My February Gardening and Farming News Roundup

My February Gardening and Farming News Roundup

After a flurry of conferences in November, December and January, I have now updated my Events page.

Events where I will be presenting workshops, that are still to come:

Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference, Lancaster, PA, Feb 8-11, https://pasafarming.org/conference/

Organic Growers School Spring Conference, Mars Hill, NC, Feb 24-26 https://organicgrowersschool.org/conferences/spring/

Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, NC, March 26-April 1 2023 www.folkschool.org

Mother Earth News Fair, Lawrence, Kansas, April 29-30, 2023.  (Sat-Sun)

Mother Earth News Fair,  Erie, Pennsylvania, July 15-16, 2023

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Daylight Savings Time

Have you ever wondered if farmers really did want DST? The answer is probably not. Read the interesting article in The Modern Farmer

https://modernfarmer.com/2022/03/daylight-saving-time-farmers/

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Millet is Having a Moment. Is the Ancient Grain Ready for a Resurgence?

Also see this article in the Modern Farmer, about 2023 as the UN Year of Millets. This drought-tolerant grain deserves more attention.

https://modernfarmer.com/2022/12/year-of-millet/

Jean Hediger grows Proso millet on her Nunn, Colorado farm
Photography courtesy of Jean Hediger

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Jumping Worms are also Having a Moment

Invasive Jumping Worm
Matt Bert, Piedmont Master Gardeners

The January newsletter of the Piedmont Master Gardeners (The Garden Shed) has this sobering article about Invasive Jumping Worms by Cathy Caldwell. The article includes the all-important information on how to distinguish an invasive jumping worm from any other kind of earthworm (it’s not hard!), and what to do if you find one.

https://piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/invasive-jumping-worms/

WSLS.com/Destructive jumping worms spotted throughout Virginia

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Climate-Resilient (Heat-tolerant) Vegetable Varieties

by Jon Braunfeld

Heatmaster tomatoes.
Jon Braunfeld, Piedmont Master Gardeners

Another article in the January Garden Shed has helpful information on heat-tolerant vegetable varieties. In good time for us to order seeds and try some tomato varieties alongside our usual ones

https://piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/climate-resilient-vegetable-varieties/

Book Review Farming on the Wild Side, The Evolution of a Regenerative Organic Farm and Nursery, Nancy and John Hayden

Farming On The Wild Side book cover. Chelsea Green.
Book Review Farming on the Wild Side, The Evolution of a Regenerative Organic Farm and Nursery, Nancy and John Hayden, Chelsea Green, 2019. 258 pages, $29.95.

This is a lovely, thoughtful, well-illustrated book, telling how Nancy and John Hayden changed their farm (formerly a conventional dairy farm) over three decades into a regenerative farm, now specializing in perennial fruit trees. Their focus has been on stewarding the land mindfully, restoring and increasing biodiversity. In these uncertain times, there is much we can’t do alone, and we worry if enough people will make enough of the necessary changes. We can, instead, focus on positive changes we can make to improve our world. Growing and nurturing plants will benefit you, the plants and the planet.

The Haydens have an 18-acre farm in northern Vermont with undulating land, and a wide range of soil types. Very different from central Virginia, where I live! Both moved to Syracuse, NY to study biology and ecology, and after meeting at university, they worked in the Peace Corps on opposite sides of the African continent. Nancy worked in Kenya, supporting small farmers installing fishponds. John was in Mali, helping market gardeners and farmers, especially in dealing with millet pests. They both grew intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, with broader worldviews, awareness of white privilege, and deeper understanding of solitude and loneliness.

After Peace Corps, they reunited, married and began graduate school at Michigan State U, studying entomology (John) and environmental engineering (Nancy). John hankered to start a farm, so when Nancy was offered a post at the University of Vermont, they packed up the family and moved. A few months later, they bought their farm. It was a well-manicured conventional dairy farm with a cathedral-like barn built in 1900. The lawns are now orchards, and the stream banks host fruit bushes and small trees. The focus these days is on biodiversity and a regenerative food system, not on “pretty”. You can see before and after photos, and sketch maps of their farm (The Farm Between).

The book includes a valuable chart summarizing their practices and events during each of the three decades of their farm life so far. This shows how changes can be made as interests and focus shift. Long-term sustainability for aging farmers!

In the initial years their goals were to feed their family high quality food (hard to find to buy in the 1990’s), treat livestock humanely, regenerate the land for long-term health, and generate income from farming. They grew organic annual vegetables and raised grass-fed poultry, rabbits, sheep and pigs for a meat CSA. They also raised young children, and a family cow. The farm hosted field trips from local elementary schools, and Nancy became an associate professor.

John and Nancy got inspiration from Holistic Resource Management, as well as many small-farming pioneers. HRM led them to learn and practice management intensive grazing. This involves carefully matching stocking density with the health of the pastures, leading to continuous improvement. Paddocks just large enough, and no bigger, encourage livestock to graze all the plants down, leading to lush and nutritious regrowth. Initially their pastures were overrun with reed canary grass, and just one year of intensive grazing management with sheep started to bring improvements.

They also raised chickens and rabbits in moveable pens (chicken tractors), and quickly devised improvements to the pen design and the choice of breed. They trained all their livestock to come running when they heard grain shaken in a bucket. This good habit saved them from problems when livestock got loose onto the busy state road.

In the middle decade (roughly the 2000’s), the children grew up and left home, John became a lecturer on Plant and Soil Science, the field trips included special needs children and summer camps for middle-schoolers. They became more focused on resilience, biodiversity and pollinators. Keeping livestock makes it hard for a farming couple or family to vacation at the same time, and well-trained farm sitters are worth a lot!

Raising animals in confined spaces, feeding mostly corn and soy and antibiotics, while exploiting workers and degrading the environment is a disgrace to our society. Slaughtering animals is tough, and where possible, the Haydens opted for on-farm slaughter, as less stressful and more humane. The Haydens cut back on meat production and expanded perennial and annual food crops.

After 20 years of learning and practicing with draft horses during visits to working horse farms, and after 10 years at The Farm Between, John bought his own team of two Clydesdales. This helped them successfully expand their vegetable and small fruit production. From 2004-2011, they put up five hoophouses, initially for tomatoes and other valuable vegetables. They could pay for the structures and the wages in one year by growing cherry tomatoes in each new hoophouse. This increased their resilience in the face of extreme weather of various kinds, and in 2009, they planted a few rows of fall raspberries in one of the hoophouses. These did so well that the next year they planted one whole hoophouse full.

The third decade (after serious flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011) brought a forceful introduction to the reality of climate change. Their focus on improving the soil has included a major composting operation. The Haydens have succeeded in doubling the organic matter in their soils from 2.5 to 6% over the years. Initially John collected food scraps to feed their chickens and then compost. But the heavy lifting and the rats got to him.

It takes 500 years or more to grow an inch of soil, which is all too easily lost to wind and water erosion. Growing cover crops holds the soil in place while adding organic matter. While they grew mostly annual vegetables, the Haydens used at least one-third of their land for growing cover crops, usually including legumes, to add nitrogen to the soil. Growing annual vegetables is stressful. Everything is urgent and important, all season! Perennials allow more flexibility, for example in the timing of weeding and pruning.

They committed more to perennial polyculture, retired the horses and bought a tractor. Fruit planting had expanded every year, with perennial vegetables and annual hemp in the alleys between the rows. Other alleys are left unmowed to encourage milkweed (selling seeds and floss). All the while, the edges and hedges have provided biological diversity for insects, birds and other creatures.

Nancy Hayden, author of Farming on the Wild Side

They repurposed all their hoophouses to grow fruit, protected from the elements as well as pests and diseases. They have dwarf apple trees (blemish-free no-spray organic apples!), cherries, peaches, plums, apricots and raspberries. Outdoors they grow hazelberts, elderberries, aronia, honeyberry, gooseberries, blackcurrants, red and white currents, and many blueberries. The increased fruit production led them to work with cider producers and market other fruit products including selling at the Burlington Farmers’ Market. They started a retail nursey of fruit trees on the farm, alongside fruit sales. Operating a fruit tree nursey at the farm enables the farmers to attract customers who are very interested in what they are doing, and will encourage and support them in growing their own fruit. Nancy retired from UVM. They expanded on-farm workshops, field trips and classes for all ages.

They were able to provide free housing for their employees and pay them above minimum wage. Despite the obvious success of their farm stand, farmers’ market, meat and produce CSAs, restaurant and grocery accounts, they were not quite satisfied. The family were eating well, and Nancy’s off-farm income kept them afloat and allowed them to build up the farm infrastructure. John was working 60-80 hours a week on the farm, but not producing much net income for the four-child family they were now raising. John calculated he was earning half minimum wage, and the only way that was being “successful” was that the 80 hour weeks made two half-minimum wages! Their aging bodies had also become a factor to consider. Also, Nancy and John developed interests that vied for their attention, much as they were still committed to the farm.

They had noticed their soil structure was deteriorating, even though the organic matter content was increasing. They studied approaches to deal with soil loss and degradation, climate disruption, water and air pollution, declining food quality and loss of biodiversity. The book includes a valuable chart listing stressors in the categories of environmental, social, economic and personal stresses, and resilience strategies to tackle each.

The Haydens committed to be more proactive in benefiting the land, and becoming more economically resilient. Their approach was a synthesis of:

  • resilience (ability to bounce back from stresses and shocks),
  • organic farming (nurture healthy soil to grow healthy crops and healthy people: it’s about the soil, not about the certificate),
  • regenerative organic (rebuild soil organic matter, increase biodiversity, improve water quality and slow the pace of climate change),
  • agroecology (approaching agriculture by combining ecology, biology, agronomy, plant physiology and more, improving soils and water, biodiversity, species conservation, carbon sequestration),
  • permaculture (“permanent agriculture”, integrative perennial-based systems, working with the natural environment, providing for the needs of people locally),
  • agroforestry (intentionally incorporating trees and shrubs into farming systems for the benefit of the environment, the community and the farm,)
  • biodynamics (considering each farm as a unique integrated organism, raising crops and livestock synergistically)
  • wabi sabi (finding beauty and value in the impermanent, the natural cycles of growth, death and decay.)
  • rewilding (letting banks, ditches, shrubs and trees grow back, providing shelter and food for many more insects and birds; planting orchards in place of lawns,
  • personal spiritual traditions (focusing on nature and natural cycles)

As a result of considering all these approaches, Nancy and John found themselves drawn to wholesaling fruit, particularly to local wineries. They wanted no-spray organic fruit, pointing out that organic fungicides and broad-spectrum insecticides are toxic to pollinators and other beneficial insects, as well as the pest species.

