Book Review: Farming While Black, Leah Penniman

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leah Penniman
Photo Credit: Jamel Mosely Mel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forrest Pritchard

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

Ellen Polishuk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables: More In-Depth Lean Techniques for Efficient Organic Production, Ben Hartman

Book Review: The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables: More In-Depth Lean Techniques for Efficient Organic Production, Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green, $29.95, publication November 2017

When I read Ben Hartman’s first book, The Lean Farm, and wrote my review in October 2015, I was on the path from curious and enthusiastic skeptic to enthusiastic-fan-with-reservations. I rejoiced in the ideas of reducing wasted effort, being more efficient, more successful at producing food, happier, less stressed. Ben Hartman, Jean-Martin Fortier and Curtis Stone are three successful commercial vegetable growers who clarified for me that a small-scale farm could be more efficient, more sustainable and certainly more pleasant if worked mostly with manual tools and a walk-behind tractor (rototiller) than with a ride-on cultivating tractor, which was the direction I had been looking in. We really didn’t want to be spending our time on a tractor, or under it, maintaining it. We didn’t want a class of tractor-driving gardeners divided from a class of hands-in-the-soil gardeners. Nor did we want to re-format our gardens and give up all the space to allow a tractor to turn around.

When I heard about Ben’s new book, which he describes as “a how-to manual, with a lean twist,” I sought it out. Here are the many helpful details to improve how we do our vegetable growing. His introduction reviews the five core Lean Principles, so if you haven’t read his first book first, you can still understand the thinking behind his systems. With Ben’s first book, I expected push-back from crew members who would judge his ideas and techniques as inflexible, too detailed, nit-picky. Was this just my projection? I found it very thought-provoking, and I was constantly assessing our farm as I read it. I had a rough triage of inner comments: “ah, we already do that (well)” “oh we really need to do that” “ooo I’m not happy with that idea.”

By and large I valued the actual techniques and strategies. I bristled against his classifying planning, organizing and other managerial tasks, as well as bed prep, hoeing, weeding, thinning seedlings as type 1waste (muda, in Japanese). That just didn’t sit right with me. Perhaps it’s a word that doesn’t translate well. A commenter on my blog clarified this for me. She likened type 1 waste to Stephen Covey’s Quadrant 2 (Important but Not Urgent) in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Quadrant 2 includes maintenance, advance planning, being prepared. Preventing problems, or dealing with them to minimize their impact is important. I could never call it wasteful. In fact, I see attention to Quadrant 2 as a sign of good leadership, good farming. We need to make time for the important tasks that are not yet urgent. Scout for pests, don’t ignore them till they overwhelm your crops.

In this second book there is acknowledgement that while muda is usually translated as waste, not all muda should be completely eliminated. Simply minimize the time and energy given to non-value-adding activities. OK, I can go with that. In fact, the list of 10 forms of muda doesn’t say a word about managerial activities. Or about reading books, or writing reviews!

Ben takes a Lean look at crop planning, bed prep, compost-making, seed starting, transplanting, the Japanese paper pot transplanter, direct seeding, weed and pest control, sales, seven crop case studies, greenhouses, and finding good land and building a farm. There are valuable appendices with recommendations on tools, crop varieties, dollar-value-per-bed, a photo gallery of seven more crops, a Japanese glossary, and a book list.

I’m a fan of careful crop planning, and I acknowledge that doing it efficiently is important. There is definitely such a thing as “over-planning.” I think experience teaches us what we need planned and what we don’t. When the same people grow the same crops on the same farm year after year, lots can be taken as decided. When we have built fertile soil and there are no new plagues, we can get away with minimal crop rotation. At Clay Bottom Farm (in Indiana), Ben, Rachel and their crew are earning their living from less than one acre, growing and selling specialty produce to restaurants, farmers markets, and through their CSA. They grow a lot of salad greens and tomatoes, along with some root crops, peppers and eggplants, zucchini and cucumbers. Sweet corn, beans, peas, winter storage crops don’t feature much or at all. They have found the crop mix that works for their customers (that is one of the 5 Lean Principles). The situation in our gardens seems more complicated, but the point remains: streamline the planning, don’t over-work it.

