar over vegetables to represent how the sugar content of the plant crops we eat is rising due to rising carbon dioxide levels.

It has been accepted for years that many of our foods have been getting less nutritious. Measurements of fruits and vegetables show that the minerals, vitamin and protein content has dropped over the past 50-70 years. We thought we knew why – we’ve been breeding varieties for higher yields, rather than nutrition, and they have become less nutrient-dense. But this may not be the whole story.

In 2002 Loladze published a research paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, arguing that rising CO2 and human nutrition were inextricably linked through a global shift in the quality of plants as food.Very little research had been published, and Loladze’s paper was first to link the impact of CO2 on plants to human nutrition and health. He has continued working on this issue, which is starting to gain wider interest and attention.

USDA researchers recently took varieties of rice, wheat and soy they had stored from the 1950s and 1960s and planted them in various sites around the U.S. where they were grown decades ago, in order to better understand how today’s higher levels of CO2 affect them.

In 2014, a team of scientists published a large, data-rich study Increasing CO2 threatens human nutrition, in the journal Nature that looked at several important crops grown at several research sites in Australia, Japan and the United States.  They found that rising CO2 led to a drop in protein, iron and zinc.

On that same day in 2014, Loladze published his own paper, (Hidden shift of the ionome of plants exposed to elevated CO2 depletes minerals at the base of human nutrition), which was the result of more than 15 years of work, and was the largest study in the world on the impact on plant nutrients of rising CO2.  Across 130 varieties of plants and more than 15,000 samples collected over the past 30 years, the overall concentration of minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron has dropped by an average of 8% . The ratio of carbohydrates to minerals is going up. The crop plants are becoming junk food.


Fauxganic hydroponic tomatoes. Photo from Keep the Soil in Organic

Reading this article lead me to make a connection with hydroponics. It made me wonder again about the nutrient quality of hydroponically grown food. Have any studies have been done on the issue of nutrient density (or lack of) in hydroponically-grown vegetables?

Glenn Kern, the Organic Policy Coordinator for Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, said: “Off the top of my head, I don’t know of studies that have looked for and found the kinds of nutritional differences discussed in the article about CO2. I agree–this is an important question.” He reported that the National Organic Standards Board Crops Subcommittee’s current proposal on hydroponics includes some discussion of published academic studies evaluating observed biological differences between crops grown in soil and crops grown hydroponically. You can find the Crops Subcommittee’s proposal here. Under “Resources,” click on “Meeting Materials.” The Crops Subcommittee’s proposal starts on page 63 and the discussion of plant physiological differences begins on page 71.
I’m with the Keep the Soil in Organic movement. Well-cared-for soil is at the heart of organic farming. It is extremely arrogant of people to imagine that any synthesized solution supplied to plants held in inert media or plastic pipes can provide all the benefits of soil. There is much we do not know about the soil, and the interactions of the soil food web. I doubt we even know everything about micro-nutrients, never mind enzymes that promote growth, inhibit diseases, promote recovery from diseases, strengthen resistance to physical stresses and all the rest of it.
Artificially grown crops are the opposite of organic. Organic farming encourages us to feed the soil, not the plant, to look at the long-term well-being of the planet, the wider effects of farming practices on all around, and the health of the people growing and eating the food.
NOFA Vermont has made a short film with Eliot Coleman and Dave Chapman talking about why soil matters.

Why is soil important to all of us? As global citizens, this is a very important question. This film was made to reach out and inform the NOSB. Please check it out.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Op3J5GFmfzo&feature=youtu.be

The Keep The Soil in Organic website is keepthesoilinorganic.org.
Their Facebook Page is Keep The Soil In Organic
Their Twitter account is @keepsoilinorganic

Jamaica Sustainable Farm Enterprise Program

 

I’m back from Jamaica, compiling my trip report. I went as a volunteer with a farmer-to-farmer training project for 9 days (plus two travel days). I was a volunteer with the FLORIDA ASSOCIATION FOR VOLUNTEER ACTION IN THE CARIBBEAN AND THE AMERICAS (FAVACA), funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) From the American People established by John F Kennedy in 1961. USAID is the lead U.S. Government agency that works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential. One of the FAVACA programs is the Jamaica Sustainable Farm Enterprise Program.