In August 1995, a few years after John and Nancy moved to the farm, the summer drought was broken by three days of rain upstream of the farm. The river overflowed, flooding the low fields and the barn three feet deep. The water level receded the next day, leaving a big mess, including dead chicks and destroyed equipment. The house was on higher ground, and was not affected.

In 2011, they got a 500-year flood in April and a repeat with Hurricane Irene in August.  They lost their potato and corn crops, and noticed that the perennial fruit bushes and conservation shrubs recovered just fine when the water receded. They decided not to grow annual crops in the low-lying Field Six any more, but instead plant elderberries and aronia, which tolerate some flooding.

As they transitioned to growing mostly perennials, they also stopped tilling. They sheet mulch around newly planted fruit trees and berry bushes, with either cardboard and woodchips, or with landscape fabric rolls with “seam-lines” along the planting rows. This means they can open the overlapping pieces in spring or fall to add soil amendments. They’ve also used this technique to grow pumpkins, sunflowers and CBD hemp in the alleys between young fruit trees. They also employ a “grow, mow and blow” in the alleys to deposit home-grown mulch around the trees.

Transitioning to more perennials in polyculture orchards led them to incorporate agroforestry practices such as hedges, biomass trees, and riparian forest zones (next to streams). Hedgerows act as windbreaks, as well as enhancing biodiversity, and reducing soil erosion and offering sanctuary to many kinds of wildlife.

The apple orchards provide scion wood for selling and for grafting to make new trees. Between new fruit trees, in the rows, they plant blackcurrants and other fruit bushes, nitrogen-fixing small trees and perennial wildflowers. These infill plants will be chopped or lopped for mulch when the apple trees need the space.

Perennial vegetables also have a place on the farm. Asparagus and rhubarb have been there for over 20 years. Sea kale and Jerusalem artichokes are more recent additions, in the alleys between apple trees. Remember this book is written in Vermont, where rhubarb ripens in June, blueberries in July and elderberries in late summer. Follow the concepts, not the details, if you are in a very different climate zone.

Climate change in Vermont has, so far, meant warmer, earlier springs, which can cause trees to break bud, risking crop death by frosts in May. Using hoophouses for fruit can reduce risk. Leave the hoophouse open all winter, but if a spring frost threatens during or after bloom, close the house up for the night. “Fruit trees can break your heart,” the authors warn.

John Hayden, Author of Farming on the Wild Side

The section on rootstocks, scion wood and grafting explains how to propagate trees. Growing polycultural orchards reduces dependency on any particular variety or type, and makes organic production much more viable, as pest or disease outbreaks are rarer and other crops compensate for whichever is taken down. There’s a nice list of the ten best apple varieties at the farm, and one of stone fruit cultivars. Again, remember this is Vermont, zone 4a.

The farm also grows many less common cold-hardy berries. Blackcurrants do well in Vermont, but I know from experience that they do poorly in the South. The yield is plentiful, but the harvest slow. Their target rate is ten pounds an hour. The variety Tatania is their highest-yielding, at 4.7 pounds per bush. A useful tip is to stand still and move the branches towards you, rather than moving yourself a lot. There are tips on good varieties of berries too.

Elderberries and Aronia have already been mentioned as flood-tolerant. Both also require full sun. they are high in anti-oxidants, and attract wildlife, unfortunately including Spotted Wing Drosophila, which cause the berries to drop before the whole panicle is ripe. The solution is to pick every few days, removing the ripe parts of the clusters. Note that American elderberries need to be cooked or fermented before eating, as they contain cyanide-inducing compounds.

The farm has an area of boxed propagation beds where they raise hardwood cuttings to grow bushes for sale. They have a space where customers can see full-size plants in a natural setting. This area supports many pollinators, as does their willow labyrinth. There is a mowed walking path around the pollinator sanctuary, where visitors love to observe plants, insects, birds, and other wildlife. The riparian zone is part of a contiguous wildlife corridor connecting the woods and the farm, and providing edges with meadows and cropland. Common milkweed in the orchard alleys is promoted by mowing the grass early, before the milkweed emerges.

The chapter on pests and diseases invites us to rethink these life-forms. Weed management is necessary. Birds can be “pests” on fruit crops during the harvest period. Netting the berries at this time and then removing the nets to let the birds in to clean up the dropped berries helps reduce other pest problems, such as SWD. At the time the book was written, their way of dealing with the SWD was to net individual panicles of elderberries using nylon “footies.” Crop diversity reduces potential crop losses and pest outbreaks.

The Haydens dispute the myth that pests on a plant show the plant is unhealthy or that the soil conditions are wrong. Having a diversity of insects shows a natural balance. If the number of pests increases to the point of causing economic damage, that’s a pest outbreak, and needs action. Having a low level of pest insects keeps predators and parasites provided for! Always look for parasites, such as the white fly eggs on the thorax of the Japanese beetles. Everything may be being taken care of! Wiping everyone out with pesticides causes imbalance, and the pest populations can come back faster than their predators. The true parasites are the pesticide companies, say the authors!

Attention is also paid to pollinators, providing nesting habitat as well as pollen and nectar sources. Native bees are perhaps in greater peril than (imported) honeybees. They just don’t have as good PR, despite flying earlier in the year and in colder, rainier, windier weather! There are 275 native bee species in Vermont (4,000 in the US). Most of us didn’t know that! There is a table of when various pollinator flowers start blooming in Vermont, to help anyone seeking to provide bee forage more of the season.

As Nancy and John produced more value-added fruit products for sale, they noticed an interesting thing: people would pay for the jam or syrup-topped snow cones, but balk at the price of the actual fruit! It’s time to move away from our expectation of cheap food (which likely derives from the history of enslaved people doing most of the farm-work in the US in the past).

Another change for the farm is to selling fruit wholesale, to wineries, breweries, cideries and soda makers. They like the big “over-and-done” sales, although selling retail direct from the farm is important for staying in touch with the public and diversifying income streams. Nancy and John point out that they could not have done all they’ve done without off-the-farm income. This is the reality for most farmers, particularly small-scale farmers. Nancy and John were fortunate in finding off the farm work that they enjoyed.

The book wraps up with an appendix of common and scientific names of plants and arthropods mentioned in the book, and an impressive twelve-page, triple-columned index. This is a book by people who really want to help us navigate our path through farming for the long haul.

Book Review From The Ground Up, by John D Wilson

Front cover of From the Ground Up

Book Review From The Ground Up, Columns from the Princess Anne Independent News, John D Wilson, Pungo Publishing, 2022. 124 pages, $15.00.

This slim volume is a treasure trove of short writings (600 words each, says John), from his first five years writing a farming column for a Virginia Beach local newspaper. Local newspapers and local farmers are all to be valued and supported. This collection of about 40 articles has been chosen and reorganized by topic, rather than date, to follow a path, making for a pleasant and thoughtful stroll through topics such as sustainability, healthy soils, gardening, nutritious plants and small-scale chicken-keeping.

John’s writing is concise, encompassing political and lifestyle passions, cheery humor, and poetic turns. It makes for easy ingestion, but not like marshmallows. We’ll be jolted into considering “heck, we do waste a lot of food in the US, and we really need to change that.” We need to do better in promoting and increasing every kind of organic, regenerative and sustainable farming practice, building up our soils, and being part of providing better food for everyone. That’s serious work. And then, it’s not every farmer-writer who thanks their washing machine!

John Wilson serves his community as a farmer, a consultant, a writer, and a volunteer board member on a couple of foodie and farming organizations. He describes his stories as “mostly personal with some science added.” That seems about right. John’s fascination with soil science, microbiology, soil food web, microbes, is infectious. We can have a voice in the world, and we need to stand up for what we believe in, even when we must step outside our comfort zone, as John has done by putting his thoughts into print.

The book starts out with a column setting out the benefits of a local food system, in terms of fresh food, support for local farmers, food security, and enjoyment of local chocolate cakes at the Fayette County Free Fair. There is a discussion about the travesty that is Industrial Organic Ag, and if you didn’t understand the “input switching” game, you soon will. This is where a farm simply replaces their old herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and all the other cides with Organic ones, but continues their same-old extractive, soil-destroying practices. Far better is to regard the soil as the valuable resource it is, and learn how to farm the soil in ways that help crops grow, by providing the right conditions and nutrients.

And if your appetite for science is small, right now you’ll appreciate John’s observation that “When you mow grass or anything, the smell you get is the nutrients going back into the atmosphere.” Your reminder to capture those nutrients for your next crop. We need to conserve our soil, our greatest national treasure.

John hastens to point out that he has the utmost respect for all farmers, even those making choices different from his. Farming is hard work, physically, mentally and emotionally, and it’s undervalued. We’ll need to tap into the vast experience of all farmers to manage the necessary transition to a sustainable system.

We all do wasteful things, we could all do better at recycling, making compost, not buying stuff we end up not using. Look to the soil, and see how everything eats and gets eaten, absorbs water and nutrients and then passes them on. Apparently we throw away 40% of the food we get. Considering how hard farming work is, how few Americans want to do it, and how our governments try to keep out immigrants who would willingly do the work, it’s clear this needs to change. “Farmland needs to be re-peopled” as Wendell Berry says. We need to help those who want to farm, and make farming attractive to more people.

Perhaps understanding the soil food web biology, and some history of farming (such as production of terra preta in the Amazon), and some back-yard experimentation making biochar, could lead more people to farming. You can read more about these things in this book.

John frequently points out the soil-saving (planet-saving) advantages of sustainable and regenerative farming, such as how it can prevent water run-off, soil loss and soil erosion. I was interested to read that the collapse of societies is related to soil erosion – when desperate farmers try to get more food from the land by using chemical fertilizers that don’t add organic matter, or fail to use cover crops or put organic material into the soil. See David Montgomery’s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization. Let’s appreciate steps such as the cost share program for growing cover crops. And the increase in research into sustainable farming practices. And, of course, the implementation of those practices by more farmers.

John tells us that the influences that formed his views include desire for optimum health and wellness for all; the hard work ethic from his childhood; soil science from recent research; joy in eating good food and appreciation of the beauty of a well-tended farm.

The author learned about gardening from his Grandpa, but took a detour while studying energy-efficient building and carpentry. By chance he was hired by Alan Chadwick’s horticulture program, and chose to trade his work for participation in the program. Later, after raising a family as a carpenter, he met George Leidig who sold compost turners and spading machines, and signed up for workshops, which inspired him to start a farm.

His first farm was a lease on 25 acres, for which he needed to borrow money and keep his day job as a carpenter for several years. He invested in farm equipment, and also in improving the soil, which was compacted and inactive (“grows too many buttercups”) when he started out. He saw positive changes even after simply sowing one round of buckwheat cover crop on 10 acres. Pollinators came back, and all manner of life-forms. And the water-holding capacity of the soil improved rapidly – no runoff.

