That New GMO Tomato, and other GMO vegetables

Blueberries, naturally high in anthocyanins.
Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

In February this year I learned about a new genetically modified tomato, the Purple Tomato, that is to be marketed directly to gardeners and farmers. Up until now, genetically modified vegetables have been few and those seeds were not available to the public, only to large commercial growers. I know from looking at the stats on my website that GMO foods are a big concern for my readers, and I decided to do more research. See my earlier post Which Vegetables are Genetically Modified?

Concord grapes ripening. Photo Kati Falger

This very purple cherry tomato is the color of Concord grapes, with insides the color of Victoria plums. The creators of this odd fruit worked for 20 years to get this color, which they transferred from snapdragons. Snapdragon flowers are edible, in case you wondered. They have a bitter flavor, like chicory. But it’s the color genes the breeders transferred, not the flavor genes. This fruit was made by Norfolk Plant Sciences. The color genes indicate high levels of anthocyanin, the pigment in other purple foods. Anthocyanins provide anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits. Anthocyanins can be found in other purple and blue foods such as blueberries, eggplants, blackberries, red cabbage, purple sweet potatoes and purple broccoli. The Purple GMO Tomato contains similar levels of anthocyanins to other purple foods.

Epic eggplant from Osborne Seeds. Another high anthocyanin food

Norfolk is hoping to change diners’ and gardeners’ perceptions of GMO foods by selling something we will consider healthy as well as exciting. Only 7% of Americans think that GMO foods are more healthy than non-GMO foods, with most believing they are less healthy.

Cathy Martin, the creator of the Purple Tomato reports that research published in Nature found that mice who ate a diet supplemented with purple tomatoes lived 30% longer than those who didn’t. Anyone who wants longer-lived mice knows what to do!

Pink Boar tomato.
Photo Pam Dawling

Modern domesticated tomatoes have anthocyanins only in the non-edible foliage. It is entirely possible to breed tomatoes the conventional way, with anthocyanins in the fruit as well as the leaves and stems. Jim Myers at Oregon State University bred the Indigo Rose tomato, which is available to gardeners. The variety has been improved since its early days. We grew it when it was new and were disappointed with its flavor and the fact that the purple stage was under-ripe. Fully ripe fruits were a dark brownish-red shade. Indigo Cherry Drops is a more recent variety from the same breeders, and there are now over 50 Indigo cultivars.

Those who want more anthocyanins in their food can choose Indigo tomatoes and plenty of other blue and purple vegetables and fruits. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there is no health risk to eating GM foods currently on the market. Each person can make their own decisions.

Purple Galaxy is another GMO tomato variety, despite earlier claims to the contrary.

 

Non-GMO Project symbol

The Non-GMO Project has more info about                                                                the purple GMO tomato.                                                                       

Other GMO Food Crops

You can read about other GMO food crops in this List of Bioengineered Foods from USDA

Apple (ArcticTM varieties) (pdf) are being grown in Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and Fuji varieties. Only those trademarked ArcticTM are bioengineered. Regular Fuji, Granny Smith and Golden Delicious are not GMO.

China and the US are growing GMO papaya, a disease resistant variety that resists Papaya Ringspot Virus. Chinese papayas are not imported to the US, but all US-grown papaya (mostly grown in Hawaii) can be assumed to be GMOs.

GMO eggplants are grown in Bangladesh, but not imported fresh into the US. I don’t know about pickles.

Pink-fleshed pineapples grown in Costa Rica, are sold by Del Monte in the US. Yellow-fleshed pineapple can be assumed to not be GMO.

Many commercial potato varieties sold in the USA and Canada are GMOs. Trademarks include New LeafTM, and various versions of InnateR.

GMO Yellow crookneck squash comprise about 10% of that sold commercially in the US.

All sugar beet grown in the US and Canada can be assumed to be genetically modified. The FDA has approved two varieties of GMO Sugarcane to be used for food and feed. In 2013, about 55% of US sugar was from sugar beets, and 45% from sugarcane.

But until the Purple Tomato, no GMO vegetable seeds were available for the public.

If you want to avoid GMO vegetables

Grow your own – you’ll know exactly what went into them. Just avoid buying the GMO Purple Tomato seeds.

Buy from a trusted grower.

Buy from a certified Organic, Real Organic, Non-GMO, or Certified Naturally Grown farmer. Organic certification prohibits GMOs. CNG closely follows the Organic standards, using a peer-inspection system.

USDA Organic symbol
Real Organic Project logo
Certified Naturally Grown logo

Book Review Many Hands Make a Farm, by Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson

Front cover of Many Hands Make a Farm, by Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge, Chelsea Green Publishers

Book Review

Many Hands Make a Farm: 47 Years of Questioning Authority, Feeding a Community and Building an Organic Movement, Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson, Chelsea Green Publishers, November 2023. 208 pages, 6 x 9 inches, with an 8-page color photo insert. $24.95.

This little book is not a how-to-farm book, but a very readable memoir-plus-life-philosophy of two activists who also raised a family and farmed organically, built their local community and served in founder and leadership roles in the Northeast Organic Farming Association. They favor minimized external energy use, natural healthcare and debt-free living. If you have some of the same goals, this book could be inspiration and encouragement. As well as the Many Hands Organic Farm CSA, their paid jobs on the board of NOFA and Jack’s job as a board game designer kept them afloat financially. Somehow they also found time to engage in music and theatrical arts and social justice work. They wrote their book in their separate voices, as interwoven sections. It’s usually easy to tell who is speaking.

The foreword is by Leah Penniman (co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black), who became a farm intern at Many Hands in her late teens, and was praised as “no question the best worker on the farm”.

Julie and Jack met in Boston in 1976. They shared values of trusting in nature, surrounding themselves with life, using their talents, respecting details, and staying skeptical but open. Each of the authors had many years of organizing and political activity under their belt before they met and moved in together in Boston, where they made a small garden, complete with compost bin and rabbit hutch. They ate well, sold 10,000 copies of one of Jack’s board games, saved money, had their first child, and after five years, planned to move to the country. They bought a 55-acre parcel of a 400-acre ex-dairy farm near Barre, Massachusetts.

They camped there, read, planned, and planted fruit trees, and had their next child. They needed to build a house, which would require saving for a year. They wanted to use the sun and earth for heating and cooling, wood for cooking and hot water, greenhouses and root cellars. They designed matching their dream, foregoing a furnace in favor of woodstoves; earth-berming the basement; running all their plumbing in a central column far from the external walls to avoid freezing; and building a basement root cellar with fan-assisted air circulation.

Their house has three floors plus an attic, providing maximum living space for minimal foundation structure. Despite such careful planning, they do see some flaws. If starting over, they would include barns and sheds attached to the house, under the same roof. When the electricity is out, the well-pump doesn’t work. They had not planned a secondary water source. Condensation of warm moist air on cold pipes and walls came as an unpleasant surprise.

Learning that half the total cost of a house was for labor, they decided to provide that themselves. Also learning that half the total cost (these can’t both be true, can they?) was for interior finishing (flooring, walls, insulation, cabinets, and trim) they decided to do that too. Wisely, they brought a mobile home to the site to live in until the house had electricity, hot water and a septic system. They organized construction weekends for their friends. They wrote a weekly newsletter to boost morale and keep the workforce up-to-date. Julie and Jack worked as hard as they could (Jack leading the construction, Julie leading the cooking and childcare, not so revolutionary, but efficient for the short term).

In December, after 5 months of amateur construction work with a bit of professional help, the shell was closed in and they moved into the house (having spent one-quarter of the total cost). By then they had four young children. Moving into a shell of a house turned out to be a good decision for them, partly because they could change plans as needs became apparent. For example, adding a window in the north wall so they could see from indoors just what was happening outside. It was to take them ten years to finish the interior work, and it was better to live with daily improvements than to wait a long time for the perfect home.

Jack learned computer programming, took contract roofing work and did odd jobs locally, to repay the emergency family loans for closing in the house. Julie, meanwhile, together with neighbors, started the Barre Farmers Market, where she sold her crops.

Julie had left college early to save the world, and married young. When she met Jack she knew she had to leave that marriage in order to start a family with Jack. This was morally difficult for her, even while emotionally imperative. Children came along quickly (four in five years), born at home. They were raised to do chores, go to bed when told, do their best at school, tell the truth, treat others with respect, and suffer the consequences of inappropriate behavior.

Julie Rawson, author of Many Hands Make a Farm. Credit Clare Caldwell

All the children went to public school, as much to learn socialization as to get an education. Conversations round the dinner table expanded the scope of their education, as did talking in Spanish, encyclopedia quizzes and maps as wall décor. The NOFA community provided models of farm family life, including expectations of children doing chores. This gave them a good work ethic, leading to chances of paid jobs on other farms as they grew older.

Other children and young teens were drawn to the household as frequent visitors or as temporary residents. Julie calls them “children of the heart” and was happy to offer them a sanctuary from which to navigate their first rough transitions in life.

On the farm, Julie and Jack built up their soil at every opportunity, gathering organic matter wherever they went. Initially they fed themselves from a quarter-acre. After a few years, they expanded to sell at the farmers’ market. Later, Julie started a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture system) with 25 members, growing on an acre and a half, with hired workers, and a work-share option of four hours per week for a full share. They bought a Troybilt rototiller and wore out a complete set of tines every year in their rocky soil. This method worked for 30 years, upgrading to a wider tiller that could be pulled behind the four-wheel tractor they had bought, and a bed shaper. Julie calls herself a tillaholic, enjoying the results while becoming aware of the longer term damage happening.