For those who don’t know Jamaica at all, let’s start with a map of the island, which is south of Cuba.

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I was hosted by the Source Farm Ecovillage, Johns Town, St Thomas Parish, Jamaica. Here’s a more detailed map with St Thomas parish colored in pink. The Source Farm is east of Morant Bay, very near the coast.

The Source Farm Foundation and Learning Village is a multi-cultural, inter-generational eco-village, located in Johns Town, in the parish of St. Thomas, Jamaica.

“Our ecological mission and vision is to respect natural life, its systems and processes – preserving wildlife and botanical habitat, and creating a life-style that regenerates, rather than diminishes the integrity of the source farm environment.”

Here is a 2014 site map, showing roughly what buildings are there, and where the gardens are located. Actually the gardens have expanded quite a bit since this map was drawn.

I stayed in Earthbag 1, a house built of stacked bags of bauxitic soil with cement, rendered over with cement, giving an adobe effect. The structure stayed fairly cool. The windows had no glass, but insect screens and wood louvered shutters. I’ve never actually had a house to myself before, even a small one like this!

The newer houses in the eco-village are monolithic concrete domes, which hold up very well against hurricanes, earthquakes and termites. Jamaica is rich in marl (lime) and other minerals, and there is a cement works near Kingston. Because many other homes on the island are built from concrete block covered with cement rendering, there are many workers skilled in rendering, who can quickly adapt to dome houses.

I got to taste many kinds of mango, passion fruit, star fruit, star apple, ackee, bammy (cassava flatbread), yam, breadfruit, callalloo (amaranth leaves) and meringa seeds, as well as foods I was already familiar with. I had an especially lovely supper with Nicola and Julia, of snapper with bammy and festival (described by April Jackson on The Yummy Truth as a Jamaican savory beignet made with cornmeal), and Red Stripe beer at Fish Cove Restaurant by the ocean.

Festival, bammy and fish in Jamaica.
Photo https://theyummytruth.wordpress.com/tag/jamaican-fried-fish/

http://thesourcefarm.com/the-farm/what-is-on-the-farm/

Photo courtesy of
The Source Farm

My teaching work was organized by the people at Source Farm and included the whole group of farmers in JSFEP. The schedule included several farm visits, but unfortunately it rained very hard for four or five days (this was meant to be the dry season!) and many areas were flooded. One farmer told me that the biggest challenges to farming in Jamaica are climate change and theft. Both are serious. The heavy rains I experienced showed how much damage unusual weather can cause. At one farm, where a co-operative onion-growing project was underway, one farmer got trapped by rising waters and had to be helped by two other farmers to swim and wade through the wild waters. After that, the farmers in the group had to take turns to guard the place so that the drip irrigation equipment didn’t get stolen. Another farmer told me about losing an entire crop of sweet potatoes one night – someone dug up the whole lot. The thefts, of course, are related to poverty and desperation in some cases, and a culture where each person has to take what they need as there is little in the way of government support. And a history of colonialism with sugar cane and banana cash crops, followed by a crashing economy.

The roads are in poor shape and in rural areas people rely on calling taxis to get from one place to another. Everyone needs a phone to live this way, and I saw some very battered up phones and chargers carefully repaired and kept running. Arranging a meeting time requires a flexible attitude about timeliness.

The farmers were looking at increasing production, planning planting quantities, scheduling succession plantings, and considering new crops. I met one-on-one with a few farmers, and I did some research into the possibilities of growing asparagus and garlic in the tropics, for a couple of them. I had to get my head round the idea of planting a sequence of three crops each needing four months. No winter cover crop cycle. Cover crops are very different from ours. Some overlap – sorghum-sudangrass, sunn-hemp. But no place for winter cereals! The principle of feeding the soil stays the same, using legumes to add nitrogen, bulky cover crops to smother weeds and add biomass.

I was teaching vegetable crop planning, crop rotations, and scheduling co-operative harvests to help the farmers double their presence at the Ujima Natural Farmers Market  to every Saturday rather than very other Saturday, starting in June. The demand for sustainably grown fresh local produce exists, and farmers are interested in learning to boost production.