The concept of load-levelling (heijunka) is valuable – look at the plan for the year and keep it manageable every month. And plan in a vacation for everyone. We try to stagger our vacations so that there are always a few people who can run things, taking turns. We tried reducing the August workload, moving one big task to September, and taking a few weeks off from lettuce production. Ending our watermelon harvests at the end of August and our winter squash at the end of September were helpful in keeping fall work manageable. We’ve got better at “doing-in” plantings of beans, cucumbers and summer squash if they are getting to be oppressive.

I was particularly excited to see instructions to build a seed germination cabinet à la Hartman. Like Ben, we use discarded refrigerators. Ours rely on incandescent light bulbs, which are a dwindling “resource”. Some would say “good riddance” but we are actually using the heat the bulbs generate, as well as the light. Ben’s clever design uses a pan of water heated by an electric element, on a thermostat. This could be our next germinator!

I’ve read about the Japanese paper pot transplanter before, and concluded it’s best for plants set out at 6″ spacing or less, and fairly large plantings of one thing. I’m intrigued – would love to try it, even though we do more direct sowing of close-planted crops than Ben does. I love the idea of a carefully-designed manual machine for transplanting, especially as my knees get older, and like squatting less. This chapter is worth the price of the book to anyone about to buy the transplanter. So many tips, including Ben’s Paper Pot Cheat Sheet. The direct-seeding chapter explains the Jang JP-1 seeder, and the same message applies about buying the book if you’re buying the seeder.

Weeds and pest control without muda – Yes, of course, focus on prevention, rather than managing. Ben gives 5 Steps to No Weeds. Yes, time saved there would pay for the price of the book too! Pests, Leaned Up is about Biological IPM: rowcovers, beneficial insects and biological sprays if needed.

The sales chapter looks at transportation logistics, sensible delivery vehicles. As Ben says, “Big vehicles, we learned, don’t by themselves lead to large sales”. Avoid over-production. Set up your market booth for smooth flow.

The case studies explore how Clay Bottom farmers decide which varieties to grow, where and when, and of course, how much. The case study crops are tomatoes, baby greens, kale, head lettuce and romaine, carrots, other bunched roots, and peppers. Here’s good information from someone who has paid exquisitely good attention to what works and what doesn’t.

The chapters on finding good land and setting up your farm in a well-organized, Lean, way will save new farmers some costly (livelihood-threatening) mistakes, and help the rest of us think twice about why we store our tools where we do, and so on. The greenhouse chapter is brief, and yet full of gems about design.

Holiday Season approaches, I’m just sayin’. Or invest in your farm, with this worthwhile business expense. In other words, buy this book!

Book Review, The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook, by Andrew Mefferd

The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook,  Organic Vegetable Production Using Protected Culture. by Andrew Mefferd. Chelsea Green.March 2017, $34.95. ISBN 978-1-60358-637-5

I was lucky enough to be asked to write an endorsement for this book, and was sent an uncorrected proof to read. Now I have the full color, published version, and I’m poring through it once again. Andrew Mefferd is the editor and publisher of Growing for Market magazine that I sometimes write for. Prior to that job, he worked at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, in the research department for seven years. Born in Virginia, he apprenticed on farms in six states on the west and east coasts, then farmed in Pennsylvania. He now farms in Maine, and has a good appreciation for the difference a different climate can make.

This is not an “Everything you always wanted to know to get started with a hoophouse” book, nor a compendium of greenhouse crops, pests and diseases. On the contrary, this book focusses down on the precise details of successful practices to grow what Andrew has determined to be the eight most profitable crops using protected culture: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, greens, microgreens and herbs.

This is a book to come back to each time we want to know more about one of his topics. If I were about to launch into microgreens, I would follow Andrew’s methods. I tend to read quite widely on vegetable growing topics and I’ve read some very fussy time-consuming microgreens-growing instructions for home gardeners. I haven’t seen another book be so down-to-earth with an efficient and professional growing method that uses only simple tools and supplies. Those wanting to grow microgreens in quantity, and make a living from it will find plenty of information to get started or to fine-tune their operation.