In 2014 she became convinced by an impassioned talk by Graeme Sait, to focus on maximizing carbon in the soil as part of addressing climate change. Avoiding the oxidation of soil that comes with fluffing it up with a rototiller helps sequester carbon and reduce erosion. Julie became a convert to no-till, despite opposition from some of the workforce, and sold the tiller. Using mulches and more perennial crops are key parts of this strategy. They bought lots of rock dusts and added them to their fields, following the teachings of agronomist William Albrecht. By-then-grown son Dan was a big part of making this change happen.

The operating principles at MHOF are:

  • Cooperate with nature, focusing on building good soil, not on eliminating pests.
  • Healthy soil microbes are the highest goal, and the foundation of a strong farm.
  • A healthy plant is resistant to insects and disease. [Yes, healthy plants are those that are not diseased. That’s a tautology. It is agreed that a plant requires all three features of the disease triangle: a susceptible host, the presence of a disease-causing organism (the pathogen) and a favorable environment for the disease. But, is it your fault if your plant does not resist the disease? This statement seems to blame the victim for problems that occur.]
  • Exceptional health leads to exceptional results, another example of a statement proving itself.
  • Biodiversity is key, providing resilience and strengthening the farm as a whole.
  • Help the land grow nutritious food, by attending to soil fertility: test soils and amend as needed.
  • Mulch matters, adding organic matter, feeding the soil micro-organisms, keeping the nutrients cycling round.
  • Healthy natural landscapes include both plants and animals, and farm landscapes also benefit from animals.
  • Cover crops have many soil benefits and many uses.
  • Green growth is essential for feeding the soil micro-organisms year-round, as well as adding to the carbon in the soil.
  • Silage tarps are valuable to suppress vegetative growth. Yes, the plastic is not a sustainable material. But many growers have concluded that on balance silage tarps can do more good than harm. The time on the soil is short (March to May at MHOF) and the impact is less than tilling, or leaving the soil bare. The worm casts seen on the soil surface when the tarps are removed seem to prove no long-term harm.

About eight years after the kids had grown and left home, in 2007 MHOF started working with Almost Home, a program for former prisoners of the county jail, who had addiction problems. They raised money to pay these people. Two or three at a time stayed for some years, and became friends. Julie was happy when the physical work, fresh air and hearty healthy food brought about positive change in the lives of some of these struggling people. After eleven years of this challenging work, they decided to retire from the stressful work with the ex-prison men, some of whom relapsed into addiction, including two who died of overdoses.

MHOF also hired Clare Caldwell as Julie’s farming partner, and some more full and part-time staff. Clare brought breakfast sandwiches to the ex-con workers, and is got along with all kinds of people. She has been at MHOF since 2008, including birthing and raising three children in that time. She and Julie work together very well while competing in the nicest possible way to do the hardest work.

Jack Kittredge, author of Many Hands Make a Farm. Credit Clare Caldwell

The farm has an implicit guide for farm managers:

  • If you can’t say anything nice about someone present, don’t say anything at all. It’s OK to rag on those absent, with the understanding that “what’s said on the farm stays on the farm.”
  • Never ask someone else to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself (within your physical limitations).
  • Do exercises and affirmations before the crew arrives. Put a smile on your face. You’ll feel more alert, calmer and more open to what happens.
  • Be sure each day is well organized in advance. Have a written task list posted for those who forget.
  • Good morale follows from being occupied in something you enjoy or are good at. Know each person’s skills. Be ready to switch people around if your first estimate doesn’t work out.
  • Change things up. An hour is long enough for most people on any one task. Have contingency plans for different kinds of weather.
  • Give people as much authority as they want and can manage. Silently “interview’ workers for their next potential role on the farm.
  • Organize yourself out of a job. Hand over and move on. Line up the next task. Jack and Julie are now shedding overall responsibility for major parts of the farm management.
  • Hold a high standard for all your workers. Be clear about job descriptions and remuneration.
  • Distinguish between long-term workers, working shareholders and volunteers, making expectations clear.
  • Make it fun. Some like to sing, play word games or discuss thorny topics. Others do not.
  • Celebrate birthdays and important events. A cake, some music, a mention in the newsletter.
  • Eat together. Offer breakfast, have someone make lunch for the crew. Expect all to help with cleanup.
  • Offer incessant honest praise and appreciation.
  • Don’t be afraid to apologize and own your mistakes. This builds trust.
  • Resolve conflict by immediately addressing it in a non-judgmental way. Make agreements about future interactions.
  • Take all comers, at least once. Give everybody a fair chance. Half a day, or a day.

My reviewing came unraveled when I read that Julie and Jack did not support Covid distancing, masking or vaccinations. They believed their immunity levels (and existing intake of supplements) were strong enough to protect them from this newly emerged virus, as it does for flu. I’m happy for them that when they got Covid they both got mild cases. And may have avoided spreading it to people more vulnerable than them. Not everyone has been so lucky. Some of us have lost family members, or got Long Covid. My sympathies go out to the bereaved and those with chronic illness. I don’t get why anyone would choose to ignore the scientific evidence (once it started to emerge). Clearly the authors do believe much medical science and do take treatment for other conditions, and add preventative supplements to their fantastic diet. As they say, the politicization of the disease didn’t help us. Nor does demonizing people with different opinions, who may be living in a different situation.

After selling to a hotel chef, then a small health food store, then the Barre Insight Meditation Center every time they held a retreat, they finally had a lucky break as CSAs became more widespread and well-known.

In 1990, the federal government appropriated the word “Organic”, setting up a national inspection, certification and labeling organization. The individual statewide organic organizations joined in the National Organic Program. Soon Organic standards were allowing fudges to organic food production, such as outdoor “porches” for laying hens in densely packed poultry sheds.

Both Jack and Julie were working for NOFA, Jack on the financial and campaigning sides, Julie on coordinating the bulk organic supplies order and gathering volunteers. The NOFA Summer Conference included people from seven northeastern states, and had been run by the Vermont chapter. Sadly, it owed lots of money to two Vermont colleges, and some other chapters refused to share the debt. Julie and Jack saved the conference by finding a good location in Massachusetts, and persuading the MA chapter to host the event from 1987. They were able to get the conference back as a money-earning event and repay the Vermont loans.

They also revived publication of a NOFA newsletter, gearing up from one issue per year to six. Controversial issues were fearlessly aired (mosquito-eradication pesticides, sewage sludge as fertilizer, the industrialization of farming, big farm subsidies from taxes, the national expectation of cheap food, GMOs, and animal ID chips (dropped by the government after huge resistance from farmers).

The newsletter editors also ran seminars from 2008-2018, in conjunction with the Bionutrient Food Association, where Dan Kittredge worked. Interest in nutrient density of food lead into thinking about carbon sequestration, and no-till farming as a way to reduce carbon burn-up (carbon dioxide build-up).

Around 2015, Jack (in his mid-seventies) started to retire from NOFA/Mass involvement, and in 2020 Julie retired from her role as director. Their graceful exits were marred by a major disagreement with the NOFA Interstate Council at the end of 2020. Jack focused an issue of the newsletter, The Natural Farmer, on whether or not hydroponics should be allowed within Organics. Jack’s openness to airing dissent brought forth a blistering criticism from those who thought this idea unworthy of the newsletter.

For the conference, Julie proposed a debate about Covid vaccination and the New York state law closing religious exemptions. This idea was seen by many farmers as pointless and divisive. Instead, the topic went to an issue of The Natural Farmer, edited by Jack as his final issue. Some readers wanted to pull the issue, but it was too late. Is it censorship to exclude controversial topics, or is it avoidance of unhelpful conflict in order to focus on moving forward on agreed topics?

After 36 years working for NOFA, Julie (now 70) was happy to return to full-time farming, and continue educational work through a weekly farm newsletter and the Many Hands Sustainability Center, with weekly hosting of boys from a school providing for those recovering from sexual abuse; and seven workshops per year for members of the public. Jack is preparing to pass on their legacy, the farm, to a land trust. This means that their 55 acres cannot be further built on, and remains available to future buyers at a lower, non-development price.

Here are two people who were clear in their goals, applied themselves with gusto, achieved all their important aspirations, wrote it up, and roundly deserve to rest on their laurels.

Bell’s Bend Tennessee Farming and Education

Normally you could expect a “Cover Crops for the Month” post in the first week of the month, but October’s will be next week. I have been teaching at several events in middle Tennessee, and want to tell you about those, and include the slideshows for those that want a second look, or those who wish they had been there.

LONG HUNGRY CREEK FARM –
© 2012 photograph by Alan Messer [alanmesser.com]
We had a day and a half at Jeff Poppen’s 250 acre Long Hungry Creek Farm, where a very laid back outdoor Southeast Regional Biodynamic Farming Conference was going on. It’s in Red Boiling Springs, TN. Jeff is also known as the Barefoot Farmer, for  reasons that are obvious once you meet him. Jeff began making biodynamic preparations and using the biodynamic farming method in 1986. Jeff and colleagues ran a community-supported agriculture program from 1988-2022, and they have offered internship opportunities since 1997.
Jeff Poppen’s logo
Not all the participants practice biodynamics (I don’t), and the conference was quite eclectic. I gave a presentation about growing Asian Greens to a very lively, question-filled group. Here’s the slideshow:
Ira Wallace and I also hosted a Q&A session on Seed Saving and Community Living. We did answer two short questions about seed saving, but most of the interest was in community living. The questioners were thinking about cohousing, or cooperative farming, or intentional communities, and had very considered questions.
We stayed two nights in the eccentric historic Armour’s Hotel with many theme-decorated rooms. Mine was about Red Hats. Definitely an experience.
A room at the Armour’s Hotel, Red Boiling Springs. The hotel’s photo.
Then we went to the Nashville Food Project on Sunday. Nashville Food Project is a community food project that brings people together to grow, cook and share nourishing food. They do community gardens, food recovery and community meals including thousands of after-school meals for kids, meals for nursing homes and all sorts. They have a lovely building for meetings, meals, cooking and everything related.