John has become a worm farmer, with four home-made worm bins at the time of writing, producing enough worm castings and worms for sale. His other job in a micro-brewery provides his worms with a portion of the barley mash. Red wiggler worms consume food waste, and paper scraps, and John has no doubt we will make ourselves a worm bin after reading his article!

The days of cheap food are over. We need to reduce the damage we have been inflicting on the environment, and people’s health. The idea that farmers should “get big or get out” has cost us too much. Food systems need to be local and operated by people who understand the big picture of energy and global sustainability. Farmers need to earn a fair living for their work. Currently only 7 cents of the price of a loaf of bread goes to the farmer.

The injustices of cheap food affect African Americans particularly strongly. John refers us to Leah Penniman’s inspiring book Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. He heard her keynote address at a conference of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming. John says “We need to hear her messages about farming, society, justice and our future.” We owe it to Black farmers to give them credit for their work in sustainable agriculture (CSAs, raised beds, cover-cropping, pick-your-own farms, and growing hot weather crops). And we must recognize that the US food system is based on exploitation, on stolen land, stolen people and enforced labor. That’s why food is cheap. And why there are food deserts and diet-related illnesses mostly where People of Color live.

The author is also a beekeeper, and a couple of the articles reflect this. Beekeeping these days is complicated by the parasites and diseases honeybees are dealing with, as well as loss of habitat and forage plants, and deadly assaults from pesticides. France has become the first country to ban all five pesticides that kill bees. We need to care for pollinators, native and imported (as honeybees are). We can plant bee-friendly plants, plant only unsprayed shrubs, trees and annuals.

Regenerative agriculture includes steadily building up soil organic matter, maintaining plenty of soil microbes, getting the right bacteria:fungi ratio for your crops, increasing biodiversity above and below ground, improving water filtration and water-holding capacity, producing nutrient-dense food, and bringing in a good profit. John recommends Gabe Brown’s book, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture. The Brown family farm 5000 acres in North Dakota, with diverse crops, no synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, fungicides or pesticides. They use minimal herbicides and no glyphosate (RoundUp). They also raise livestock.

This brings us to the topic of managing livestock in a healthy regional food system. Some people believe that eliminating all animal farming is the best way to feed the planet. We can probably all agree that confined animal feedlots with cattle raised on corn and soy, and no grass, is not healthy or sustainable at all. The global percentage of greenhouse gases from livestock farming is 14.5%, although the figure is less in the US (maybe only because we produce higher percentages of emissions from other sources!). Some people have shown that holistic management practices used to raise livestock, especially ruminants in a responsible way, on integrated farms, can benefit the environment, the farm, and the diners. Soil organic matter can increase dramatically on well-integrated farms. White Oaks Pastures in Georgia, has succeeded in off-setting at least 100% of their beef cattle’s emissions, by using Holistic Management grazing practices.

Meanwhile, in the home garden, we can care for the soil by keeping it covered with crops or mulch as much of the time as possible. Never leave the soil bare over the winter, as used to be recommended before we understood the importance of soil organic matter and feeding the soil food web. John’s system for beds with no overwintering crop, involves pulling up or cutting down weeds and crop residues, spreading them over the soil, adding ½-2 inches of compost along with any needed amendments such as trace minerals. Top this with tree leaves, straw or hay. In spring, you can ease apart the mulch to pop transplants in without turning over the soil, which disrupts fungal hyphae, microbes and worms. This method also solves the problem of soils that are too wet to till or dig over in early spring.

John is making compost at the rate of 60 cubic yards per windrow on his farm. This qualifies as a “mid-size” compost operation. He uses a hot composting method, and pays close attention. Compost feeds the soil and its inhabitants, adding micro- and macro-nutrients for the plants. Soil microbes create pores in the soil, improving the structure, and welcoming larger soil-dwellers such as worms.

Food security is a frequently heard phrase. It means having access to enough nutritious food at a price we can afford. During World War Two, many people grew Victory Gardens and were able to get a lot of their diet from their own garden, or trade with a neighbor. After the war, Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSAs) became more widespread. People could see the sense in supporting people to grow their food right nearby.

The author includes a three-part series on starting a garden, which is a masterpiece of economy with words. As in many of his articles, he takes the opportunity to give a shout-out to creators of other resources. Here he mentions John Jeavons’s How to Grow More Vegetables, and Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower. He adds three points from his own experience: improve the soil, boost the organic matter, encourage biodiversity. In part two he covers deciding what to grow and how much of it. Choose the size, method and plant selection so that you will enjoy it. Plan energy-saving methods (like mulching). Consider extending the seasons with shade cloth or rowcover, so you can enjoy the products of your labor for longer. Feed the soil, let the soil feed the plants. In part three he addresses pest control and choosing suitable varieties for the local area. Healthy soil grows healthier plants, that grow healthier people. Create a healthy ecosystem, learn about pest lifecycles. If you run into pest problems, look for organic pest controls in Peaceful Valley, Arbico, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Seven Springs Farm in Floyd, Virginia. For locally adapted vegetable varieties, buy from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (good friends of mine). He does provide names of some of his favorites – get the book!

Plant trees on your land. Look for cost share programs from the local branch of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and look for young trees at the Virginia Department of Forestry nursery. Consider trees that provide fruit, nuts, flowers and nectar for pollinators. Grow yourself a windbreak. Trees sequester carbon, clean the air, hold water in the soil, and benefit bugs, birds, shade and anyone needing a rest.

Another article is about collards, a southern vegetable coming into new fame. Plant in the fall, eat them all winter. Plant some more in the spring, but don’t let them get big and bitter. You can eat collards from December to June. Season extension in the fall can provide a lot of extra food (not only collards), for not much more effort. Plan in August. Keep the summer crops as long as productive, by covering them with rowcover when it gets cold. After the first cold spell of fall, there is usually a few weeks of warmer weather.

Climate change is a hard-work topic.  John suggests we focus on working for the change we want, rather than protesting loudly about the things we don’t want. Find ways to address specific issues. Plant trees, grow a garden, travel less. Go to City Hall with constructive requests: ask for an ordinance permitting backyard chickens, or a local composting program for food and paper waste, or an urban farm.

And talking of backyard chickens, John has a couple of articles about those. He started 20 years ago with 30 birds, primarily for eggs, and for their benefits on the farm. He still raises hens for eggs and also breeds them to supply others with small flocks. He recommends chicken tractors, coops on wheels, to move around the farm, to spread their benefits. Go into chicken-keeping with your eyes open. The responsibility is bigger than that of growing vegetables. Chickens need food and water; they need adequate housing; they need shutting in at night to protect them from marauders. You, or someone, needs to be home every night and morning to care for them. John recommends Harvey Ussery’s book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.

John has a thoughtful piece on the wisdom of real experience. Keep an open mind, look deep and wide. He talks about a period in his 20s “following self-created trouble” when he lived alone in the mountains for a while. Contemplation of nature, and focusing on daily needs left him time to think. He also took seriously the maxim “Don’t believe everything you think.”!

And then, as recently as January 2022, John had a stroke. He got help from loved ones, friends and professionals, and learned more about gratitude. He took several months away from writing his column, and found two people to keep his farm going. He learned to accept help. He eventually sold New Earth Farm to Kevin Jamison, who grows ingredients for his oceanfront restaurant in Virginia Beach – Commune. The restaurant has a big commitment to using local ingredients as much as possible. 90-100% of their ingredients are farm-sourced at any one time. John has helped nourish the local food system.

Farmer John Wilson, the author.

Book Review Resilient Agriculture, second edition, Laura Lengnick

 

The front cover of Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture, second edition

Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, expanded and updated second edition, Laura Lengnick, New Society Publishers, May 2022. 352 pages, $34.99.

With climate change, we are facing horrible challenges and hard work with high stakes. We can feel hopeless at times, but Laura Lengnick helps us understand hope, and how it spurs us to search for solutions. Hope is an action word, meaning “to cherish a desire with anticipation.” Grounded hope includes the knowledge that to achieve the results you want you have to work with others. Grounded hope leads to feelings of personal agency, empowerment and acceptance of reality.

Laura Lengnick has rewritten her 2015 book, updating the science and adding new farmer interviews. Laura has been walking the talk, biking, carpooling, calculating her carbon footprint and helping craft an energy descent action plan for her local community. In her work writing a report with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), exploring agricultural adaptation to climate change, the author became familiar with the language of resilience, including terms such as vulnerability, exposure, sensitivity, adaptive capacity, climate risk and climate equity.

Part 1 of this book explores specific examples of the unprecedented climate challenges across the US, how the weather has been changing, and what is likely to happen in the next 30 years, along with ideas of adaptation strategies to manage climate risk. We must come to grips with the fact that climate change adaptation is not about figuring how to adjust to a “new normal.” It’s about figuring out how to manage the risks created by more variable weather patterns that are likely to change at a faster pace and grow more intense through at least mid-century.

For ten years we have been warned that food production faces unique challenges due to climate disruption. But most people have failed to make any changes as a result of this information. Naturally it is hard to adjust to the reality that record-breaking weather is already becoming common. How do we design and implement systemic changes so that we can thrive as big changes hit us frequently? This is the field of resilience science.

Our hoophouse with shadecloth for growing summer crops. Photo Pam Dawling

Part 2 considers the principles and practices of resilience thinking in agriculture; the four kinds of resilience science and which is most useful when considering food supplies; resilient agriculture design principles; and some tools for cultivating resilience in food and farming systems. The concept of Vulnerability involves identifying damaging threats and choosing effective responses. Adaptive Strategy is aligning intentions and effects for increasing our resilience. Response, Recovery and Transformation Capacity is a concept to help us move forward, rather than expecting to return to a prior state.

Part 3 explores how resilience thinking can transform the global food system, and which actions we can take to contribute to resilient agriculture. The Rules of Resilience guide us to design, assess and manage resilient social-ecological systems. Rebuilding to previous standards (even “building back better”) could simply repeat the same mistakes we made before.

Part 4 provides the real-life stories from over 40 sustainable farmers and ranchers across the US, over about 100 pages. (I am one of the farmers interviewed for this book, just sayin’.) Some readers will go straight to this last third of the book, skipping the theoretical framework, learning from the specific towards the general. There are livestock farmers and ranchers, growers of perennial fruits and nuts, cut flowers, and vegetables on areas from 2 to 1000 acres, up to 3,200 acres when grain growers are added in. There are fourth-generation farmers, first generation farmers, those on farms they bought, those on rented land, those in intentional communities, urban, suburban and rural farmers. They farm across the continent.