The part of the book I’m most excited about right now is the information on what plants need at different stages of growth, in terms of balance between temperature, humidity as it affects transpiration, daylength, light intensity, carbon dioxide, oxygen, water and nutrients; and how to use this information for “crop steering” – adjusting conditions to select for leaf growth or fruit development. Here are the details to get it right. I once got a light meter to compare the light transmission through clouded old glass and new glass (I wanted to know if it was worthwhile to replace the glass in our greenhouse). But then I didn’t know how to use the information. Now I know that 1% less light will lead to about a 1% lower yield. Specific information like this can be hard to dig up bit by bit on the web. Here the gold nuggets have been screened for us, and the mud left behind.

The book starts off with a sixty page section on the basics of protected culture: the why, what and how of the various options of structures and utilities you might be choosing among, with a chapter on economics and efficiencies. The main part of the book then dives into the specific practices that help the eight crops do best. Chapters on propagation, pruning and trellising; temperature control and crop steering; and grafting are applicable to many of the recommended crops. Next follow chapters on each of the crop groups, and appendices on hydroponics, pests and disease and tools and supplies.

Andrew is obviously a very attentive farmer, and one who keeps good records. And here we can all benefit, whether experienced growers looking to improve our game, or beginners wanting to grasp success from day one. Serious backyard gardeners could use this book too, not only commercial growers. Facts are facts, results are results. Not everyone will want to follow all of the recommendations immediately or perhaps ever. In our hoophouse in Virginia, we grow two beds of early tomatoes in our hoophouse with just enough trellising to keep them upright, and minimal pruning. As soon as our outdoor tomatoes are producing well, we pull out the hooophouse rows. Our climate doesn’t warrant keeping them in the hoophouse, and in fact, it may get too hot in there for them. Our climate is full of fungal diseases, so crop rotation is very important to us, and the sooner we don’t need tomatoes in the hoophouse, the sooner we can remove them and their fungal spores!

But I do remember growing tomatoes in a glass greenhouse in northern England, and how we cherished those plants! I had started to experiment with side-grafting 25 years ago, in hopes of having sturdier tomatoes. We pruned and twined, and every ripe tomato was precious to us. It was late September when I moved to Virginia, and I helped the garden crew harvest Roma paste tomatoes, which were grown sprawled on the ground. That in itself was a shock – gosh these people don’t hold their tomatoes in very high regard, they let them rot on the ground! The crew member working next to me shocked me further: “Stomp on the green ones” she muttered under her breath. Apparently so great had been the harvest of these paste tomatoes that the crew was exhausted from harvesting and wanted to be done!

So, select the sections of Andrew’s book that speak to your needs and your climate. There’s something for everyone. You don’t need to abide by it all to want the book. It will easily pay for itself if you find only one new practice to adopt this season. But read the whole book anyway, and you can develop a fuller understanding of the big picture, a new management strategy and a set of skills to deal with the challenges that arrive unbidden. Andrew has tested all these practices as a small-scale grower himself, and he does this because he’s a passionate supporter of local food, sustainably grown, and sees protected cropping as a way to increase local food production by increasing on-the-ground crop insurance in the face of the unpredictable.

Young tomato plant in our hoophouse in April.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Book Review: Mycelial Mayhem

Image-front-cover_coverbookpageBook Review: Mycelial Mayhem: Growing Mushrooms for Fun, Profit and Companion Planting by David Sewak & Kristin Sewak

Paperback – 288 pages, 7.25 Inches × 9 Inches (w × h),
Weight: 579 Grams ISBN: 9780865718142
Publisher: New Society Publishers. Publication Date: 2016-03-14

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of this book, and wrote an endorsement for it. Now it is hot off the press, and a very attractive book it is too. The dedication includes the exhortation: “Keep spreading the spores”, by which the authors mean becoming a proponent of mushrooms, as well as growing them yourself.