In their gardens, they grow organic food intensively and share resources with others interested in growing their own food.

In their sparkling commercial kitchens, they use recovered, donated and garden-grown food to prepare and cook made-from-scratch meals. Donations come from farmers, grocers, restaurants and markets. 1 in 7 Nashvillians do not have access to the food they want and need. Currently 40% of all food produced in the USA is thrown away. This knowledge drives the Nashville Food Project to continually explore new ways to recover would-be wasted food and steward it toward its best and highest use… and what better use for food than to feed neighbors!In their community, they share nourishing meals in partnership with local poverty-disrupting nonprofits and community groups.

My presentation was on Year Round Vegetable Production, Year Round Vegetable Production Dawling 2023 60mins

We stayed two nights with Dr Brenda Butka and her husband Dr Tom John, who  were very welcoming hosts.They are founding members of the Bell’s Bend Organic Farms Conservation Corridor. Bells Bend Conservation Corridor’s mission is to promote and protect the rural character of the Bells Bend. (It’s within the city limits, and yet has never been built on.) They are working to establish an outdoor recreational, agricultural, and residential conservation district that serves as a county, state and regional planning model for open space preservation.

They are raising money to provide funding to individual land owners seeking conservation easements from the Land Trust for Tennessee. While developing and funding programs that promote farm education, environmental stewardship, and the importance of land preservation. They currently have over 350 acres in Tennessee Land Trust Conservation Easements.

The land currently includes Beaman Park and Bell’s Bend Park, open to the public.
Beaman Park, Bell’s Bend, Nashville, TN
On Monday, I spoke to the Women Farmers of Middle Tennessee at Old School Farm, where a Scottish philanthropist bought and renovated an abandoned school house and set up a non-profit farm employing people with disabilities.
They work together with MillarRich, a healthcare company that specializes in providing family-style foster care and employment services for adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They also work with The Store which operates a year-round free grocery store allowing people referred to them (and the referring agencies) to shop for their basic needs at no charge. They may shop for food to supplement their income during times of crisis and as they work toward self-sufficiency.
I gave a presentation for the Women Farmers of Middle Tennessee on Production Planning for Late Fall, Winter and Early Spring Vegetable Crops. Here’s the slideshow:
It was inspiring to find so many places doing good work around healthy food, good livelihood, food justice, fresh air and cooperation.

Book Review, The Seed Detective by Adam Alexander

 

The Seed Detective: Uncovering the Secret Histories of Remarkable Vegetables, Adam Alexander, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022. 306 pages, $22.00.

Adam Alexander is a seed collector, seed conserver, seed distributor, gardener, and a fascinating writer. He set out to find the origin of many vegetables, dividing the book into crops arriving from east of his home in Wales, and crops arriving from the west. He is a researcher and traveler, gourmet foodie, and one-time market gardener who couldn’t sell red Brussels sprouts.

He has joyfully searched out and found many rare, sometimes endangered (and in at least one case, the last known) seeds. He grows out the seeds he is given, and returns some seed to the person who lent them to him. He is very respectful of people’s cultures, and won’t grow for financial gain any crop that has been entrusted to him. He has enchanting stories of his efforts to seek out the seeds he’d heard about, in vegetable markets and dusty cupboard corners.

He has a website, podcast, videos and seed list at https://theseeddetective.co.uk/ He has 499 varieties of vegetable seeds, and grows out around 70 of them each year, in his garden, which includes a polytunnel (hoophouse). For some of the crops, he works with the Heritage Seed Library in the UK. If you live in the UK, he will send you a packet of seeds for a donation of £1 plus £1.50 for postage. As I write this, in August, many varieties are out of stock. Seeds are maturing, be patient.

Adam explains why garlic was fed every day to Egyptian pyramid builders; how chilies from 6000 BCE were found in a Mexican cave; why there is so much confusion between squash, pumpkins, zucchini/courgettes and marrows; and why giant Christmas lima beans are popular in northern Myanmar.

Christmas Lima Beans from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Agricultural history and archeology contain intriguing stories, and Adam tells these tales with humor, passion, insight. Maritime history is included, so we understand why and how certain beans were valued as storable foods for the crew on long journeys, incidentally spreading the leftover beans in the land of their arrival.

From the east, Britain received various peas, fava (broad) beans, carrots before they were orange, leeks (no, they really are not native to Britain!), asparagus, lettuce, garlic and many brassicas with unfamiliar names. From the west came tomatoes, green (“French”) beans and their dried offspring, maize in its many types, lima beans, runner beans, chili peppers and the whole squash-pumpkin hyphenated extended family (except Lagenaria siceraria gourds).

This book includes global histories and geography, and starts from a British perspective in the demarcation of East and West. There is a mistaken reference to Thomas Jefferson’s New York State home of Monticello. Elsewhere, the author correctly locates Monticello in Virginia. Jefferson did rent a house in New York City while Secretary of State. “The only person who never makes a mistake is the person who never does anything!” (Theodore Roosevelt)

Adam truly wants us all to enjoy healthy food – this is far from dry research. Vegetables have been industrialized to maximize profit for some at the expense of those who toil in the fields. Crops have, in some cases, been patented. Their flavors and nutrients have been ignored. We can change this. We can rebuild biodiversity, bring back flavor and the enjoyment of eating vegetables! We can put plants “at the heart of good cuisines and health” as Tim Lang says in his Foreword.

In his previous life, Adam was a film and television producer, used to traveling widely. In his introduction, Adam tells of an evening when his film crew took over the kitchen of their hotel in Donetsk, because they were hungry and the kitchen staff were on strike in protest at the foreign film crew staying there. Adam was able to shop well, with a very favorable currency exchange rate. He found some tennis-ball sized sweet red peppers with a fiery heart. They enjoyed their dinner and Adam was able to take some seeds home. This started his seed detective journey. From then on, he used every opportunity to seek out farmers’ markets and ask the stall-holders about local varieties. He started to build a seed library, because he realized some of the seeds were in danger of going extinct.

His began to wonder about how those crops had arrived in that country, and what was their place of origin. There were eight Centres of Diversity identified by Nikolai Vavilov, who created the world’s biggest seed bank, the All-Russian Research Institute. Since then, additional Centres of Diversity have been recognized, such as in Australasia and Africa. In this book, we meet plants from just three of those Centres: the Fertile Crescent in the Middle east, Mesoamerica, and the northern parts of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. These hilly or mountainous, tropical or sub-tropical regions are now associated with drought, but at the time of domestication 12,000 years ago, were rich in natural resources including rainfall. Our current day vegetables are the result of Neolithic farmers selecting plants to save for seed.

According to the historian Mary Beard, the Romans were the first society to export their food culture as part of their brand, Cabbages, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, lettuce and leeks all traveled with the legions, as familiar comfort food to fuel them for the invasions. Sophisticated Arabic irrigation systems enabled Moors invading Spain in the eighth century CE, to plant saffron, apricots, artichokes, carob, eggplants, grapefruits, carrots, coriander and rice, which all became basic ingredients of Spanish cuisine. Vegetables have been traveling the globe for a long time! Here I cannot include much of the particular seed tales, so read the book!

Adam Alexander shopping for seeds. https://theseeddetective.co.uk/my-book/

Adam’s first tale is of a local pea variety in Laos. Through an interpreter, he asked a market stall-holder about some pea seeds she had for sale. To his every question, her unvarying reply was “Of course”. They were peas, they grew tall, she saved the seed herself, and had been doing so for a long time, and of course, the whole pod was edible. When he got them back to Wales and planted them in late spring, they grew, and grew, topping his extended trellis. They produced abundantly and were delicious. His short row of peas also produced over a kilo of seeds!

Peas were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent over 8,500 years ago, from a twining winter annual in Syria. Peas we eat today come from two species, the round (mostly grown for drying) and the wrinkly (most fresh-eating peas). 2,000 years ago, the Syrian pea crossed with a wild climbing pea from the eastern Mediterranean area. This “modern” pea spread across the much of Asia and Europe. A third species of pea was independently domesticated in Ethiopia. In Europe up until the seventeenth century, most peas were grown to be dried and stored for winter. Later, farmers developed peas for fresh eating. At the end of the nineteenth century, the USDA had recorded 408 varieties of peas grown commercially, but by 1983, 90% had been lost, and only 25 appear in the records. This threat to human survival is mirrored with all edible crops.

Mysteries and scandals abound. One tall pea tale involves seed reputedly grown from one live among three seeds taken from an Egyptian tomb. It was shown to be identical to a common Dwarf Branching Marrowfat pea. And yet the charlatan continued in business, selling to gullible gardeners. In 1861 the Royal Horticultural Society in London tested 235 varieties of peas, and found only 11 worthy of merit (but what were their criteria?)

One of the peas in Adam’s collection is named Avi Joan, and came from Catalonia. Over ten feet tall, covered with pods of sweet tasty peas, still good when mature. A truly local variety, with only one known grower, it could have died out, but now has many growers in the UK.

The other tales of seeds from the east cover fava beans from Syria, carrots from Afghanistan, becoming orange in Holland, leeks domesticated in Egypt and Mesopotamia at least 4,500 years ago, Greek krambé (leafy greens) 2,600 years ago, asparagus depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphs in the third millennium BCE and growing wild (feral?) in Britain 2,000 years ago, lettuce domesticated eight thousand years ago perhaps in Kurdistan and Mesopotamia, and garlic originally from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The oldest garlic remains, dated to the fourth millennium BCE, were found in an Israeli cave near the Dead Sea.