Climate scientists observed a big change in the rate of climate change in 2000 and another in 2010. In 2021, we suffered historic winter storms in the northwest, central and eastern states, with temperatures as much as 40 F degrees below (what used to be) normal. With hindsight it turns out that the last 10,000 years (since our ancestors switched from being hunter-gatherers) was a period of very stable temperatures.

Garlic beds next to rowcovered broccoli beds, under a stormy sky.
Photo Wren Vile

In the past few years in the US we have had record-breaking numbers of very destructive hurricanes, wildfires, winter storms, deadly summer temperatures and water shortages. 40 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have had mandatory reductions in water use because the Colorado River could not supply what everyone wanted.  In southern Wisconsin, Richard DeWilde suffered not one, but two, one-thousand-year floods in 2007 and 2008. Less dramatic events such as hotter nighttime temperatures quietly disrupt successful farming.

Growing and raising food is a tricky, skilled business. Farmers have never controlled all the variables. Managing weather-related risks (one of the highest risk factors), is now much harder. The author interviewed farmers who had been farming in the same location since at least 1990, who were most likely to have observed weather changes. All have noticed changes in the weather that they have never experienced previously, although opinions vary about the causes. Farmers everywhere tell of challenges with too much or too little water, temperatures too high and too low, at all times of year. Their descriptions fit into climate science, and offer insights into the consequences of our failure to act in time on climate change.

But the changing climate is not the only disruption. Social forces are a threat to sustainability. Industrialization and globalization of the food supply, sweeping health, safety, environmental and labor regulations that disregard other aspects of a good life. The farmers on these pages recognize the value of healthy soils, diverse operations and high-value marketing.

Resilience thinking involves major shifts in at least six design principles. Listing from least to most challenging they are:

  1. Abandoning myths of creating perfect conditions for production and consumption.
  2. Moving away from the idea of maximum industrial efficiency, which ignores societal costs (pollution, public subsidies of unsustainable practices, some work undervalued).
  3. Valuing local knowledge more than distant experts. Local conditions such as water supply and needs vary, and may vary more in future.
  4. Shifting to working with local ecological design with the capacity to produce and recycle needed energy and materials.
  5. Pivoting from imported to local resources, removing the need for large-scale networks which are vulnerable to collapse.
  6. Moving towards a regenerative economy and away from an extractive one; no longer ignoring the real costs of industrial systems on human rights, the environments, and society as a whole.
Spreading hay and newspaper as mulch over a new strawberry bed. Local resources provide more resilience than bought in manufactured ones. Photo Luke Stovall

Vulnerability

Climate change vulnerability includes both the potential impact of a particular change and our adaptive capacity.

Impact depends on both our farm’s exposure to that impact and the farm’s sensitivity to that particular change. This is the part we are more used to dealing with. Assessing specific threats and reducing the worst of them as best we are able. This may include changes such as soil drainage or planting a shelterbelt, and also changes such as deciding to replace no-longer productive apricot trees (that break dormancy earlier and get frozen buds) with a different crop.

Adaptive Capacity covers not just our individual wits and wisdom, but also knowledge and what options are open to us; and the operating context: reducing damage by making changes. This moves us on from reducing risk to looking for better opportunities – this is cultivating resilience.

Using these approaches to think about climate change risks can help us find better solutions, nimbler responses. Learning more about expected changes helps us be prepared with plans for change. Here’s more about each of these aspects.

Exposure to Impact

A farm’s exposure to impact from a specific change can be obvious, or can be masked by, for instance, looking at averages. An average of 12” of rain from July-September could mean 4” per month, or a single storm dropping 12” in early July, followed by a drought until the end of September. Over the last 100 years, average temperatures in the US have increased, but not consistently across the country. Regional geographical and land use differences create regional patterns. The Southwest has severe droughts; the northeast has damaging floods. Global average temperatures have increased 2F degrees since 1900, due to human activities. This rise has led to a cascade of other changes, such as declines in polar sea ice and glaciers, and rising sea levels, and such changes will become worse, unless we reduce the level of greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere. We must adapt to a moving target.

Raised beds will drain and be ready to plant sooner after rain.
Photo Ezra Freeman

I live and farm in the southeast. Sea level rises and heavy downpours in our region are already obvious. Dangerously high temperatures, higher humidity, new pests and diseases, are on moving in. Hot nights have increased more than hot days; the growing season is ten days longer than it was in the 1960s. We can expect a rapid pace of increasing temperatures, day and night; another 20 days’ increase in the length of the frost-free growing season; more rain in the fall; and water and heat stress leading to decreased yields. There are details of both observed changes and expected changes of each of seven regions in the US.

Sensitivity to Impact

A farm’s sensitivity to a particular change is the magnitude of the effect of that change. To assess sensitivity, look at increasing resource costs to succeed with a given crop, and the frequency of failure. Does continuing with a certain crop force you to buy expensive new equipment such as wind machines to reduce frosts in orchards, or does it require you to spend relatively little switching to varieties or breeds better suited to the evolving conditions? If you supply other farmers with plants, a switch to hardier types, or heat-tolerant types, might set yourself on a better path. Heritage breeds, heirloom varieties and landraces hold lots of valuable genetics.

Adaptive Capacity

A farm’s adaptive capacity is its ability to cope with the challenging consequences of changing conditions and to take advantage of new opportunities that arise as a result. This requires thinking about the farm as a whole and the interactions of the components in order to increase the adaptive capacity and reduce the vulnerability and risk from climate change. If your farm has managed 10, 20, 30 years of good yields, this shows you have a good degree of resilience. Healthy soils are a key to buffering variable temperatures and rainfall, and thus, climate risk.

Three characteristics combine to determine your adaptive capacity. The operating context is the name for the sum of the ecological and social resources that shape your options. The individual capability to act describes your ability to manage the changing conditions. Existing knowledge and options limit or inform your ideas on how to manage change. There’s a diagram to illustrate this, with a farmer puzzling the options in the center.

As Jamie Ager in North Carolina points out, weather variability has always been a normal part of farming. “Part of being a successful farmer is probably just your head space. . .” Constant worry is taxing on the spirit, so look for things to act on, rather than things to worry about.” Ultimately the success of farming across the world will depend on the willingness and ability of farmers to take action to minimize climate risk.

 Adaptation Stories

All the farmers interviewed come from a perspective of sustaining the soil, the crops, the workforce. They are not primarily motivated by profit, or achieving the highest yield at any cost. This chapter introduces the farmers one region at a time. Fuller stories are in Part 4 of the book.

Unrolling irrigation drip tape from shuttles, using a garden cart as support.
Photo Luke Stovall

Some farmers have purchased different machinery to cope with different conditions. Some have purchased more, so two tractor operators can go out at once and get the crop tended to quicker. Some have shifted to higher-value direct markets, certified organic production (with its premiums), adding annual vegetable crops in the mix with their perennial fruits. Some have changed to different cover crops, mulches and irrigation systems. Some have shifted to shorter season crops to give themselves a second chance each year, if weather conditions prevent planting on their previously-usual date.

Several emphasize the importance of building up healthy soils. Some have made a specific change, such as introducing more frost protection; others have made many smaller changes, such as faster-maturing crops, or ones more adapted to heat, cold or dry weather. Some have found value in a Holistic Planning approach, and a willingness to make big changes quickly, such as selling 70% of the herd for that season. Some have even sold their farm and moved to a farm on higher ground. Some have switched their work to a different time of year. Some have installed solar power to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Some have installed contour swales to capture rainfall.

Some have found high tunnels, shade houses and other forms of protected growing to give them better results and more peace of mind. Some have planted more shade trees and hedgerows. The use of tarps to reduce weed infestations has helped several. Livestock farmers have improved their rotation systems and some have added a mix of annual forages into their permanent pastures. Making value-added products and adding some agritourism events have helped others.

The approach of sustainable farmers is quite different from the large “get big or get out” farms that rely on bank loans, government subsidies, imported soil amendments and fertilizers, more and bigger machines, and whatever it takes to continue “farming as usual” in the face of a completely new situation. The inventiveness of these farmers and their willingness to pioneer new approaches and consider abandoning long-held principles (such as no plastic), will cheer us all, and provide much inspiring food for thought.

Laura Lengnick, author of Resilient Agriculture

Resilience: Survive, thrive and farm another season!

 

A willow tree behind out herb garden.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

“The willow which bends to the tempest, often escapes better than the oak which resists it.” Sir Walter Scott

I’m reading Laura Lengnick’s book Resilient Agriculture, (review coming soon) and thinking about how growers thrive under varying situations, some of which we have no control over. To adjust to changing weather conditions, to continue after challenges and get the best possible outcome whatever happens, we need to be alert, adaptable and quick on our feet, a bit like a Ju-Jitsu practitioner.

Being ready to tackle whatever happens includes recognizing and building in many options, keeping all options open until the future is clearer, and knowing when and which way to jump. It involves being prepared with needed equipment (or at least phone numbers), and having our filing systems be accessible all year, not in a big heap!

It includes getting good at understanding current conditions and predicting the future, getting to grips with radar maps and how to use Growing Degree Days. It involves keeping records of when certain flowers bloom (phenology), and soil temperatures. This information helps us figure out when to plant according to actual conditions, rather than simply by the calendar, a method which is not useful as climate change takes hold.

A honeybee on deadnettle weeds. Fall deadnettle germination shows that conditions are cool enough to sow spinach. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Making good assessments of conditions is the first step in cultivating adaptability. The second necessary skill-set is the ability to know how to make a swift and effective decision and locate the resources to put that decision into practice. This includes information about soil temperatures and how long various crops take to emerge. Also, knowing how summer crops will respond to extra high temperatures. And how winter crops will respond to horrifying low temperatures. When is it time to cut your losses on a struggling crop and till it in? I do a weekly tour of the gardens and re-prioritize tasks. Growing food is an organic process, non-linear!

These two skills are followed by a review process, so we can learn from what went wrong, as well as what went right! Usually this involves record-keeping, (dates, actions and results) to inform next season. You can list other possible responses to fine-tune your choices next time. Record-keeping can include photos, audio recording, video clips. Whatever works. You may only need to tweak your response in future, or you may want a completely different approach. One of our garden mantras is “Never repeat the same mistake two years running.”

Get Ready for Farming After Anything

Carol Deppe in The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times recommends building in slack, rather than planning to work flat out every day. When something unexpected happens, you’ll have a bit of extra time available to tackle the problem. Personal troubles like injury, health challenges, or family emergencies; or household events like financial problems can require time focused elsewhere; or disastrous weather that affects everyone around you. On her website, Carol has an interview called Food in Uncertain Times: How to Grow and Store the Five Crops You Need to Survive. She says: “The resilient garden is designed and managed so that when things go wrong, they have less impact.” Grow food requiring minimal external inputs, know how to grow staple crops and save seeds. Some years you won’t need to employ these skills, but you’ll be ready when you do.