On the second Saturday I was there, I gave a workshop on crop planning, to 22 farmers, and we got some lively discussion going, as they offered each other tips, and diagnosed some diseased carrots (looked like nematodes to me).

I treasure the time I spent in Jamaica, even though it wasn’t all sunshine and mangoes. I met many wonderful farmers and enjoyed my stay in the Source ecovillage, which reminded me somewhat of Twin Oaks Community, where I live in Virginia.

 

 

 

 

Hoophouse winter greens, transplanting spinach, crocus flowering

Russian kale, yukina Savoy and lettuce from our winter hoophouse .
Photo Wren Vile

Our hoophouse is bursting with winter greens. We just decided to hold back on harvesting our outdoor Vates kale and focus on the greens  which are starting to bolt in the hoophouse. That includes the last turnips (Hakurei, Red Round and White Egg), Senposai, tatsoi, Yukina Savoy, mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frill and Golden Frills mustards. Big but happily not yet bolting are the spinach, Rainbow chard and Russian kales. A row of snap peas has emerged. Time to stake and string-weave them!

The lettuce situation is changing as we are eating up more of the overwintered leaf lettuce in the hoophouse. The lettuces in the greenhouse have all gone, to make way for the flats of seedlings. Plus, we needed the compost they were growing in, to fill the flats. More about lettuce in February next week.

We have also cleared the overwintered spinach in one of our coldframes, so we can deal with the voles and get them to relocate before we put flats of vulnerable seedlings out there. The voles eat the spinach plants from below, starting with the roots. We had one terrible spring when they moved on to eat the baby seedlings when we put those out there. After trial and error a couple of years ago, we now clear all the spinach from one frame, then line the cold frame with landscape fabric (going up the walls a way too), wait two weeks, then put the seedlings out on top of the landscape fabric. The voles by then have decided nothing tasty is going to appear there, so they move on.

Spinach over-wintered in our cold frame
Photo Wren Vile

Outdoors, we have just started transplanting new spinach. We have four beds to plant, a total of  3600 plants, so we have to keep moving on that! We are trialing several varieties again, as we did in the fall. We have the last Tyee, alongside Reflect and Avon this spring. Inevitably things are not going perfectly according to plan. Yesterday I forgot to follow the plan, and we started with Avon and Tyee at opposite ends of a bed we had planned to grow Reflect in! Anyway, we are labeling everything and hoping to learn which have best bolt resistance. Watch this space.

We have grown our spinach transplants (as well as kale and collards) in the soil in our hoophouse, sowing them in late January. I wrote about bare root transplants in early January this year. You can find more links and info in that post. Growing bare root transplants saves a lot of work and a lot of greenhouse space.

For those relatively new to this blog but living in a similar climate zone, I want to point you to The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month. It includes a link for each month’s task list. I notice from the site stats that some of you are finding your way there, but now there are so many years’ worth of posts it’s perhaps harder to find. Happy browsing!

Following on from last week’s mention of harbinger weeds of spring: chickweed, hen-bit and dead-nettle, I can now report that I’ve seen a flowering crocus (2/17), another marker on our phenology list. The average date for first crocuses here is February 8, so they are later than usual. I did notice however, that the foot traffic over the patch of grass has been heavier than usual.

Anne Morrow Donley sent me a link to WunderBlog®, the blog from Wunderground, my favorite weather forecast station, to an article by Bob Henson: This is February? 80°F in Denver, 99° in Oklahoma, 66° in Iceland, 116° in Australia. It includes a map of the Daily Spring Index Leaf Anomaly, Figure 1.

Image credit: USA National Phenology Network via @TheresaCrimmins.

Figure 1. An index of the seasonal progress of leafy plants shows conditions 20 days or more ahead of schedule over large parts of the South and Southwest as of Sunday, February 12. Image credit: USA National Phenology Network via @TheresaCrimmins.

The post has lots of other interesting weather info too. Thanks Anne!


I remembered another of the items lost in the hacked post a few weeks ago: My Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blogpost on Heat Tolerant Eggplant Varieties made it into their 30 Most Viewed blogposts for 2016. I’ll be writing up more about those varieties, linking the 2016 results to the weather each week (especially the temperatures) and adding what I learn in 2017.