Popping garlic for replanting at Twin Oaks.
Photo Bell Oaks

After this Adam considers arrivals from the west. Excavations in Mexico have given us a timeline of South American ancestors transitioning from being hunter-gatherers to farming 12,000- 9,000 years ago, after the supply of game decreased, and pressure on gathered crops reduced availability. Many crops were introduced from outside the immediate area, including amaranth, maize, squash and chilies. About 3,000 years ago, almost all the diet was farmed. About 500 years ago, these foods reached the Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

At this point we must acknowledge that European colonizers violently displaced and killed most of the native people in North America and the Caribbean and brought in abducted and enslaved Africans. In the history of Europe, we mentioned invaders from one country to another, in much earlier days, in some cases thousands of years earlier. The past history of the human race was not all peaceful. Current events are not all peaceful. The flow of foods from one culture to another is generally a better aspect of ourselves.

Columbus, when returning to Spain from the Bahamas in 1493, brought maize, tobacco, sweet potatoes, chilies and two species of beans. Twenty years later, Cortés brought from Mexico avocadoes, pineapples, cocoa, squash, more bean species, tomatoes, cassava and potatoes. These crops from a small corner of southern Mexico have become embedded in European food culture.

Tomatoes are all descended from the wild tomato Solanum pimpinellifolium, indigenous to coastal Peru. “Common” beans, Phaseolus vulgaris originated in an area from Northern Mexico to Argentina, and were grown in Britain by 1597.

Pinar del Rio Bean Seed Bank at Finca Hoyo Bonito, Cuba. Display of black bean seeds. Photo Pam Dawling

Identifying the wild ancestor of corn took scientists until the 1930’s, because the changes from teosinte to modern day maize are profound. Teosinte is a short weedy grass without any cob-like ears. It has a head consisting of about 12 kernels in two rows along a hard stem. It is now accepted that a single domestication event brought maize into the world. Domestication was a feat of impressive crop selection from genetically diverse teosinte enabling rapid mutations. The common idea that evolution takes centuries of gradual changes is not true. As if by magic, maize suddenly appeared at archeological sites. It didn’t take many generations of Neolithic plant breeding 10,000 or more years ago in the Balsas Valley in SW Mexico to open the way for breeding the 20,000 landraces of teosinte and maize that exist today.

The oldest evidence of lima beans is from 8,500 years ago, in Guitarrero Cave in Peru.

In northern Mexico and Puerto Rico the limas are the smaller more drought-resistant and heat-tolerant Sieva type. Ships returned to Europe and to Portuguese and Spanish colonies in Columbus’s time with lima beans to feed the crew. Portuguese ships from the fifteenth century on sailed round the Cape of Good Hope to southern India. The pallar types of Lima beans from northern Chile and Peru, probably crossed the Pacific to the colony in the Philippines, from the sixteenth century onwards. By the end of the eighteenth century, both types of lima beans were commonly found in China and India.

Lima beans do not grow outdoors in the British climate, but their close relative, runner beans, native to high elevations of Mexico and Central America, do very well. There is some evidence that they were domesticated by 4,000 BCE. They reached England around the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Chili peppers to grow from The Seed Detective collection

The next tale is of chili peppers (spelled chilli in the UK). What is the fascination with eating the hottest possible peppers? The earliest find of domesticated chilies is in a cave in the Tehuacán Valley in south-central Mexico, and dates from 5,000-6,000 BCE.  Five species have been domesticated, starting 7,000 years ago in Mesoamerica. The species with the hottest peppers, C. chinense, is native to the Caribbean, the Yucatan and Central America, and includes the habanero, (there is no tilde over the n, no ny pronunciation – that is just English speakers trying too hard to sound foreign!), the Dragon’s Breath, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion and Scotch Bonnet, popular in Jamaica.

The Arawak people in the Bahamas were eating chilies when Columbus arrived in 1492 and they had arrived in Europe by 1542. Chilies traveled so fast that a Dutch botanist named the C. chinense species believing they came originally from China! People in India might not realize chili peppers came from Mexico! Chilies became such a big part of cuisine on the Indian subcontinent that every region now has its own special variety. Surprisingly, chilies did not reach North America until the Spanish brought them at the end of the sixteenth century.

Lastly we turn to the pumpkin and squash family (Cucurbita). Domestication of squash started 10,000 years ago in the Americas. Before Columbus brought back squashes from the Americas, white-flowered bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) were widely grown in the so-called “Old World” for the edible seeds and as containers, and sometimes the flesh was eaten (some was toxic). This led to confusion in names between the two incompatible genera.

Today we divide squash into 4 species. C. pepo is native to North America, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. Acorn squash and maxima squashes, such as those cultivated by the Algonquin, were valuable to the early colonizers who did not have ovens, but were able to bake hard-skinned squashes (emptied of seeds and refilled with milk and spices) in the fire ashes.

There are two types of C. moschata (native to Mesoamerica, probably northern Peru), the ones we know as Butternut squash, and the giant crooknecks, such as Tahitian Butternut, not to be confused with C. mixta Cushaw squashes (native to Florida). Many names were used for different subgroups of squashes, pumpkins, melons, gourds, cucumbers. Immature squash of many kinds have been consumed, and often called zucchini. Most canned pumpkin and commercial pumpkin pies are made from butternut squash.

Green Striped Cushaw Winter Squash, a Mixta variety, also known as Striped Crookneck. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

C. maxima is probably a descendent of wild C. andreana, native to parts of Argentina and Uruguay, where it became one of the key crops of the Native Guarani people. 1,500-year-old whole squashes have been found in Salta, in the mountains of northwest Argentina. The Spanish brought C.maxima north, where it became a widespread part of the cuisine of Native Americans, and by the end of the sixteenth century, it was found across the European colonies there. C. maxima squashes reached Japan in the eighteenth century, where they were bred to make distinctive varieties and types like Kabocha and Kuri.

A fascination with growing giant pumpkins (or squash) has developed in the last 500 years. This is not about the food supply any more than the quest for the hottest chili is.

Today, desires for nutritional value, flavor and quality are moving public opinion away from the drive to more, bigger, better at any cost. That path led us to poor quality food without much flavor, that relied on pesticides rather than pest resistance or tolerance, fungicides rather than disease-resistance, and heavy inputs of chemical fertilizers to achieve the touted high yields.

Research and development on how to feed the planet with the climate in chaos, population growing and available land shrinking, is turning more towards cultivating biodiversity and valuing sustainable and traditional farming methods. It is important for the well-being of us all that we do not divide the people who are scraping together to buy the cheapest, mostly ultra-processed, unhealthy food, from the people who can afford to feed themselves organic, sustainably produced food. Small-scale diverse vegetable farming is capable of generating more income per acre than large-scale monocropping. Our task is to ensure food justice.

Diverse farming will give us resilience in the face of climate change. Collaboration between farmers in distributing their produce is a success for us all. Home gardeners providing food for their households are part of the bigger picture of feeding the world. I learned from Adam’s book that there are more than a million acres of gardens in the UK, which represents more than 8% of all land growing crops. Maintaining local varieties can produce high yields, and, again, give us resilience. Restoring and maintaining seed libraries of local varieties around the world will bring us more strength than being in thrall to agrochemical mega-businesses. The website has a Save-and-Sow section with growing tips.

Author Adam Alexander

The Real Organic Project update 2023

I wrote about the Real Organic Project here in June 2018. In February 2023 I found their booth at the Pasa conference and chatted with the people there. I picked up a few leaflets, and signed up for their electronic newsletter. They also have a podcast; I also discovered they are in the middle of their 2023 Virtual Symposium on Sunday Feb 26 and Sunday March 5 3-5pm EST. A virtual series of talks with more than 30 prominent organic farmers, scientists, chefs, and climate activists.

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Real Organic Project logo

Why We Need the Real Organic Project

The Real Organic Project was formed in January 2018 to educate, promote, and advocate for traditional biological farming, which used to be called “Organic Farming.” The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) was a great idea that has gone wrong. Much about the National Organic Program is a success, and most of the farms being certified deserve to be called real organic. But the farm products from a tiny minority of large industrial operations now being certified are at odds with the original intent of organic farming. Unfortunately, these few operations produce a large, and growing, proportion of the food labeled organic on the market today.

The NOP has been increasingly reduced to a marketing brand, focused on the verifiability of inputs: seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and livestock feed and medications, with little regard to other aspects of sustainable regenerative, biological farming.

As CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and hydroponics (growing crops in a solution of plant nutrients) became an ever bigger part of the certified organic products, the public has been misled. The real organic farms who still make up the vast majority of certified operations (if not the volume of products) are being lost in the smoke and mirrors. A story written by Cornucopia noted that the remaining 6 “organic” dairy farms in Texas (all large CAFOs) produce one and a half times more milk than the 450 certified family dairy farms in Wisconsin. Organic family dairy farms being driven out of business in Vermont and California by CAFOs every day.

The Cornucopia Institute was founded about ten years ago. One of their first activities was to expose industrial-scale confinement dairies with 4,000-10,000 cows producing organic milk.

Photo from the Cornucopia Institute. This image of Aurora Dairy in Dublin, Texas, from Cornucopia’s Flyover Galleries, vividly shows how Aurora “pastures” their dairy cows. Photo from 2014.

The Real Organic Project is intended as a catalyst to reinvigorate the organic farming movement to fill the void left by failures of integrity, transparency, and public process in setting the NOP standards. To support the Real Organic Project, please visit their website to become a member.

The Real Organic Project requires tomatoes to be grown in fertile soil. The USDA allows hydroponic tomatoes to be certified organic.

The Real Organic Project requires berries to be grown in fertile soil. The USDA allows hydroponic berries to be certified organic.

The Real Organic Project requires cows to be raised on pasture. The USDA allows confinement dairy operations to be certified organic.