Being Flexible About Growing Food

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

We have a Garden Shift Honchos Guide to help whoever is leading the crew. It includes general guidelines: “Try to at least get the harvesting done, whatever the weather, (unless torrential rain, tornado, ice storm, thunder and lightning).” It suggests how to choose jobs from our posted task list. My priority sequence is harvest, plant, mulch, prepare beds for planting, hoe, hand weed. The Honchos Guide has hints for contingencies:

  • If the day is likely to be very hot, get the physically taxing tasks done first (especially anything involving shovels).
  • If the morning starts out with a heavy dew, postpone harvesting cucurbits, nightshades, strawberries and legumes until the leaves dry, to reduce the spread of disease.
  • After heavy rain: mulched perennials (fruit and asparagus) are the easiest places to work. Don’t work in sinking mud, it compacts the soil, which means the plants go short on air, and the soil will be slower to drain after future rains. Standing on long boards is an option for harvesting or planting.
  • If heavy rain is expected and you might have to stop in a hurry, do weeding, not planting. It’s a waste of time to hoe if it’s about to rain, or that crop is due for overhead irrigation. Don’t leave pulled weeds on the beds before rain or irrigation. They’ll re-root.
  • If you feel frazzled: choose a big simple task lots of people can do, like weeding strawberries, or hoeing corn. Or choose two tasks geographically close, so it’s easy to keep an eye on everything happening.
  • Choreographing the crew can be hard. It’s handy if everyone finishes harvesting around the same time. Perhaps spread out at first for miscellaneous harvesting, and then end up together on the crop that takes a long time.

Building in Options on the Farm

Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, advocates for constructing buildings that are easy to modify later, in gradual or drastic ways to meet the changing needs of the people inside. Farms can be looked at similarly. Keep as many options as possible (for crops, cover crops, crop layout) open for as long as possible.

It can be helpful to do some scenario planning, which I learned about in The Art of the Long View, by Peter Schwartz. Scenario Planning is a method of making flexible long-term plans, using stories (scenarios) to help us visualize different possible futures that include not only factors we don’t control, like the weather or the market’s enthusiasm for bulb fennel, but also intangibles such as our hopes and fears, beliefs and dreams. Different combinations of uncertainties and possibilities, including interactions of some major variables in plausible but uncomfortable as well as hoped-for combinations are used to create each scenario.

Sometimes the easiest way to compare scenarios is to set options out in a grid. For instance, in choosing which cover crop to sow following a spring crop that we clear in August-October in zone 7, we can say that the main variables are whether the season is dry or wet, and whether we are early or late planting. We can sow oats from mid-August to early September, to winter-kill, or winter rye once we reach September 1 (before that we risk the rye heading up before winter and self-seeding).

Dry and Early: Sow cowpeas or soybeans with oats, for a winter-killed cover crop. Dry and Late: Sow winter rye or wheat alone.
Wet and Early: Sow a clover mix in August, or hairy vetch with winter rye, 9/1-10/10 Wet and Late: Sow Austrian winter peas with winter rye

Often there are more variables, such as weediness. We might undersow our fall broccoli with a clover mix in August, intending the clovers to become a Green Fallow plot for the following season. The next summer, we assess the situation. If the weeds are bad in July, we disk in the clovers and sow sorghum-sudan hybrid mixed with soy, as a winter-killed cover crop. If all looks well in July, but the weeds are gaining the upper hand in August, we have the option of tilling it in, and sowing oats mixed with soy. If the clover is growing well, and the weeds are not bad, we over-winter the patch, and disk it in February.

Broccoli undersown with clover.
Photo Nina Gentle

Vegetable Crop Options

We have a few options recorded in our calendar:

  • If spring is cold and wet, grow transplants for the second planting of cucumbers and summer squash.
  • If the winter squash patch is too wet to disk, grow transplants, but don’t sow later-maturing varieties.
  • If the soil is to wet to hill the spring potatoes, flame weed instead.

Abundance Options

What to do if your yields are higher than planned: increase sales by giving out samples and recipes, and feature the item on your website. Find sales to new customers (restaurants), process the crop for future out-of-season sale (if you have time), or donate it to a local food bank.

Shortage Options

With a CSA you can keep a list of who gets Sun Gold tomatoes each week, until everyone has had some. This method has the advantage of keeping the time spent picking cherry tomatoes down to a reasonable level. The sharers get some as a treat a few times in the summer, but not every week.

You can mix leaves of several greens in an attractive bunch and call it braising mix, or add unusual crops to bagged salad mix, or make up stir-fry or ratatouille packages. If a crop is really poor, it is often best to till it in and plant something else. For me, this eases the soul and lets me move on. We keep a running list of crops looking for a home, so we can replace failures with fast-growing crops such as radishes, arugula, mizuna, Tokyo bekana, or salad mix. One year when our fall cabbage didn’t fill the area intended, we used senposai, a tasty, fast-growing leaf green. If rutabagas don’t come up, sow turnips – there are very fast-growing turnips, and a small turnip is a delicacy, but a small rutabaga is a sad thing.

Hakurei turnips harvested late January.
Photo Pam Dawling

It helps to have a clear and simple rotation. Our raised bed plan is ad-hoc. We make use of the flexibility: one August we were a bit late getting some tilling done, and we sowed the last cucumbers in the bed which was to have been squash. Cucumbers take a bit longer than squash to reach maturity, and I wanted to get them in the ground as soon as possible. The squash had to wait two more days. Two days can make a lot of difference when planting for fall.

Finding Resilient Crop Varieties

We always read the information about disease resistance when choosing varieties, because mid-Atlantic humidity is so conducive to fungal diseases. Depending on your climate you might pay more attention to the cold-tolerance, or the number of days to maturity. Every year we trial small quantities of one or two new varieties of important crops alongside our workhorses.

Nematode-resistant food crops and cover crops

Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills, two Juncea mustards that resist nematodes. Photo Pam Dawling

A few weeks ago I wrote about clearing tomato plants, and mentioned our hoophouse troubles with nematodes. Nematodes are tiny soil-dwelling worms that have a wide host range and are hard to control. They move only 3’–4′ (1–1.2 m) per year on their own, but people move them on shoes, tools, etc. We have had peanut root-knot nematodes (Meloidogyne arenaria) since 2011 when we found them in spinach transplants we were growing for outdoors in early spring.

My article on nematodes in Growing for Market  in November 2014 describes our discovery of the beasties and our first attempts to deal with them.

White Russian kale in our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

In my August 2014 post Good news – great hoeing weather! Bad news – more nematodes in the hoophouse I wrote about solarization to fight nematodes in our hoophouse (scroll down to the end of the post). The post includes a photo of our first attempt at solarizing – a  bit of a How Not To! Be sure to use UV-inhibited polyethylene. This year we somehow got some construction plastic mixed in. It doesn’t work! It goes cloudy (thus not heating up the soil) and it shatters into little pieces.

There is info on dealing with nematodes from Garry Ross in Hawaii, where nematodes are a fact of daily life, in my post Cold weather, snow, thinking about nematodes from February 2015.

My most thorough blogpost about nematodes was in 2018 for Mother Earth News:  Managing Nematodes in the Hoophouse.

Solarizing with clear plastic. Photo Pam Dawling

My post Solarization and crop choices to fight nematodes in August 2019 includes a photo of a much better way to solarize an individual bed. In that post I gave a list of nematode-resistant food crops, and also talked about cover crops. There is a photo of nematodes on cucumber roots there too).

Food crop choices to fight nematodes

Most resistant and most helpful are the Juncea group of mustards. I did some research into more Juncea options in Solarization and crop choices to fight nematodes. We don’t like very pungent greens, so we have not yet taken the route of planting a whole bed of Juncea types. Instead we have mapped and flagged the nematode-infested areas of our beds, and try to be mindful of what we plant in those spots. Three of our seven beds have no nematodes so far.

Open-pollinated Yukina Savoy.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

This year we looked at the nematode map we had made and decided to focus our attention on the bed with the highest number of nematode patches, and grow the most resistant winter crops (of the ones we like to grow) there. That’s the frilly mustards (Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frills, Golden Frills, all Juncea mustards, and Mizuna, a Japonica mustard), Yukina Savoy (variously reported to be Brassica juncea,  Brassica rapa pekinensis, and Brassica rapa), and Russian kales (Brassica rapa).

Mapping nematode areas

See the post with info from Gerry Ross I mentioned above. We have previously tried for a “Two years good, One year bad” strategy. This was to grow nematode-resistant crops in the infected areas for two years, then try risking one year of susceptible crops. That was a bit demanding on careful management, and we haven’t kept that up.

Nematode map 2022

Cover crop choices to fight nematodes

French marigolds and sesame to deter Root Knot nematodes in our hoophouse. Photo Pam Dawling

A reader asked about cover crop choices to fight nematodes. In June 2019 I wrote about using marigolds, sesame, Iron and Clay cowpeas as warm-weather nematode resistant cover crops. We’ve also used winter wheat (in winter!), and white lupins (not worthwhile, in my experience). See that post for a few other ideas on nematode-fighting cover crops, and why we decided against some options. At that time, we decided not to grow sunnhemp (Crotolaria) because it is poisonous, although newer varieties of Crotolaria have lower toxin levels. More recently we have been growing sunnhemp, after I saw it growing so well in North Carolina. It is a warm-weather legume, so it is feeding the soil while tackling the nematodes. It does grow tall in the hoophouse, and we have taken to chopping it down with hedge shears to an ergonomic elbow-height every few weeks whenever it gets too tall. The cut tops create a nice “forest-floor” mulch effect. You can almost feel the extra organic matter nurturing the soil! (High OM levels deter nematodes.) 60-90 days to maturity.

Sunnhemp cover crop at Nourishing Acres Farm, NC.
Photo Pam Dawling

We previously used soybeans as a short-term leguminous summer cover crop, but they do not offer the nematode resistance. Iron and Clay, Mississippi Silver and Carolina Crowder cowpeas are all nematode-resistant and can be grown in summer instead of soybeans. Sesame is a legume that is particularly good against peanut root-knot nematodes.

Iron and Clay southern peas flowering in September. Photo Pam Dawling

See Our Organic Integrated Pest Management post for an organized approach to pest management, including nematodes.

A Florida reader gave me information about partridge peas, which I have not yet tried: After terminating cool-season brassicas and celery between April and June, their late spring sowing of partridge peas were too late this year to be productive, because the hard seed was very slow to germinate. Partridge pea could be a good cover crop for mid- to late-summer, if you scarify those hard seeds to speed germination.