Initially, from just the title, I thought this book would be about mycoremediation or mycorestoration, improving polluted or depleted soils by inoculating them with fungi. But the subtitle and the photos on the cover make it plain that this is a handbook for people wanting too grow diverse mushrooms for food and medicinal uses.

This is not a dull textbook – it is written by a couple inspired by and knowledgeable about mushrooms, and eager to bring along beginners, or those whose efforts have so far been limited to shiitakes. It’s accessible, friendly and lively. It demystifies this less known life-form with clear explanations, step-by-step instructions and some stunning photos. The sections of the book are labeled Mycelia, The Stem, The Fruit of Your Labor and Spreading the Spores, mimicking the development of the mushroom to lead us through what we need to know to become a successful mushroom grower.

The first section covers mushroom basics,life cycle, requirements for growth and place in the ecosystem. Along with infectious enthusiasm for including fungi as part of a small-scale sustainable farming venture, or simply as a backyard hobby.

Another thing this book is not is a field guide to identify wild-growing mushrooms. There are tips on wild-crafting along with cautions against misidentifying, or harvesting from herbicide- or pesticide-treated areas, or from naturally poisonous trees. There is a checklist of 15 tenets of safe collecting and 9 tenets for purveying (did you know you might need to get a permit to collect wild mushrooms for sale?)

A nice Oyster mushroom Photo Ezra Freeman

A nice Oyster mushroom
Photo Ezra Freeman

The second section covers growing mushrooms both outdoors and indoors, descriptions of various kinds, wild-collecting, and sustainable growing methods, including alongside vegetables. The different types of mushrooms are classified by ease of growing, so we can start with an easy one. Many different methods, using media such as wood, sawdust, straw, hemp rope, logs and tree stumps are discussed. How to set up an indoor mushroom grow room is explained, along with how to avoid disasters.The book explains the pros and cons and best choices for the various types of fungi. It also considers economics versus ecology, sustainability versus resilience, taking nature as a model, permaculture principles, and how you might pull this all together to design a system for your particular circumstances. I appreciated the thoughtfulness and the checklists – a refreshing change from some ardent scripts I have seen. I put this down to the balance of the two authors and their combined skills. It makes for an impressively grounded and practical book.

Oyster mushrooms Photo Ezra Freeman

Oyster mushrooms
Photo Ezra Freeman

The third section explains umami, nutrition, medicinal mushrooms, and the business side of growing for market, selling and evaluating your marketing efforts.

The last section (Spreading the Spores) includes resource info, references and photographed examples of marketing materials from Berglorbeer Farma, the authors’ previous home and business in Windber, PA. Their new ventures are in Montana, where Kristin Sewak runs Natural Biodiversity, a non-profit dedicated to restoring biodiversity in landscapes, and David Sewak is a fly fishing guide as well as a mushroom grower.

To sum up, a very good book for anyone wanting to grow edible or medicinal mushrooms!

Book Review: Ira Wallace on Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast

Book Review:

The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening

in the Southeast

by Ira Wallace.

January 2014, 200 pages, $19.95. ISBN-13: 978-1-60469-371-3

 wallace_i books-gardeninginthesoutheast

This book will be valuable primarily to new vegetable gardeners and those moving to the Southeast. Of course, experienced gardeners always want to learn from each other, so I encourage anyone growing food in our region, or its neighbors, to take a look. The writing and format are clear and accessible, the index is excellent, so you can quickly find the topic you want. The scale is backyard, not farm. That said, this book could be useful for new farm interns to learn crop basics, timing, and how things are done without fancy equipment. It has the advantage of clearly setting out the basic information without being overwhelming.

The Southeast has been “traditionally underserved” in terms of vegetable gardening books, so having this compilation of tips for our climate, the names of reliable regional varieties, and the encouragement to start in any month and harvest in every month, is valuable beyond price. There are great gardening writers elsewhere in this big country, but nothing beats learning from someone who really knows the territory. Ira learned gardening in her grandmother’s yard in Florida, and has grown food in Virginia for many years. It is hard to translate northern books which talk of ground frozen solid for months in winter, or curing onions out in the September sun. Beginners will have a much happier time starting out with a book written for the actual conditions they will encounter. Gardeners moving from other climate zones will get useful information about working with “the quirks of our climate”; fall gardening, winter gardening, hot weather crops like southern peas and okra. For instance, did you know why gardeners in hot climates don’t sow in hills? They dry out too much (the gardeners as well as the hills!).