The Real Organic Project requires chickens to be raised on pasture. The USDA certifies eggs from chickens who have never been outside.

Cornucopia photo of Green Meadow “Organic” eggs come from chickens living like this: The scale of this operation in Saranac, Michigan, can be appreciated by looking at the semi-trailers in the foreground. These two-story houses likely contain over 100,000 birds. The farm itself is licensed for over 1 million. Screen porches on the side of the buildings (qualifying as outdoor access for the birds) are visible. 2014 photo.

Real Organic has an add-on label to the USDA Organic label. This wrap-around label prohibits hydroponic and CAFO production, instead requiring practices that maintain and improve the health of the soil. With this add-on label, farmers are creating a new way of communicating their practices to consumers who care. The Real Organic Project’s goal is transparency in the marketplace through “Know Your Farmer” videos. Through this effort, they have brought together farmers, scientists, eaters, and advocates whose common interest is to support real organic farming.

Real Organic Standards

The 22-page Real Organic Project Standards (updated April 2022) are on their website: Real Organic Standards.

Click to access 2022UpdatedROPStandardsVer.Final_.pdf

To sum up briefly, the standards are:

  1. Origin of Livestock. In NOP rules, producers can continuously transition dairy animals into organic over time. This standard ends that loophole.
  2. Grazing Requirement. There is strong evidence that current NOP grazing requirements are not being met. This standard tightens the current standard, and it will be enforced.
  3. Grown in the Ground. Current NOP decisions permit 100% hydroponic production with no relationship between the soil and plants. This standard mirrors the EU standard that requires crops to be grown in the soil, in contact with the subsoil, in contact with the bedrock.

    Fauxganic hydroponic tomatoes. Photo from Keep the Soil in Organic KSIO
  4. Soil Management. Current NOP language requires certified farms to maintain and improve the fertility of the soil, but these standards are often not being met. This standard simply reinforces the language and intention of OFPA (Organic Foods Production Act) and the NOP language.
  5. Greenhouse Production. NOP standards around greenhouse production have never been set. This standard prohibits the use of 100% artificial lighting and requires an energy plan to show steady progress in reducing the carbon footprint.
  6. Animal Welfare. Following the recent rejection of the animal welfare standard (known as OLPP, Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices), CAFO production of poultry has become accepted in NOP certification. Our standard requires genuine outdoor access for all animals. It also addresses other animal welfare concerns, such as tail docking and beak trimming, that are needed in farming systems that allow overcrowding of livestock.
  7. Split Farms. This standard limits the circumstances in which an organic farm can produce non-certified crops.

 

 

 

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: The New Farmer’s Almanac, Vol V

 

The New Farmer’s Almanac from the Greenhorns

The New Farmer’s Almanac, Vol V 2021, Grand Land Plan, by the Greenhorns, Feb 2021, 400 pages, softcover, $25, illustrated with B&W photos and drawings. Distributed by Chelsea Green.

This is a great winter treasure trove to dip into by the woodstove after darkness brings you in from the fields. Or to absorb you on snowy days. Or to leave by a frequently visited seat (!) for browsing. It’s a compilation of pictures and writings as an antidote to helplessness. Here you will find reports from the fields, shores, woods, beehives, kitchens, watersheds, and compost piles.

There are historic pieces, such as The Diggers’ Song by Gerrard Winstanley written in 1649, and very current writing on living in a time of racism, Covid, hate crimes, climate disaster and white nationalist surges. This Grand Land Plan is a vision of the future of food systems and land use, put together by farmers, gardeners, poets, activists, grocers, nature-lovers and agitators. Here are solutions to give us hope and ideas on what to do to recover from the challenges, dismantle inequity, restore our chances of a beautiful world. You can browse for what you need each day: poetry, maps, comics, portraits, lessons from honeybees, campaigns for local food, reports of successes, thoughtful prose on the principles and practice for fair and responsive land use for everyone, or a design for a seaweed commons.

The Greenhorns are a group working to promote, recruit and support the next generation of farmers, through publications and events. Covid has led them to use more digital productions, including EARTHLIFE, initially centered in Downeast Maine, along the Pennamaquan River, where the Greenhorns are based in the old Pembroke Iron Works. The group has several ventures in the town, including carpentry, a boat shop, mycological lab, agrarian library, art spaces and living spaces. They offer monthly naturalist trainings.

The contents are divided into monthly sections with a theme. January’s theme is Resistance and Recovery. Small-scale farmers producing healthy food for local eating, have become the envy of many of those in the big cities. The difficulties of 2020 (and 2021) have thrown home food production and working together into a better light, and shown the deep importance of friends and companions. Vegetable seeds sold out, as did CSA shares. Security is in the potato patch, in knowing how to feed your household with what you have on hand, fix things, organize, be a leader – things that truly matter. Not money in the bank, flashy clothes, having a large office.

People have become aware of the fragility of industrial supply chains and the value of local small businesses and the people who work in them. Mutual aid and support, community-based economies, revolving savings and loans, shared healthcare funding groups – all help people get through hard times and thrive. Doing small things that make a difference can empower us to persist and make more differences. As one pioneering farmer says “When we started, we wanted a revolution! . . . Then we realized, it’s the incremental changes that affect a revolution. And then you realize you have had a revolution. You just didn’t see it coming.” The Black communities have long used mutual aid strategies to survive and uplift each other. Black farmer cooperatives have a long history.

We can get hope from reading about reforestation. By the late 1900s, forest area in Denmark had almost rippled since 1800. Swiss forestation had increased from 19% in the 1860s to 32% in the 1980s. Japan, New Zealand, Cuba and Scotland have all undertaken large scale reforestation. An article describes New Zealand’s One Billion Trees Programme, part of a range of initiatives to build a sustainable economy for the people while also meeting their international climate change commitments.

The articles move from political to poetic to practical, and round again. Should farms set aside areas to encourage species diversity, while “sacrificing” the fields with edge-to-edge plowing and cultivation? Or would we do better to incorporate the diversity into the whole of the farm? Here we can probe this question by considering soil life; soil cover; water, nest and shelter functions; flowering plants (food for insects, birds and mammals); native plants; plant structure and composition (diversity); habitat patches and corridors. This leads to thinking about the effects on humans of time in nature. The Japanese have “forest-bathing” therapy. Perhaps it’s time to recognize the value of “farm-bathing” too.

There’s a Hawaiian glossary of terms related to land and water use. You may not need the actual words, but the concepts are such valuable food for thought! There are wise quotes from Kalaninuiliholiho Kamehameha, Ursula Le Guin and Janene Yazzie. There is material to read on pesticide spraying, fishing, pruning, shopping during Covid, cottonwood tree decline and propagation, trapping fish, spruce bark beetles, farming seaweed. Did you know it takes 11-16 years for a 4ft tall rockweed to recover from being cut back 16ins from the holdfast?

Read about capitalism, cooperation, Medieval European land enclosure, colonization, and other forms of land tenure. Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize in economics, researched global commons-based resource management systems. She found that each represents a unique set of ways in which people work together to ensure the longevity and health of the resources they depend on. It isn’t the land or the resources that causes commons to succeed, but the process by which people relying on those resources engage with them and with their fellow commoners. Ostrom lists 8 general principles used.

Garrett Hardin’s 1968 infamous essay The Tragedy of the Commons suggests that individuals will destroy the commons by prioritizing their own needs until the system collapses. The assumption is that financial gain is always more important than social networks, or sense of fairness, integrity, or desire to be well-thought-of. Hardin’s theory was not based on research of actual commons-based management systems. Sadly, he is better-known than Ostrom, and the myth that personal ownership is the most effective and logical way to divide resources, is often spoken of as fact.

Sixty miles east of Alaska, the Gwich’in community of Old Crow had to deal during the pandemic with two uninvited visitors from the city of Quebec, seeking refuge, but bringing no gloves, no tools and a risk that they had the virus with them. The community had limited access to healthcare, many vulnerable elders and a bad history of white people bringing in diseases. Members of the Tribal government met them at the airport, isolated them and sent them back.

Many writers thread their politics through their observations. Sheltering in place, working from home, learning to bake sourdough bread and grow kale are not too hard for the privileged, with spacious comfortable housing, outdoor space, computers, desk jobs, and garden space. “By actively and consciously cashing in on my privilege, I have placed myself in an environment in which feeling relief is possible.” (Quinn Riesenman). Others ponder how to shelter in place when unable to earn money to pay for shelter.

I discovered the work of George Washington Carver maybe 10 years ago, when gathering information about growing sweet potatoes. In the Almanac you can read his instructions for growing peanuts, and how to build up worn out soils. Makshya Tolbert has written a eulogy to her late grandmother, who came from Cameroon, in the form of an ode to peanuts. There are photos of recipe cards from Black women in domestic service. A way of establishing an identity.

The Indigenous Corn Keepers Conference of Uchben Kah in January 2020 brought together indigenous farmers to share experience and cultural attitudes about corn. Did you know corn is one of the few plants that can coexist with black walnut?

I loved Ang Roeli’s essay Radicalize the Hive, on what honeybees can teach us about social change. There is proof in Spanish cave paintings that people gathered honey from bee colonies 8,000 years ago. There is evidence of honey-gathering 15,000 years ago, long before farming. The author followed the ritual of “telling the bees” when the Covid pandemic started. “If we come together now, we could get sick, and many of us could die.” Their response was “If we were apart, and could not hold each other, even for a short while, we would most certainly die.” You can read this metaphorically if you prefer. I was taken aback to see the chapter illustrated with a photo of paper wasps, but then, many people are afraid of stinging insects, and don’t look long enough to distinguish one from the other.