Some cover crops can be alternate hosts for pathogens like cercospora, rust, or bacterial leaf spot, so be on the lookout for new problems while solving old problems. In the deep south, beans, yard-long (asparagus) beans, and cowpeas can succumb to heat, nematodes, rust, bacterial spots, and other pathogens and pests. Senna (tall) and Partridge pea can provide “chop-and-drop” organic matter as sunnhemp does. Sunn Hemp can host foliar pathogens (some possibly seed-borne), in Florida, and does not reliably form nitrogen-fixing nodules on the roots, even when inoculated. Even so, it is useful as a fast warm season green manure cover.

The flower Gaillardia (blanket flower) is a quick-to-compost, chop and drop option for late winter to late spring, It decomposes quickly, and can provide a quick green manure. Gaillardia is nematode-resistant, great for beneficials and pollinators, but is susceptible to some foliar pathogens later in the season. You can sow Gaillardia in August, or even later in fall for early spring flowering.

Due to climate change, and the more year-round activity of nematodes, pathogens, and pests in Florida, they’ve been including more nematode-resistant grasses into their rotations. We all need to be thinking more about warmer-climate options, as climate change continues to push pathogens and pests farther north, earlier each year.

Farmer and gardener health and wellness

A crew member string-weaving peas in our hoophouse in February. Photo Wren Vile

Raising food is good work, right livelihood, outdoor work in the rain, sunshine and fresh air. The physical tiredness at the end of the day can bring good sleep. Farmers contribute to production of healthy food, and get to enjoy extremely fresh food from very local farms.

And yet – some days this is not the whole story. Farming can be hard on the body, the brain and the emotions. It can be stressful trying to get a good outcome from a situation that went outside our control and took a turn for the worse. Some things we can control, others we cannot. Some things we will be able to do a better job of dealing with next time they come around. Our work is not punching out identical widgets. Seasons change, tasks change. Only for a short time each year do we need to know how to decide if a watermelon is ripe. Once in a hundred years we need to know how to deal with a one-hundred-year flood (hmm!). I have written about being prepared for and dealing with disasters in The Year-Round Hoophouse. Being prepared and having a plan of what to do when things go wrong is a very good way to manage mental and emotional stress.

Hauling sweet potatoes uphill the hard way. Sometimes we use the truck!
Photo Nina Gentle

Musculoskeletal health

First let’s talk about physical health of the musculoskeletal kind. Overdoing the hard work, making the wrong move, going beyond the limits of our bodies, and wow! Pain! Maybe even injury. After many repeats of the same action, inflammation and problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and over time, maybe arthritis too. Musculoskeletal pain affects bones, joints, ligaments, tendons or muscles. See the Cleveland Clinic information page.

Common symptoms include aching, stiffness, burning sensations in the muscles, fatigue, muscle twitches, pain that worsens with movement and sleep disturbances.

Home treatment can include hot and cold compresses, over-the-counter pain relievers (NSAIDs), strengthening and conditioning exercises, stretching exercises, and stress reduction techniques.

Professional treatments can include local injections with anesthetic or anti-inflammatory medications, physical or occupational therapy, acupuncture or acupressure and relaxation/ biofeedback techniques. Most people I’ve seen at physical therapy are there for sports injuries. Sports medicine offers many good exercises for people whose work has injured their bodies.

Prevention is definitely better than cure. I’m a firm believer in doing some stretches and strengthening exercises every morning. Yoga is great too. Going to the gym? Some farmers make time for this, others don’t. Here’s some more prevention tips: limit repetitive movements, or vary them, use good posture and practice correct lifting techniques. (I recommend the Alexander Technique). Alexander Technique teachers help you identify and change harmful habits of posture and body use, and learn to move more freely.

I have written some articles in Growing for Market magazine that are accessible for those with a Full Access subscription on the website. I wrote about stretching in April 2008. Julie Bradley Law wrote an article: A wintertime reset for our most important tool: our bodies. It is free to access, and recommends a few weeks of winter rest, yoga and attunement. Designed by a farmer.

AgrAbility Tool Box

For those with limited physical abilities, AgrAbility provides Assistive Technology, Resources, News, Training, Services in your State. The Toolbox: Agricultural Tools, Equipment, Machinery & Buildings for Farmers and Ranchers with Physical Disabilities is a resource that contains assistive technology solutions for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural workers with disabilities.

Physical illness

Remember to get checkups. Be aware of ticks, mosquitoes, and rodents and the pest-borne illnesses they can cause. Read about Public health issues caused by pests. The EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have collaborated to create a thorough List of Pests of Significant Public Health Importance

Pests and diseases and climate change: as the climate chaos intensifies pests will move into new geographical ranges. We need to learn about the Zika virus, (cases in Florida and Texas in 2016-17, but none in the continental US since then). Chikungunya is another mosquito-borne virus. In 2014 and 2015, a few local-transmission chikungunya virus disease cases were found in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most of the cases in the US are travelers returning from countries where the disease is endemic.

Internal physical trouble

Let’s keep in mind the symptoms and treatment of heat stress. Heat stress happens when your body can’t cool itself enough. Physical activity during very hot, humid weather, and insufficient replacement of water and electrolytes cause heat stress. It can lead to heatstroke, which is a serious, life-threatening condition.

Home-made rehydration solution

Here is our recipe (“salty lemonade”):

  • 8 oz water
  • 8oz fruit juice (or mix concentrated lemon juice to usual lemonade strength)
  • A pinch (1/8 tsp) salt
  • 2 pinches (¼ tsp) baking soda

During watermelon season, a plate-sized slice of watermelon seems to do the trick!

Crimson Sweet Virginia Select watermelon.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

At the other end of the risky weather is extreme cold, especially if it is wet and windy. Livestock farmers are more at risk of hypothermia, trying to save their animals under terrible conditions. Vegetable farmers don’t suffer the same degree of risk.

Our lungs are vulnerable to dusts, pollen, sprays, toxins, microbial pests like the Coronavirus, flu, prions (mad cow disease) and anthrax.. Good masks can guard against all these, as well as asthma and allergies. There are also some specific agricultural problems like farmers’ lung, an allergic disease usually caused by breathing in the dust from moldy hay, or other moldy crop.

Mesothelioma

You may remember hearing about problems with vermiculite in some potting mixes. Some vermiculite naturally includes asbestos. Farmers are at risk of exposure to asbestos through contaminated soil, vermiculite and dust from these products on farm equipment. The Mesothelioma Center provides free information: books, packets and a Patient Advocacy program that works with people individually to help them find local treatment, legal help, and support groups. If you may have been exposed to asbestos they help you find free care and support. They will send you a free printed guide to mesothelioma. Sign up at their website.

Mesothelioma Info pack

The site has a special section for farmers: Farmers and Asbestos.

Mental health

New Mental Health Resources for Farmers in Stressful Times

by Matt Kneece, CFSA South Carolina Policy Coordinator Aug. 5, 2022

“However rewarding, the farming lifestyle often brings a compounding mental load that can be difficult to deal with. Fortunately, the stigmas around mental health and farm stress are breaking down, and farmers don’t have to deal with it alone. . . There are loads of resources to support producers’ physical health, but programs to support mental health are just as critical.”

South Carolina Farm Bureau is now offering access to a new program called AgriWellness including three online counseling sessions free of charge.

North Carolina Agromedicine Institute has compiled a list of resources here.

Another great resource is available through Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA, which offers a crisis hotline for farmers. When crises begin piling up, one of the most important things farmers can do is reach out for help as soon as possible. RAFI-USA’s hotline is designed to be a type of rapid-response available for farmers who need to talk to someone on short notice.

“Farming is a challenging job that can easily be impacted by factors beyond farmers’ control,” said Lisa Misch of RAFI-USA. “Anything from crop failure, natural disasters, market price changes, or family emergencies could lead to a farm crisis. If you are in crisis and need someone to talk to, please call toll-free at (866) 586-6746. The hotline is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.ET” They also provide in-depth assistance from a farmer advocate if you are in danger of losing your farm and/or home.

“In addition to the new therapeutic resources featured above, mental health experts have recommended several tips to farmers dealing with farm stress. Pursuing a healthy diet, staying active, cultivating social support, and getting enough sleep are all great steps toward protecting your mental health.”

I hope you will never need it, but if you get to that point, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 1-800-799-4889 (deaf/hard of hearing) or text 741741 to the Crisis Text Line.

New 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Dial just 988. Available 24 hours. English or Spanish. Learn more The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of over 160 crisis centers that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 9-8-8. It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.

Veterans Crisis Line
https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/
1-800-273-TALK (8255), press ‘1’ Text 838255 Chat also available

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has info on warning signs, how to have a conversation with a loved one you are concerned about, suicide loss, and more.

SC Farm Stress Management Resource Guide

I’ll leave you with this Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service link to Farm Stress Management Resources. There are educational resources, worksheets, articles, podcasts, links to support organizations, and other stress management websites.

I also took part in an interview with Jordan Marr for a podcast with The Ruminant: Audio Candy for Farmers, Gardeners and Food Lovers. It’s about farmers’ struggles with mental health problems, trying to cope with the many and varied stresses, while the public wants farmers to appear competent and blissful with all that time in the Inspiring and Nurturing Outdoors.

The Farmers Aren’t All Right. Podcast from the Ruminant. Episode 92.

Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/theruminant/posts/1369936529736669

Book Review: The Berry Grower, by Blake Cothron

The Berry Grower: Small Scale Organic Fruit Production in the 21st Century, Blake Cothron, New Society Publishers, paperback, 300 pages, May 2022, black and white and color photos, $39.99

Here you can read about growing berries and other small fruits on a backyard or small commercial scale, and see how they can work for you. You can learn up-to-the-minute information relevant to organic farming, urban farming and the local foods movement. You can learn which modern cultivars hold the most hope for your location.

This is not a glossy coffee-table book. Nor is it written for full-time fruit growers. Blake wrote this book to encourage a move to more localized and resilient organic food production on a global scale, garden by garden. He wants to spread practical, effective knowledge and training. Blake speaks from 20 years’ experience growing small fruit, including the past ten years operating a successful commercial organic plant nursery.

Blake quotes Bill Mollison, suggesting that if 10% of us switch from consumption to production, there will be enough food for everyone. Small fruits are a good place to start, because they bring faster returns (6-12 months) compared to tree fruits, and the demand is almost infinite. It’s easier to satisfy the demand for fresh vegetables, than for fresh fruit! Small fruits do not require a large area, and won’t shade out your vegetables. Once your fruit crops need most of your attention, you can cut back on vegetable crops for market. Fruit can provide more income for the time invested, if not for the space. Size your operation so you and your household can do 90-100% of the work yourselves, as paying others cuts into what could be your profits.