This book is intended mostly for those in the lands where the American Holly grows. This is zones 6-9, with bits of 5 and 10: the Southeastern Coastal Plains, Piedmont, Appalachians, Interior Plateau and Ozarks. Winters are temperate, summers are hot and humid, and there is a wide range of seasonal crops. We need to start spring crops early, to get a harvest before temperatures heat up; we need to add organic matter frequently, as it burns up fast in hot humid conditions; we need to know about shading.

The Gardening 101 section includes many helpful tips on soil tests, garden planning and rotations and cover crops. There are lists of crops by season and by ease of growing in our climate. As the introduction says, “Happily, gardening is a year-round activity in our region”, so there is a month-by-month section listing tasks and possibilities.

The Month-by-month section includes a To Do page for each month with panels on Plan, Prepare and Maintain, Sow and Plant, and Fresh Harvest. There is also a Skill Set panel each month covering topics such as making compost, setting up drip irrigation, building shade structures. Each month has a theme: Sowing Seed Indoors for February, Beating the Heat in July. The tone is encouraging and helpful for beginners and climate migrants alike.

My one quibble is that the drawings don’t always seem to exactly fit the text, and I wish there could have been some photos. Luckily, Ira is from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and their website www.southernexposure.com has plenty of photos of crops in action and includes a sun symbol for varieties especially suited to the Southeast.

There is a nice description of working against the shortening days and cooling temperatures of fall to get crops established in the “living refrigerator” outdoors – filling it up to draw from later. Plan for crops to mature in late November, before growth slows right down. There are a lot of critters out there, though, so bring in what you can for storage. Also, plan to have some crops reach half-size, be protected over winter, then rapidly grow in early spring for first harvests of the new growing season.

Part 3 of the book is an A to Z of crops, starting with two Planting and Harvesting Charts, one for the Upper South and one for the Lower South. These cover 38 crops or groups of closely-related crops. Then each crop has around one page of details, divided into paragraphs on Growing, Harvesting, Varieties and Seed Saving.

The Resources section  includes seed and plant suppliers, community organizations, weather and climate resources, companies selling tools and supplies, soil testing services and more good books (blush, including mine). There is a Glossary, to demystify any terms you don’t know – soon you will!

If you live in the Southeast and are new to growing food here, you’ll learn a lot from this book and its clearly arrayed information. If you live around the Southeast, you’ll probably also learn some tips (think of Pennsylvania as the “Upper Southeast”!). If you’re a farmer with new interns about to arrive, get this book for your library. If you’re an experienced vegetable grower in our region, take a look too – I bet you’ll find some new ideas.

Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia, Bill Best

9780821420492Book Review June 2013 by Pam Dawling

Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia,  Bill Best         Ohio University Press April 2013. ISBN 978-0-8214-2049-2 (paperback) $22.95 (212p)

This book is an encouraging read. First I’ll say what it’s not: it’s not a How to Save Seeds Manual. So, what is it? A local history of seed saving and the people involved in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina mainly, and some of South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Georgia and Alabama. It’s about the whole traditional culture of trading and co-operation among mountain people who don’t buy all their seeds from a catalog. These people cultivate varieties that grow well and taste good, and they select for desirable traits to develop better varieties.

Bill Best spent 40 years teaching and administering at Berea College, Kentucky. In his retirement he directs the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center near Berea, and gathers and passes on heirloom seeds. The author holds a Best Family Farm one-day seed swap each year in October. As a market farmer in the Berea area, Bill was featured in an article about heirloom beans and tomatoes. This led to 86 letters in 6 months from people wanting heirloom vegetables! Bill became a focus for developing a seed bank of local heirloom beans (and other vegetables). Every bag of seed came with a story! Here we get the stories as well as careful descriptions of the many types of bean.