Learn about the history of land tenure in Puerto Rico. It is indeed tragic that the lands of the sugar lords were, in many cases, sold to the multi-national seed magnates. 122 years after sugar plantations, the land is still not in the hands of the local people.

Read the September 19, 1942 front page of the Poston Chronicle, published in the Poston, Arizona concentration camp for Japanese-Americans, which was located on the lands of the Colorado River Indian Reservation, against the objections of the Tribal Council. The editorial proposes changes to the co-operative farm management system, with five year leases on a sharecropping basis. Clearly the prisoners didn’t expect to return to their homes in California any time soon.

History is interwoven with memoirs. A Farm Hand’s Perspective explores the challenges and benefits of working on an organic vegetable farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills. “I have no idea how to quantify right livelihood, proximity to nature’s beauty, and the slow pace of seasonal, rural living. The downsides are much easier to count – long hours, low wages, no healthcare – and due to our socialization in a capitalist society, these are easy to fixate upon.”

For a different slant on life, read about developing native plant materials for roadside dust mitigation in southern New Mexico. Yes, people are researching this, and have promising plants that are drought-tolerant, perennial, quick to establish and able to deal with high salt levels.

Michael McMillan writes about a serendipitous meeting on the road with a mycologist and botanist, who taught him to identify wildflowers, cactuses, shrubs and trees, by first identifying the plant family and noting what types grow where. This practice of reading the landscape informed Michael’s career as an ecological landscape designer.

Colleen Perria writes about restoring oak savanna in the southern Great Lakes bioregion. Oaks are fire-resistant and the Native peoples used fire, producing the savanna, with oaks, grasses, flowers and shrubs. But later the land was cleared by settlers to grow field crops. When abandoned, dense young forests grew up. Concrete came later. We falsely “remember” that deep primeval forests occupied the land before the white settlers, when in fact, that land had been a savanna for ages.

Catherine Bennett writes about composting those glossy political candidate flyers, along with dead lambs and reed canary grass. Will the microbes be able to break down the inks and other chemicals, some probably toxic? Journalist Bill Moyer got tested and found he was home to 84 health hazards. Why do we produce so much waste that isn’t safe to be around?

Back to land reform – this time in Scotland. The public has the Right to Roam across private land, provided they do no damage. Between 2003 and 2016, a set of land reform acts established a diversity of alternative land tenure arrangements, intending to reach 100,000,000 acres of community land ownership by 2020. They only managed just over half a million. Parliament reported that 432 individuals in 2013 owned 50% of the private land. But there has been good progress. The entire 5,000-acre island of Ulva was bought by the residents. The Scottish government has supported these transfers, with the message that if you hold title to land, you also have the responsibility to ensure that its use balances your private profit with public good.

How about this for a $64,000 question: “Is fixing trophobiosis the key to beating everything from Coronavirus to locust swarms to climate change?” Trophobiosis is a symbiotic association between organisms where food is obtained or provided. Locust swarms are one symptom of land degradation and poor land management, where trophobiosis has gone awry. Land degradation leads to chronic drought and flooding, followed by soil erosion and loss of organic matter and nutrients, then pest invasions and increased disease levels in crops, livestock and humans. Covid-19 crossed over to humans from wildlife, where the contact was closer than was wise. Synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers cause imbalances that lead to pest and disease outbreaks. Francis Chaboussou writes about this theory in Healthy Crops: A New Agricultural Revolution. It leads to a unified theory of earth repair.

A traditional Hopi dryland farmer in Arizona describes his heritage crops including corn, beans, melons, squash and gourds. He is in a line of 250 generations of farmers, and knows how to grow food when nature provides 6-10 inches of rain each year. As a youth he worked with his grandfather and studied agriculture at Cornell University. He often wondered at the recommendations in his course. He could not see a need for a 14-row planter. An agricultural economics class explained that American farmers are locked into a cycle that demands high yields (because food prices are low). They are trapped by the financial costs, and the devastating psychological dependence, to need extreme efficiency. Hopi farming is not to make money but to survive and continue their culture. Agriculture and spirituality are closely linked.  Despite more than 2,000 years of these methods of crop production, these methods are often called primitive! Hopi plant corn anywhere from 6-18ins deep, depending on the soil moisture availability. Rows are 6ft apart, with 10-20 kernels in each hole.

I have picked out some articles and left others unmentioned. I’ve no idea how to review poetry, for instance. You, too, can pick and choose what to read in this book. Different subjects speak to us at different times. I have named some people and left many unnamed. A review can only say so much – you need to see the whole book to get the whole benefit. The Greenhorns have done an outstanding job compiling this almanac. You will eventually reach the back cover, and appreciate what you have learned, been uplifted by, and been spurred to act on. (Of course, you might start at the back of the book, nothing to stop you.)

There are four pages of careful image credits and five pages of the 99 contributors’ names, locations and occupations. Sadly, no index.

To submit something for the February 2023 edition of the New Farmer’s Almanac, Volume VI Adjustments and Accommodations, send  to almanac@greenhorns.org by March 2022. Perhaps you have something on building, planting, community land ownership, transformative finance, citizen science, rotational strategies, wildcrafting, rooftop gardens, seed migration, or the art of the possible.

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Book Review: Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys

Book Review: Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys: Recipes, techniques and traditions from around the world, by Sandor Ellix Katz.

Chelsea Green, 2021, 252 pages, hardcover, $35, color photos throughout.

This brand new book will make an amazing gift for your friend who is very enthused about all kinds of fermented foods and drinks. Sandor Katz is the world’s most well-known and respected advocate of all things fermented, and the author of four previous books on the subject. This book includes directions and recipes for over 60 fermented foods from across the world. Sandor traveled the globe learning, teaching and tasting every day. And this time, Sandor had a camera, and the pictures are fascinating. This is his first book in almost ten years, so you can be sure there are many foods you haven’t met before.

To his credit, Sandor shows deep respect for the cultures (human, fungal and bacterial) that he encounters, and invites us to do so too. He describes the traditional techniques as well as the customs and ceremonies attached to the ferments. Here are some well-known fermented foods, such as sauerkraut (in a chocolate cake), tempeh, cheeses, and breads, and also much less well-known ones like pickled tea leaves, Dan Chang egg sausages, Alaskan stinkheads (salmon), and Peruvian Chicha de jora. Sandor reminds us how much work sustenance takes, and what a wide range of skills and knowledge are involved.

After youthful discoveries of palm wine and millet beer in Niger, Sandor found books for home brewers technical and off-putting, with their emphasis on chemistry and sanitation. Global alcohol makers had other traditions, as had the fermenters of other foods, to preserve the food and add flavor and safety by preventing pathogens. Some ferments, consumed raw, may provide beneficial bacteria.

Fermentation varies across the world, depending on climate, which foods are abundant, and what storage facilities are available. Ideas and techniques have spread from people to people, although sadly, sometimes extinguished by colonization.

The book is organized by fermentation substrate (sugars, vegetables, grains, starchy tubers, mold cultures, beans, seeds, milk, meat, and fish). Due to his fame and fermentation friends, Sandor was able to visit many small villages. Fortunately for us, when Sandor had to hurry home from Tasmania (wearing a gift of a home-made mask) after Covid-19 struck, he realized he suddenly had time to write a book!

The simplest ferments are sugary fruits and plant saps, including the recent excitements: “drinking enzymes” (young fruit wine) and “cleaning enzymes” made from vegetable and fruit scraps for killing mold and general wet cleaning. Fermenting vegetables is recommended as a gateway into fermentation, because it is simple and safe, and yields results fairly quickly. Also, fermented vegetables are delicious, nutritious and rich in probiotic bacteria. It seems likely that China is where fermenting vegetables with salt started. Sandor has eight short videos of his travels in China, each highlighting one realm of fermentation. You can find them on YouTube by searching for “People’s Republic of Fermentation.”

Pao Cai is a Chinese fermentation method using a perpetual brine. New batches of vegetables can be pickled in sequence, adding salt, sugar and spices as needed to restore the flavor of the brine, which can live for years. Sometimes the vegetables are sundried for a day before immersion in the brine, to keep the pickles crunchy. There are recipes for both methods.

I mentioned the sauerkraut chocolate cake earlier. This recipe intrigued me, because I usually am not a fan of vegan cakes, finding them flat-tasting and dull (or over-sugared). But I know a good vegan chocolate cake that includes a little cider vinegar. I’m not usually a fan of vinegar either. This cake is moist and tasty, so I expect the sauerkraut chocolate cake to also be tasty. Sandor explains that the sourness of the kraut is mostly neutralized by the alkaline baking soda, and the reaction between them causes the cake to rise. Inspiring!

Pickle soup is a thing. Previously my standby for making soup when there seems to be nothing in the house, and the garden is covered in snow, was garlic soup. The recipe started: “Gird up your loins, take your courage in both hands and peel 6 whole bulbs of garlic”. It’s delicious, the flavor mellows in the cooking. The source of the pickle soup recipe, Coppa Restaurant in Juneau, Alaska, uses curried kelp pickles.

Grains and starchy tubers are dietary staples, and fermenting them can unlock nutrients, pep up their mild flavors, and even convert them into alcohol. Salt-rising bread is a traditional Appalachian food with a unique fermentation process. The simple recipe is in the book. The raising agent is not yeast, but the bacterium Clostridium perfringens. The name may give you pause, but microbiologists have studied salt-rising bread and found no dangerous bacteria present. A fresh starter is made for each batch, from a little baking soda, fermented with milk, cornmeal and flour, for about 12 hours. The hot liquids kill most of the yeast and unwanted bacteria.

The author clearly enjoys meeting community millers and fermenters, who provide a service for their neighbors. Oat “milk” is gaining fans in the global north. Here’s how to make your own, soaking and then fermenting oats in water for up to 5 days.