Small fruit crops deserve more attention than they’ve had from growers or writers in recent years. This book addresses the shortage of up-to-date information, and the reality of climate chaos. By growing a diversity of crops, your risks are spread and reduced. Note which crops do best and grow more of those! Blake reports that in his Kentucky garden, all the blackberries, red and black raspberries, strawberries, aronia, figs, gooseberries, juneberries, blueberries, passionfruit, and honeyberries survived a very difficult winter and late spring frosts.  Be prepared for winter low temperatures some years a full zone colder than previously, and also a full zone warmer other years. Or, if you are really unlucky, a yo-yo winter that can zap the blooms of early cultivars. Blake’s list of survivors above makes a good starting point of resilient fruit crops.

Berry Growing Basics

The first section covers the planning and preparation: finding the plants you want, getting good tools, prepping the beds, then planting and maintaining the areas.  Choose a site with full sun, good drainage of air and water, a low enough water table so that your crops will not get flooded, protection from strong winds, and ideally land with a gradual slope. Be alert to the micro-climates on your land.

Choose the species you’d most like to grow, of those that will thrive in your area. Be sure the fruit will ripen and you can prevent other creatures who might eat the fruit. Be sure there is an unsaturated demand for that particular fruit locally. Gooseberries have loyal fans, but not millions of them. Ask neighbors, grocery stores, commercial growers, your local Extension service and university ag department. At the same time, find out what publications, courses or funding are available. Don’t flood the market with more of the same, if you could focus on something else that many people want. Be realistic about likely yields. New growers and those growing heirlooms should expect half the published yield figures. Look at your costs.

Look at your climate, and pests and diseases you’ll likely contend with. Understand winter-hardiness zones for what they are, and look at all the factors other than coldest winter temperatures. Zone 6 in Washington State is like a highland desert; zone 6 in Kentucky is moist, humid and verdant. Notice your weather and signs of imminent change. Blake reports that he can hear distant train whistles not long before rain starts.

Blake Cothron, author of The Berry Grower

Get soil tests and add needed amendments. Prepare your beds ahead of time. Blake recommends using silage tarps for 60-90 days before planting (less in hot weather). Consider solarizing with clear plastic to cook any disease pathogens, nematodes and weed seeds in the top few inches. Just 6-7 days is enough when hot and sunny.

Choose cultivars that are productive, reliable, tolerant of the range of your weather, as well as well-flavored. If your plant only produces one superbly flavored fruit in good-enough condition to sell, that’s going to be so disappointing! There’s a useful summary at the end of the chapter, to make sure you cover all the bases before parting with your money.

This book guides you carefully through all the steps to get the plants established. Weed management and irrigation follow, and mulch. There are good tips on making beds (turning the soil and no-till, using tarps for 30-90 days, clear plastic for 7 days, and landscape fabric for long-term cover), and a thorough explanation of Integrated Pest Management. Learn about today’s bugs, and modern tools and methods. There is a one-page checklist of factors to consider when pests take over.

Next is an up-to-date chapter on buying plants. Or, sometimes, buying plant material (cuttings or divisions). There are warnings about accepting gifts from neighbors (pests, diseases, varieties that don’t grow that well). Just in case anyone is still unsure: hybrids are the result of breeding work that crosses open-pollinated varieties. You may have heard of hybrid vigor (the name we gave our first Prius!). Hybrids can bring good qualities from both sides of their family, providing productive, vigorous crops. They are not GMOs. There are no small fruit GMOs, except for a couple of research tomatoes and peppers, that are not sold on the open market. See the ISAAA’s GM Approval Database. Remember, if a nursery (such as Blake’s Peaceful Heritage Nursery) is Organic, it does not use or sell GMOs. Also, be realistic: you can buy a non-Organic plant and by growing it in Organic soil, with Organic amendments, you can develop that little twig into a healthy shrub.

Learn how to handle cuttings, how to heel-in plants temporarily, and then how to plant (add nothing to the hole). Consider some useful tools. I wonder why I never bought a tapener, or a berry rake? They do look helpful.

Floricane raspberry patch making new growth. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Berry Crops

The second section starts with in-depth profiles of blackberries, blueberries, raspberries (black and red), strawberries, juneberries, muscadine grapes, gooseberries, currants, figs and – surprise – tomatoes.

There are descriptions of recommended cultivars, and Blake’s very useful Urban Market Farming Rating and Rural Market Farming Rating, comparing different fruits. Blackberries only get 2/5 for the Urban Farming Rating, but 4/5 for a Rural Farming Rating (the difference here is the income you might need for the area). In a home garden, you can use large tomato cages to support the canes. Blueberries are widely popular, and productive once established. The one-page Blueberry Soil Prescription by Lee Reich sums up what is importantly needed to succeed. Raspberries are Blake’s top choice, 5/5, for both urban and rural fruit plantings. Easy, popular, productive only 6-12 months after planting. I favor the fall fruiting types, particularly Caroline, because the canes bear fruit the same year they grow, so after fruiting you can mow the beds, and weed and make a fresh start each year.

Strawberries can be cultivated under either the annual production system or the matted row system. The options include fall-planted annual production, used in the south (zone 7a and milder). Annual production from spring starts involves pinching off the flowers in the first year, maintaining the plants for over a year before getting any harvests. If you can establish plants in the fall in your climate, you can get production the following spring and then choose between renovating the beds for a second production year, or terminating them. 4/5 in every situation.

Rolling hay over newspaper for a new strawberry bed.
Photo Luke Stovall

Juneberries (shadbush, saskatoons, serviceberries), if you get a good cultivar, are like small blueberries with little almond-flavored seeds. Mediocre varieties are small, bland and watery, and prone to diseases. There are two main species of Juneberries: for Northern areas, Amelanchier alnifolia (Saskatoons), and the tree-form grown on the East coast (Amelanchier canadiensis) and a hybrid x grandiflora (serviceberry) with better disease resistance. The Alberta Government has published The Saskatoon Berry Production Manual.

Muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia) are less well known north of Kentucky (zone 7). They are a native plant, considered by the author to be the best all-round organic market growing grape. (Also see the mention of the more cold-hardy Munson grapes in his Maybe section later). Muscadines are large, plump, sweet, aromatic and chewy. They have seeds and thick skins. They are extremely resistant to diseases and bugs, and they thrive in humidity! Fruiting starts in year 3, and increases to about 50-80 lbs (23-36kg) per plant. The large vines need a strong trellis, 12-20ft (3.7-6.1m) space each, and rigorous pruning. If planting female cultivars, you must include some self-fertile ones for pollination. The book suggests some good ones.

Mulberries have a big future. The trees are cold-hardy and late-blooming, so late frosts do not wipe out your harvest. Be sure to buy regionally-adapted species and cultivars. The more popular species include red mulberries (native in the Eastern US), white mulberries native to Asia and hardy to zones 4b-6, with berries that can be white, lavender, purple or black, and the black mulberry tree (native to Europe/Asia) which is hardy to zone 7. If you seek genuine Morus nigra, be careful to not get sold a black-fruiting Morus alba. Then there is the Himalayan Mulberry, Morus macroura, which seems hardy to zone 7, maybe 6. Mulberries are one of the easiest tree fruits to grow organically, but do note that trees are either male or female. Named cultivars are always female, but seedlings naturally can be either. Don’t plant the males unless you want to test your pollen allergies. Consider pruning your trees annually to a bush form, for easier harvesting, unless you want a large landscape tree. Illinois Everbearing is the deservedly most famous cultivar, suited to zones 4-9. Remember to prune, or the branches may break off. Mulberries have a low Urban Market Farming Rating, because the trees could shade other crops. and the roots could compete too much for nutrients. The Rural Market Farming rating is 5/5.

Gooseberries are only worthwhile in regions with a market for these northern European berries. Black, red and white currants can likewise do well in some locations and be wasted in others.

Fig with frosted leaves.
Photo Ezra Freeman

Figs do well when grown organically, although cold climates will limit their size and yield. Blake has them in a hoophouse. Consider an in-ground Walipini greenhouse. Be warned that fig latex is phytotoxic (can burn your skin, while also being an effective treatment for skin warts) — take care when harvesting. In humid regions, grow rust-resistant cultivars such as Celeste, Brown Turkey, Magnolia and the LSU cultivars. The book includes information about 17 cold-hardy figs (zones 5-7), 6 warm climate cultivars (zones 8-10) and 9 for hot, humid climates (zones 8-10). I learned a lot about figs from this book (I’ve never grown them). Ratings of 4/5 for Urban Market Farms, 5/5 for Rural ones.

Next are tomatoes, a crop I did not expect in a fruit book. Yes, of course they are a fruit. Here is solid information about growing tomatoes for market. Plant regionally-adapted cultivars, look for production, consistency, resiliency as well as flavor. Ignore heirlooms, go for the “heirloom-like” hybrids, which have greater vigor, reliability, disease-resistance, and yields, with attractive appearance. (Blake confesses to ignoring this advice early on, and regretting it later.) Marnero looks and tastes just like Cherokee Purple, but is very productive. Balance 10-25% of fancy types with plenty of hybrid red slicers. Here are tips on growing strong transplants, choosing a trellising system and keeping your eyes on yields and sales. Consider also selling plants, value-added products, and seeds. As a “casual” sideline, the author earned over $900 in sales of organic tomato seeds one year. 5/5 Ratings in urban and rural locations.

Riesentraube cherry tomatoes.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Other Berries to Consider

These main profiles are followed by shorter profiles of other fruits that you could consider growing: aronia, autumn olive, goumi, bush and Nanking cherries, kiwiberry (hardy kiwis), cactus fruits, cornelian cherry, hardy passionfruit, elderberry, feijoa, goji, various hybrid cane berries, rosehips, seaberry (sea buckthorn), Munson grapes (free cuttings from Grayson College for growers and researchers), che, and honeyberry. A few of these I had never heard of. Honeyberries (haskeps) ripen about two weeks before strawberries.

Harvesting and Marketing Berries, Now and in the Future

Next follow chapters covering harvest, post-harvest and marketing, and the future of small fruit growing. Blake has noticed that if you harvest your blackberries early every morning, you will avoid the beetles and birds which arrive at midday. Get there first and get more fruit, and make the patch unattractive to the pests! Harvest with both hands, always! Use buckets that strap to your body, or crates on carts that you pull down the row. Identify ways to reduce or eliminate unnecessary movements, including not handling fruit more times than you must. Pick straight into marketable containers.

Berry Grower Interviews

The book includes two interviews with successful small fruit growers, focusing on education, outreach, direct marketing, diversity of crops, and a creative, resilient, ambitious, hardworking, patient, smart mindset. These are detailed interviews of 4-6 pages.