The first third of the book is about beans, which reflects the importance of growing supplies of protein and flavor when independent from stores. I’ve long puzzled about the various terms used for beans, and I am grateful to Bill Best for his lexicon. If you too are confused about greasy beans, cut-shorts, half-runners, and leather britches, then I recommend his clear descriptions. Lovers of heirloom beans tend to prefer pole beans for flavor over bush beans. Heirloom greasy beans (named for the slick shells, and famed for the tenderness and flavor) command a much higher price at markets than commercially grown beans. Cornfield beans are pole beans, traditionally grown with corn as the poles. Cut-short beans are varieties where the bean “outgrows’ the shell, so the beans are cramped into square shapes. They have high protein content. Field peas are southern peas or cowpeas originating in the Deep South. Crowder peas are the pea equivalent of cut-short beans. Butter beans are small speckled limas.

Full beans (when the seed is fully mature) – is the traditional stage for harvesting beans whether to be used fresh, canned, pickled or dried as “leather britches” or shelled out. Leather britches (aka shuck beans) are full beans broken into lengths, strung up and dried in the shell, to provide meals in winter and early spring. Beans with immature seeds were not much eaten – why not wait for the protein? Shelly beans are beans shelled out before the pods dry, then dried. They cook without the soaking needed by beans from dried pods. Half-runner beans have runners 3-10 feet long. Their popularity led to commercialization, which sadly included the tough gene being incorporated into the seed line (to withstand mechanical harvesting without breaking). It is hard to find non-tough half-runners now.

Stringless bush (or bunch) beans are all I grow. These old-timers are sure stringless beans have less flavor. Modern stringless beans have to be picked before the seed appears, because they include the tough gene. The downside of stringlessness is toughness – what irony!

People who grew their own beans developed varieties for each growing season: ones with good cold soil emergence for spring, ones for hot summer months, shade-tolerant ones for growing in cornfields, and fall or October beans that do well going into cooler weather. Some beans are named after the time of year they are planted, others after one of the people involved in growing them.

Some growers would trade their bean seed at the local hardware store for other seeds or for supplies. So hardware stores, rather than feed stores, were the place to buy local heirloom seeds. The author discusses the cultural context that has made the Appalachians a fertile ground for maintaining heirloom beans. Families farmed to support themselves, and survived and thrived according to their talents at producing food, and products to trade. During the Great Depression, beans were a very important source of food. The author takes us on a tour of several farms and their bean varieties. “Haywood County’s past can be found in more than old records and photo albums. Try the bean patch.” As more people discover the flavors of heirloom varieties, demand and enjoyment is increasing.

Unlike beans, tomatoes were not prominent historically in the diet of Southern Appalachian people, but they came to be important and an enormous range of flavors, shapes, sizes and colors has been developed. There are at least 34 sugars and acids involved in tomato flavors. Many people have heard of Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, but few know the Vinson Watts Tomato, developed over 50 years of careful work. The author has grown this tomato and 450 others during a 49 year period, and reports that this is the most disease-resistant he has found, with no compromise on flavor. It’s available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

After 20 pages on tomatoes, there are short sections on heirloom apples, cucumbers and milling corn (the US became dependent on hybrid corns and in 1970 the Southern corn leaf blight devastated 15% of the corn crop. Much of the genetic diversity and resilience had been lost). Candy Roasters are the type of winter squash most favored in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Little known elsewhere, this big storage squash (which possibly originated with the Cherokees) is used for pies, breads, butters, generally with sugar.

Next we dive into the last third of this book: stories about individual seed savers the author met or corresponded with. This is the ethnography part of the book – a descriptive study of this particular human society. The farmers and gardeners here are of the older generations. Seed saving seems a very life-enhancing activity! The final photo is of 100-year old Judith Whitehead Patteson, sitting outdoors, holding a jar of Ardelia’s Speckled Butter Beans, which she has grown for many years.

Read this book for an inspiration into the difference it is possible to make, by choosing good vegetable varieties, growing your own and buying local.