Starchy tubers have mostly come a long way from their toxic predecessors. Read the history of the potato, if you are in any doubt! The original cassava varieties were similarly bitter and toxic. South America has many other starchy tubers, consumed both fermented and unfermented locally, but little known outside their bioregion. Included is a recipe for Chicha de Yuca y Camote, using yucca (cassava) and sweet potato. You can make it just with sweet potato if you lack cassava.

In many places, Indigenous practices have been lost because of suppression and worse. This book includes a short section on North American Indigenous fermentation, such as Cherokee cornbread with a small amount of wood ash mixed into the dough. Ancestral practices can be revived and celebrated. Chef Sean Sherman of the Oglala Lakota Sioux has started an organization called the Indigenous Food Lab, working together with others to restore their food cultures.

Mold Cultures is the title of the next chapter. These cultures also use starches, but rather than spontaneous fermentation (as in the previous chapter), here we are looking at cultivated filamentous fungi (such as koji, Aspergillus oryzae) on grains and legumes. These molds do have more precise growing requirements than the spontaneous fermentations do. Start with small batches and take notes and photos! Find ways to keep the right temperature (oven with the pilot on? insulated boxes with incandescent lightbulbs? heating pads?) There are detailed instructions on growing koji on rice, barley and other grains, seeds, beans and starchy tubers. Koji is used in brewing sake, making miso and other foods. From Switzerland comes garum, a fermented fish sauce. Vegetable garums, usually made from food scraps (which can include coffee grounds), are also explained.

Because of my familiarity with tofu and tempeh making, I was especially interested to read those sections. Tempeh is a fermentation of filamentous fungi on cooked soybeans, creating a delicious protein food. I enjoyed seeing the photos of the small-scale commercial production in Indonesia. A surprise for me were the tempeh bowls served at a café in Amsterdam. Edible soup bowls, which are briefly baked before serving. To get bowls of the right size to eat as well as hold a serving of soup, they use Puy lentils and crushed lupine seeds as substrate, and plastic bowls as forms for the shape.

Tempeh can also be grown on whole or chunked boiled potatoes. I read that fried potato tempeh is especially delicious, nutty like chestnuts. That’s a recipe I want to try!

Mao Dofu is moldy tofu, which might not sound appetizing, but has a creamy texture, and is widely enjoyed in China. You can use tempeh starter to make mao dofu, if you can’t find the real mao dofu starter.

There is also fermented tofu, called furu or dofuru. Until refrigeration, there was no way to keep tofu fresh, except by using a fermentation method, after making mao dofu. The initial fungal ferment keeps the product safe from harmful bacteria. Do not shortcut by fermenting tofu in plastic wrap, or you risk cultivating the very harmful Clostridium botulinum.

Some fermented foods have been sensationalized with offensive words like weird and bizarre. You may not like all fermented foods, but there is no call for rudeness towards the people who enjoy a food you don’t like. Sensationalizing foods from other cultures to get laughs, shudders, fame or to make money is unkind and chauvinistic. Rather, we can celebrate the diversity of foods and the ingenuity of the people who create them.

Fermentation used to be considered a mistake in coffee production. Clean and sweet flavors were preferred. Fermentation, which facilitates removing the pulp from the coffee seed, had been a useful tradition. As yeast and bacteria consume the mucilage, they create flavored by-products, which add “mouth-feel” or viscosity to the beverage. This natural process works best at 50-60% humidity. At higher humidity, molds can grow. Below 50%, the beans dry without much fermentation happening. A product we think we know well has a fermentation back story too.

The part about fermentation removing the slime coating from the coffee seeds reminds me that we use the same process when wet-processing saved tomato, cucumber and melon seeds. After a few days, the clean seeds emerge from their slimy coating and it is easy to wash and dry the seeds.

Sadly, in the global north, fermented foods have moved from traditional village food preservation skills to become niche foods for well-off, mostly white, people. “The fermentation industry, like any other, has a whiteness problem” as Miin Chan wrote on the Eater website. The people making money from copying indigenous cultures are almost all white. Sandor Katz acknowledges his privilege in the world, leading to this wonderful book, and seeks to understand the perspectives of the food creators who do not have the same privileges.

Fermented milk products include naturally occurring clabbered milk, and deliberately cultured yogurt, kefir and others. Ah! Now I know what SCOBYs (such as kefir grains) are: Symbiotic Communities of Bacteria and Yeast!

Yogurt starters have been made from inner tree bark, unripe fruits, St John’s wort, sorrel, white stonecrop, ants, clarified butter, buttermilk and rain-water. Most yogurt-makers save back a portion of each batch to be the starter for the next. This practice, known as “back-slopping”, is common in fermented foods. A technique for immigrants was (is?) to saturate a cloth with the culture, dry it and pack it among clothes. Sandor has done this successfully, keeping the resulting culture alive and productive for years.

My most appetizing chapter was the one on cheeses! I, too, love blue cheeses and very ripe soft cheeses, and strong-flavored mature hard cheeses. Dr Johnny Drain is quoted saying “The perception of rancidity and oxidation in foods and fats are culturally elastic and context-dependent.” Mild rancidity adds richness and complexity.

Only in the far North are meat and fish fermented without combining with other preservation methods –  the cold temperatures provide some preservation. Meanwhile, in Australia, Bruce Kemp is making salamis of possum, wallaby, horse, hare, goat and boar, on a mission to increase consumption of these animals which damage agricultural crops and the environment.

One way to ferment meat and fish is to add a carbohydrate source to feed the lactic acid fermentation. Traditionally in Japan, sushi consumed beyond the coastal areas where the fish is caught and can be consumed immediately, the fish is fermented in rice. Nowadays we see refrigerated raw fish served with vinegar on rice, in imitation of the traditional flavor. This fermented fish is known as narezushi.

The book’s epilogue “A Whole World in a Jar,” reminds us that across the whole world, fermentation is practiced in some form. Fermentation traditions vary, but the basis is that people ferment what id abundant, to save it for later. This reduces food waste, and keeps people fed and healthy. May your next year include more fermented local abundance!

For more information, go to Sandor’s website www.wildfermentation.com. For an inscribed, signed copy of Fermentation Journeys, order from Sandor’s friends at Short Mountain Cultures at.

The Chelsea Green Publishers website includes a video about the Fermentation Journeys book.

Book Review: Vicki Hird, Rebugging the Planet

Vicki Hird, Rebugging the Planet:

The Remarkable Things that Insects (and Other Invertebrates) Do – And Why We Need to Love Them More

Chelsea Green Publishing, September 2021, 224 pages, $17.95

Vicki Hird has a passion for insects, and this book brings home to us how much depends on the well-being of invertebrates in the world. Insects are a cornerstone in our ecosystem, and we must reverse the current dangerous decline in bug populations (40% of insect species are at risk of extinction and 33% more are endangered). We are heading towards “Insectageddon.” After reading this book, I found myself being much more careful about gathering up insects inside the house and taking them outside, where I imagine they will thrive better. Did you know that spiders rest calmly in your gently closed hand? They do not wriggle and tickle!

We need to overcome any aversion or indifference to creepy-crawlies, and change our attitudes to respect, appreciation, and some humility if possible. Insects pollinate plants, recycle waste into nutrients, control pest species, add air channels in the soil, and ultimately return themselves to the soil food web.

Fall spiderweb photo from Ezra Freeman

Vicki explains how to rebug our city green spaces, grow gardens without pesticides and weedkiller, teach children to appreciate small creatures, make choices that support insect-friendly (planet-friendly) production of food and fiber, and make wider choices that affirm human dignity and equal rights.

This book has charming insect drawings, and delightful anecdotes: “I was never going to get the pony I wanted, so I settled for an ant farm at an early age.” Studying biology at school led Vicki to a summer job observing bees at a research station. A later job investigating cockroaches led her to respect them and realize that it is humans that need better control, more than roaches do.

Vicki has been an environmental campaigner, lobbyist and researcher for about 30 years, and is the mother of two children. Vicki is also head of the Sustainable Farming Campaign for Sustain: The Alliance for Better Food and Farming, a UK alliance of organizations and communities advocating for healthy food, people and environment, and equity in society. She has a website for Rebugging.

Those over 50 (and maybe 40) will have noticed that long car drives no longer lead to cars covered in smashed bugs. There are fewer butterflies. More than twice as many insect species as vertebrate species are at risk of extinction. I noticed on a trip to England after an absence of a couple of years, that the number of sparrows has plummeted. We are more likely to get distressed about the charismatic mega-fauna, but less so about formerly ubiquitous sparrows, and even less about insects. There may be 4 million unidentified species of insects (as well as the million we know). In the UK 23 bee and wasp species have become extinct since 1850.

So, what is ‘rebugging’? It is a form of rewilding (the introduction of similar-to-natural ecosystems and missing species into an area and then waiting to see if the species can settle in). It is somewhat controversial, and alone is insufficient to cause all the changes we seek. We also need changes in policy, lifestyle, and civic involvement. This book provides information, encouragement and tools to act.

Sunflower bee and bug.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

What would the world be like without bugs? “A great image that has been doing the rounds is a picture of a bee saying, “If we die, we’re taking you with us.” It’s not an empty threat, but a fact – we would not last long without insects. Our flowering plants would die off; all the species that dine on insects would be lost, followed by the next ones up the chain; dead animals would pile up undigested; trees would cease growing in the compacted airless soil.

But this is not our inevitable future. We can step back, as we have done when the dangers of DDT, CFCs, and nuclear weapons became blindingly clear. We can work to restore habitat, reduce damage and make political and economic structural changes at all levels in society. We can start by “rebugging our attitudes.”