Climate Change and Fruit Growing

Commercial fruit requires (mostly) perennial plants that bloom when triggered by the internal timer of the plant. You can’t delay fruit bloom the way you can delay broccoli heading by planting later. Growers may need to switch to different cultivars, or different fruits more suited to newer and potential-future conditions. The book suggests how growers can contribute to breeding efforts and selection of better cultivars: later blooming or lower chill hour requirements, hardier buds and blooms, more heat and drought tolerance, more resistance to diseases and pests, reduced days to maturity, better resistance to heavy or repeated rains, and last but not least, increased nutritional value. Blake spells out a 7-step process for growers selecting their own cultivars, to bring resiliency back to our farms and to future generations.

Get this book and apply Blake’s experience and wisdom to your fruit plantings, diet or market!

Click here to view the author’s page on the New Society Publishers‘ website, and watch his videos.

Planning and Growing Winter Hoophouse Vegetables

 

Hoophouse winter greens.
Photo Kathleen Slattery

If you have a hoophouse, you may now be planning or planting crops for fall, winter and spring. If you don’t have a hoophouse, this is a good time of year to consider getting one. See Twenty Benefits of Having a Hoophouse at the end of that post. There are grants available from NRCS, including reparation levels of funding from traditionally underserved groups of people. There are now companies that will construct your hoophouse for you, if you don’t want to do it yourself, or can’t. If you do want to build your own, there are detailed instructions in my book The Year-Round Hoophouse. You can buy the book here on my Books page direct from me, or from my publisher New Society, or you can buy it wherever books are sold.

The Year-Round Hoophouse cover

I have many posts about winter hoophouse vegetables, so rather than try to write something completely new on the topic, I am going to give you a guide to find your way around the information already here.

General Hoophouse Info

Winter hoophouse growing

Hoophouse video interview

Year-Round Hoophouse Vegetables slide show

Hoophouse Cool Season Crops slideshow

Hoophouse Many Crops slideshow

Hoophouse Bright Lights chard in winter.
Photo Wren Vile

Hoophouse Crop Planning

Planning winter hoophouse crops

Hoophouse Crop Rotations

Preparing for spring, sowing seeds, planning

Hoophouse Greens Clearance, Warm Weather Crops Established

Hoophouse Crops Winter 2022-2023

Hoophouse Bed Prep

Hoophouse fall bed prep

Fall hoophouse bed prep

Hoophouse bed broadforked to loosen up slumped soil. I’m happy to say our soil structure has improved in the 18 years since this photo was taken!
Photo Pam Dawling

Choosing Hoophouse Winter Crops

(see also my post categories on the right side of the computer screen, for special posts on Asian Greens, Cooking greens, lettuce and root crops)

How to decide which vegetable crops to grow

Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2021

Spinach variety trial conclusions

September in the hoophouse: sowing spinach

Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sow onions in a hoophouse

Frilly Mustards in our Winter Hoophouse

Three cheers for Ruby Streaks!

Yukina Savoy in the Hoophouse

Cooking Greens in December

Cooking Greens in February

Cooking Greens in March

Yukina Savoy in the early morning mist.
Photo Wren Vile

Asian Greens in October: Yukina Savoy, Tatsoi

Asian Greens for December: Pak Choy

Asian Greens for January: Chinese Cabbage

 

Green Panisse and red Revolution lettuce in our hoophouse in November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Lettuce All Year in a Changing Climate

Year Round Lettuce

Lettuce growing in October

Lettuce in December

Lettuce varieties for January

Early Lettuce Production

Cold-tolerant lettuce and the rest

Tango lettuce from our September 24 sowing on January 10.
Photo Pam Dawling

Planting in the Hoophouse (Both Transplanting and Direct Sowing)

The decision between transplanting and direct sowing

Sowing hoophouse winter crops

Seedling winter crops

Starting Seedlings

Bare Root Transplants

September sown White Russian kale (transplanted in October).
Photo Wren Vile

Keeping Every Hoophouse Bed Fully Planted and Productive

Using all the space in the winter hoophouse

Fast Growing Vegetables

Sequential Planting slideshow

Young Tokyo bekana transplant in our hoophouse .
Photo Pam Dawling

Caring for Hoophouse Crops

What makes vegetable crops bolt and how can I stop it?

You don’t want this! Bolting lettuce outdoors in July
Photo Alexis Yamashita

What to Do If Something Goes Wrong with Your Hoophouse Crops

Back-up plans for winter hoophouse crops

Plans A-D

Emergency back-up seedlings for the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Harvesting in the Winter Hoophouse

Winter hoophouse harvests

Mid-winter hoophouse harvests

This winter week in the hoophouse

Young greens in the hoophouse

Winter Harvests

Making baby salad mix

Beautiful baby lettuce mix in our hoophouse.
Photo Wren Vile

My favorite tomato varieties

Pink Boar tomato.
Photo Pam Dawling

Over the years I have developed definite preferences about some tomato varieties, and I also enjoy trialing a few new kinds each year. We do our experimenting in the hoophouse, where we can keep a closer eye on the plants, and keep the labels visible (few weeds!)

New this year have been Pink Boar, Geronimo, Cherry Bomb and Estiva. Two of those I want to grow again, and two can fade into history.

Pink Boar is a beautiful fruit, with olive green strips on a wine-red background, and dark red flash. The flavor is sweet, tangy, rich and juicy like Black Cherry and some of the other dark-fruited tomatoes. The plants are vigorous (some say “aggressive”) and productive, although I do notice a bit of a tendency to split. Not big messy splits like Black Prince, but manageable if you pay attention to harvesting them when ripe. It may be our “beginner problem” of not knowing their ripeness signs as well as the other varieties. I recently told one of our crew “close your eyes and press the bottom of the fruit.” If it’s at all soft, it’s ripe. I learned this years ago from a completely blind friend who grew a garden.

75-80 days to maturity, indeterminate OP, 2-4oz (56-112gm), 2-3 inches (5-7 cm) in diameter. They were bred by Brad Gates from Black Boar and Brown Boar, as part of their Wild Boar series. I hear they grow OK in Texas. You can buy the seed from High Mowing, Baker Creek, Peaceful Valley, and Wild Boar Farms, the breeder himself.

Cherry Bomb tomato.
Photo Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Cherry Bomb is a firm, bright red cherry tomato with a sweet, well-balanced flavor. The 64 day, F1 hybrid indeterminate plants produce good handfuls of ripe 15-20 gm fruits at each harvest. They are not prone to splitting (unlike Sun Gold).

Cherry Bomb has a high resistance to late blight. We have rarely suffered from late blight, but I like to grow a few resistant tomatoes just in case. And we have been looking for a tasty reliable red cherry. This might be it. Cherry Bomb is sold exclusively by Johnny’s Selected Seeds, who rate this variety for outdoors, not just hoophouses. It’s out of stock until August 2023, so it must be popular!

We love Sun Gold, Black Cherry and Five Star Grape, but have still been searching for another cherry. We weren’t wowed by Washington Cherry or Riesentraube (gave those up after one year). Initially, we were taken with Amy’s Apricot, but we lost patience with its variability. It’s tasty, and a nice one for those growing only a few plants, who like surprises. But we have enough confusion, and want more predictability.

Mountain Magic tomatoes in mid-July.
photo Pam Dawling

We appreciate Mountain Magic more each year! We have been growing Glacier and Stupice as early hoophouse tomatoes for years, but the green shoulders are off-putting. Glacier is a 56-day OP determinate with potato-leaf foliage and good flavor. Stupice is a 55-60 day OP with potato-leaf foliage, but is indeterminate. From suppliers’ photos you wouldn’t know these two varieties get green (or yellow) shoulders, and the descriptions often don’t mention that either. Some particular varieties are more prone to green shoulders and there is also a weather component. When these varieties are in sustained high temperatures (hoophouses!), lycopene (red color) production is reduced, and when direct sun beams on the tops of the tomatoes, temperatures inside the fruits rise. Perhaps we’ve been pruning them too much.

Hoophouse tomatoes with yellow shoulders. Glacier or Stupice.
Photo Pam Dawling

Another factor is that at high temperatures, chlorophyll can’t break down, and the red color is hidden. The yellow color is carotene, and it is more heat-resistant than lycopene. We’re ready to wait a few days longer, and have fruit that are red all round.

Mountain Magic is a 70-75 day indeterminate red 2 oz (56gm) hybrid, from breeder Randy Gardner in NC. It is productive, beautiful (no cracks!), trouble-free (resistant to both early blight and late blight, as well as Verticillium and Fusarium wilts) and, importantly, delicious. It looks a bit like Amy’s Sugar Gem, but is more regular, and has a better flavor. This year we increased the number of Mountain Magic and cut back on the Stupice and Glacier. Next year we will probably grow a higher proportion of Mountain Magic again. And stop pruning the Stupice and Glacier we do grow!

Not quite ripe yet! Jubilee tomato in late June.
Photo Pam Dawling

Jubilee (also known as Golden Jubilee) is a lovely medium-sized orange 80 day indeterminate OP we have grown every year for a long time. Beautiful, meaty, delicious sweet fruit. Disease-resistant and crack-resistant. The seed has been harder to find since the start of the Covid pandemic. One year we even bought somebody’s home grown seed that arrived labeled “Probably Jubilee”. It was close enough under the circumstances. Reimer, Eden Brothers, Willhite, Victory, Sandia, Hoss Tools and Bentley have it currently.

For more Tomato Appreciation, see Craig LeHoullier’s Tomato Collection Tour. I linked to part 6: numbers 51-70, because Craig mentions Valencia, a selection of Sunray, which was selected from Jubilee (a stabilized cross by Burpee between Marglobe and Tangerine). In my search for a good reliable tasty orange tomato I have at some time tried almost all of these, without knowing their family connections.

Craig says his “Grow Every Year” category includes Cherokee Purple, Cherokee Green, Cherokee Chocolate, Polish, Lucky Cross. Others, such as Brandywine, Dester, Ferris Wheel, Yellow Brandywine, Anna Russian are grown in his garden every other year.

Tropic tomato in mid-July. Photo Pam Dawling

Our workhorse red slicer is Tropic, a heat-tolerant, disease-resistant 80-day indeterminate OP from the University of Florida program. Good sweet flavor, 8-9 oz (225-250 gm) fruit. The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange selection is available from Wilcox. Other suppliers of Tropic include Urban Farmer and TomatoFest.

If you are searching for heat-tolerant varieties, as we might all be wise to do, to face climate change, peruse the TomatoFest site Tropical Hot/Humid Tomato Seed Colleciton.