How can we protect and nurture invertebrates? We can help research what’s out there. We can encourage others to be concerned and take action to protect invertebrates. We can teach others about the value of insects for human well-being. We can make havens for wildlife, convert every city street into a biocorridor, share designs for pollinator-friendly gardens, encourage conservation of water and other natural resources, make urban farms and community gardens.

The book is studded with sidebars on aspects of the value of insects, such as “How much is a bee worth?” (The answer is over $3,000 per hectare in pollination services, for wild bees) That’s more than 651 million GBP to the British economy.

Insects are food for many animals such as poultry, fish and pigs. And some insects could be food for humans. I ate a 17-year cicada last time they were in our area (2013). I was partly inspired by Jackson Landers’ book Eating Aliens. And really, if you can eat shrimp, you can eat meaty insects. But Rebugging isn’t mostly about eating insects, but rather preserving their lives, and benefiting from their contributions.

If you are still unsure what bugs do for us, the second chapter spells it out. We would be knee-deep in manure, leaf litter and dead animals within weeks, if there were no bugs eating it all, and enriching the soil. Tardigrades (water bears or moss piglets) are the most resilient animals known, able to survive extreme temperatures, pressures, dehydration, oxygen deprivation, starvation and radiation. They can remain in suspended animation for years until conditions improve. They have already survived all five mass extinction events, and some have been revived from a hundred-year-old sample of moss in a museum. Respect, please!

A ladybug on the leaf stem of a sunflower planted to attract beneficials.
Photo Pam Dawling

Avoid spraying wasps with pesticides-in-a-spray-can. They are as useful as bees and ladybugs, and are the best pest control we have for hauling away cabbage caterpillars. If you are more motivated to provide accommodation for ladybugs than wasps, keep moist dark places like old hollow stems, bark pieces and logs where the adults can overwinter. I could really use some early-spring-wakening ladybugs in our hoophouse to tackle the aphids!

Carefully introduced biological bug control can reduce the amount of pesticides used. A scientific risk assessment is an important first step, though. The 1930’s introduction of cane toads in Australia for pest control was a terrible mistake. The toad was a worse pest than the bugs had been. There are many more success stories than disasters!

Vicki Hird, Author of Rebugging the Planet

Rewilding can be complicated – looking at a huge overgrowth of creeping thistle is alarming. Happily, the biggest migration of painted lady butterflies came over and laid eggs on the thistles. The resulting spiny black caterpillars ate the thistles down to the ground. UK organizations have been creating maps of “insect superhighways” they are calling B-Lines, that will be filled with wildflowers so that insects and other wildlife have continuous corridors to travel from one area to another. There’s a two-page spread of possible actions to help the rebugging process, starting with publicity and education, and moving onto helping build bug-friendly habitat in public places and workplaces and private gardens.

Green public spaces can include a wide variety of invertebrate species. Look on derelict land, in cemeteries, along grass verges, and even on golf courses. Many companies and local authorities are now wanting to manage their land in ways that support more wildlife, and with encouragement might move another step in that direction. Tiny public orchards and forests are being planted in some places. There is a sidebar of actions to reduce deliberate, accidental, and thoughtless damage to insects.

After starting small and local, you might be ready to expand your ambitions and commitment. The overall total mass of insects is estimated to be falling by 2.5% every year. One big factor pushing species towards disaster is climate change. This is a big one to tackle, and yet we must. Overwintering numbers of monarch butterflies (the celebrities of the insect world) have dropped to less than 1% of their 1980’s population. Yes, compared with 40 years ago, the population is now just 1/100 of what it was. When food species arrive, peak, or leave earlier in the year due to changed temperatures, the predator species goes undernourished. Pesticide contamination gets a lot of blame too.

A bee pollinating squash. Photo Pam Dawling

Water pollution also harms diversity. Leached fertilizers in estuaries have created ocean dead zones. Combating climate change might not be what you expected to read about when picking up a book on rebugging the planet, but it is vitally connected. We can learn from bugs about climate management. Honeybees have learned how to mob an invading Asian giant hornet and cook it to death. In Brazil, scientists discovered an area of 200 million termite mounds each spaced 60 feet from its neighbors. This is all one colony, connected underground. Some of the mounds are over 4,000 years old. They have created a stable environment for millennia. The methods of ventilation and gas exchange could be copied for human habitation.

Are 5G phones heating insects 370% above normal levels and cooking them in the electromagnetic fields they generate? It could be true, based on research on models. The action list at the end of this chapter urges us to avoid 5G phones if we can, and not to use them outdoors if we must have one.

The chapter on why our farming, food and shopping all need bugs opens with a discussion on almond milk. The “dark reality” is that huge almond plantations need millions of bees brought in every year for pollination. Thousands of colonies are moved in to California’s Central Valley, for example. 30% of these bees die, because the environment is hostile, devoid of crops other than almond trees. Local wildlife cannot survive either.

It is a mistake to think that all vegan milk-substitutes are environmentally better than all dairy milk. It takes roughly 4 gallons of water for every gallon of milk a cow produces. Almond milk is much more intensive on water use: it can take up to 101 gallons of water to grow 1 cup of almonds, plus another 3 or 4 cups of water to manufacture almond milk. In fact, many commercial almond milks only have about 2% of almonds in them – the rest is water!

Bugs and other small animals can thrive in pastures if the livestock management is done well. The stock numbers and types are important.

Did you know that more than 70% of the world’s fish stocks are over-fished, depleted or collapsed?

We could also consider the impact of our decisions about textiles, timber and metals, on wildlife and ecology. The average person in the UK now buys over four clothing items a month! Less than 1% of clothing textiles is recycled. The waste mounts up. Forests are destroyed to make way for cotton plantations. Even if organically grown, cotton monocultures destroy habitat of thousands of species of butterflies, moths, termites, wasps, bees, and other bugs. Ironically, the cotton crop is then a sitting target for the bollworm moth. Genetically modified cotton was developed to overcome bollworm problems. A few countries resisted the siren call of GM cotton, and use integrated pest management (IPM) instead. They have lowered costs and increased yields.

While worrying about cotton, let us not forget synthetics and the huge problem of microplastics. In 2016, for example, 65 million tons of plastic textile fibers were produced. They do not decay. They are found everywhere on the planet, from the Arctic to the ocean depths. Ingestion of microplastics causes problems for marine life. The dyes cause disease, and can kill corals.

The action list for this chapter focuses on reducing waste. Think before you buy, think before you throw away. If you can, switch to consumption of locally sustainably produced goods.

Front and back covers of Rebugging the Planet

The action lists that close each chapter get longer, the connections get wider. Politics and the economy might not be the direction you expected from this book, but these topics are all part of the connected system, and all need consideration and action. Termites and corals co-operate within their colonies to create and maintain large healthy populations: we can do it too. (Corals are symbiotic associations of bugs (coral polyps, which form the exoskeleton) with several thousand species of animals and plants living within. Algae provide oxygen and carbohydrates.)

Big investors own shares in seed companies, just to make money. They have no interest or incentive to protect bugs or any aspect of the ecology. “It’s as if some beetles decided to take all the ants’ food supplies even though they cannot eat or use them. Money accumulation is hard to eat.”

Frustratingly, vested interests have too much power in decisions that affect large groups of people. We tend to avoid tackling entrenched societal problems. Vicki suggests three big areas to understand and deal with: poor governance and politics; inequality and poverty; runaway consumerism and waste. If you only wanted to read about saving beetles, you might be tempted to put the book down at this point. However, in order to save beetles, we need to look at the underlying causes of beetle die-offs.

Decisions on land use are often made by corporations and investors less focused on protecting biodiversity, and more on profits. We need to show them that enlightened self-interest can protect their financial success for the long haul. Some corporations are seeing this now that climate chaos is biting hard. Pushing humans to get three-quarters of their calories from just four crops (soy, wheat, rice and maize) may bring in fast bucks, but gives little resilience against climate change and extreme weather conditions, and is bad news for biodiversity.

Research has shown that as social inequality grows, so does harm to biodiversity, which leads to more inequality. Financial pressure from profit-seekers drives down wages, leading to a demand for ever cheaper food, spiraling to lower costs of production. They wring out higher short-term yields. Sustainability of food production goes to the wall. Desperate people take desperate measures to cover their basic survival needs. In 2020, the UN announced: “to bend the curve of biodiversity loss, we need to bend the curve of inequality.”

The action list for this chapter is over 5 pages, demonstrating the broadening of the goals. Campaigning, lobbying and voting; pushing governments and economists to balance social and environmental concerns and work for sustainable outcomes; requiring corporations to show much stronger accountability for all the results of their activity; supporting companies that are taking steps to lower their environmental damage and increase co-operation with others, strengthen international treaties and hold nations to their commitments on biodiversity and limiting climate change.

This probably sounds overwhelming, but “You don’t have to rebug alone”! You can join (or start) local organizations working on an issue you feel strongly about. The book contains a directory of some organizations (mostly in the UK). There is some help on starting lobbying, which most of us have not done before. The resources include guides on campaigning and influencing people. You can reduce your own carbon footprint and encourage others to do so. Big change is needed, but some days it’s restorative to “clean our own house” rather than go out lobbying.

 

Downtown Greens, Fredericksburg

At my presentation last evening at the Fredericksburg Food Coop, I learned about Downtown Greens and their hoped-for expansion using 56 acres of greenspace. They need financial help to reach their goal, which will improve lives of people in Fredericksburg, with open greenspace, outdoor education for children, farmer training, and the expansion of their current projects growing food and flowers for people of limited means and limited access to good food.

I hope some readers will be able to offer donations to help preserve valuable green space. Contact info is below the brochure.

 

Click to access DTG_expansion-Purchase-of-56-Acres.pdf

Sarah Perry,
Executive Director at 540-429-6771 or
sarah.perry@downtowngreens.org