Book Review, The Bio-integrated Farm by Shawn Jadrnicek

Publisher: Chelsea Green. ISBN: 9781603585880

This book, by Shawn and Stephanie Jadrnicek, was hidden in my “to read” pile for too long! The title doesn’t make it clear enough that this is an authoritative text on all kinds of water management on the farm: integrating ponds, swales, ditches, water catchment, heat storage in water, irrigation, water for light reflection in winter, fish and shrimp-farming. Chickens and black soldier flies, compost-making and vegetable production in hoophouses and outdoors are all part of the bigger picture.

This book speaks from Shawn Jadrnicek’s experience at the Clemson University Student Organic Farm in South Carolina, and at his own homestead. The author tells us honestly when things he tried didn’t work out, and why. It is a permaculture book written for non-believers as well as the converted. It does not mystify with strange jargon. It does not make unsubstantiated claims about how things ought to be. Full disclosure: I suffer from having read too much permaculture writing that was obscure, convoluted, not backed with direct experience and written for people with a lot of time and only a small piece of land. This book is a breath of fresh air! The ideas have been tested on a farm scale, with a close eye on efficiency. It’s written for market farmers, homesteaders and serious gardeners, showing how to make best use of natural resources to help feed the world. Each technique has to have at least seven functions to qualify for inclusion in the author’s farming practices and the book.

You may not want to follow all of the author’s methods. I, for one, am not going to grow hydroponically. (I doubt that fully nutritious food can be grown without soil, with just the nutrients we know to feed in.) You may not want a hoophouse that is almost all pond. But you may be very happy to find a book that describes how to build a hoophouse on sloping land; very happy to learn how to grade your land to move rainwater away from where you don’t want it to sit, to where you do want it to improve growth of your pastures. You may be very happy to learn how to use a pond to grow minnows (tadpoles in the non-minnow season) to feed chickens. You may like the idea of filling your hoophouse with sweet potatoes or cowpeas in summer to act as a “smother crop,” dealing with weeds while keeping the soil alive. Perhaps you’d like to try freshwater prawn (large shrimp) farming? The regulations are easier than for fish-farming. Giant river prawns can weigh as much as a pound, they are easy to process and cook, and they sell at a good price.

Water management fills over half of the book, complemented by 30 pages on chickens, 33 on compost, 13 on fly farming, 28 on field layout and drainage, and 56 pages of case studies. Most of the vegetable production mentioned takes place in hoophouses (high tunnels). The book includes various ideas for heating the indoor crops, using hydronics (indirect heating with water in pipes warmed in outdoor ponds or compost piles), indoor ponds with solar pool covers, and compost piles leaning on the sidewall of the hoophouse. The information on rainwater harvesting includes checking your roofing material for toxicity (there is a special coating you can put on if necessary), how to avoid leaves clogging gutters (cleverly designed downspout filters), regulations about harvested rainwater, how to make gravity flow toilets and gravity drip irrigation systems that really work, and how to find the data and do the calculations. The level of detail in this book inspires confidence!

The chicken-farming system in this book uses a permanent coop and alley (mulched corridor) along with temporary pens made with electric netting. This makes better use of resources than free-ranging, unless you have only mature trees and grass. The birds get 30% of their dietary needs from the landscape, if rotated every 6-12 days onto perennial clover and grass pasture that has regrown to 4-8″ in height. This system ensures the chickens can always reach shade, and you can reseed bare spots in the resting pens with rye, wheat, millet, sunflowers and buckwheat, and reduce their feed costs by 30%. I liked the careful thinking and observation behind this scheme.

And then we come to the black soldier flies. The mesh flooring of the chicken pen lets the manure fall through into a fly digester below. The fly larvae digest the manure and grow, later becoming chicken food themselves. I wasn’t initially attracted to the idea of deliberately breeding flies, but the system has a lot going for it. Black soldier flies (Hermetia illucens) are not a pest. In fact they out-compete houseflies and thus reduce their numbers 95%! The adult soldier flies live only 5-15 days – they have no functioning mouthparts, and they don’t vector diseases. They are native in zone 7 and warmer, especially in the Southeast, so consult your Extension Service to find out if you’ll need to mail order them or just set out a nice digester once it’s warm enough. This sounds better than worm-bin farming! The flies tolerate a wider range of conditions and consume waste faster than earthworms. The large segmented larvae will “self-harvest” into buckets, if you have a well-designed digester. Two commercial models are available, the larger ProtaPod (4 ft diameter) and the smaller BioPod. They have internal ramps that the pre-pupae will climb, and a curled rim that prevents escape. The creatures launch themselves down a tube into a lidded bucket. All the details are in the book! Add fresh waste daily, and empty the bucket at least weekly (to prevent adult flies hatching out and setting up residence where you don’t want them).

The section on compost-making includes how to extract heat from your compost pile to warm your hoophouse, and how not to extract so much heat that the compost stops working. My beef with some other books about methods of heating greenhouses is that they fail to address the unintended side-effects, such as having very humid air go into your living space, or having little space left to grow plants because the greenhouse is full of heat-storing devices. Make good compost, and warm your hoophouse a bit.

The section on field application of these ideas is not about growing vegetables, but about field layout and drainage. It includes useful calculations on using drip irrigation. It also discusses keyline plowing, which had previously been just a bit of permaculture theory to me. Shawn says, “keyline pattern cultivating intrigued me for years, but I first had to implement the technique before becoming a convert.” There is no need to buy the special equipment some advocates suggest, if you have a box scraper with ripping tines. Keyline plowing (ripping 4″ deep in lines through pasture or grassways to direct water from a valley to a bit of a ridge) helps build soil and increase grass growth. Reading Shawn’s results, I now understand why others said it was a good idea.

I recommend this book to any small-scale farmers who are interested in learning efficient techniques to increase productivity while reducing use of resources.

Stephanie and Shawn Jadrnicek
Photo Chelsea Green

Book Review: High-Yield Vegetable Gardening by McCrate and Halm

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Book Review: High-Yield Vegetable Gardening: Grow More of What You Want in the Space You Have by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm, Storey Publishing, December 2015

This book is intended for home gardeners who value efficiency and productivity. The authors, founders of the Seattle Urban Farm Company, explain techniques used by biointensive farmers and how to adapt these techniques for any size of garden. This professional help will assist gardeners to extend the season, increase yields, maintain healthy soils and deal with pests and other problems. This is not a beginner book telling you how to grow carrots (or any other crop). It will give you the information to choose the variety of carrot best suited to your goals, figure out how much land to put into carrots for the harvest you want, when to plant them, how to get maximum yields and how to have a continuous supply. It is not a book on marketing either. I want to set that out clearly, so no-one buys the book wanting something that it’s not. It’s a very good book if you want to “up your game” and get full potential from the land you have and the time you have available to spend working it.

This 7″ x 9″ spiral bound lay-flat book has 320 pages, including the index and resources section. The cover price is $18.95. It is illustrated with black and white drawings rather than photos, and has green spot color for headings and special sections. This gives an old-fashioned air to the book, until you come upon a drawing of a smart phone. There is nothing old-fashioned about the planning charts and spreadsheets.

After a poor start, on page 222 the gender ratio of the gardeners pictured starts to even up, and ends up close to the national average of 30% of farmers being female.

The book opens with three examples of high-yield gardens: A typical city lot of 5000 sq ft (including the space occupied by the house); a quarter-acre in the suburbs; and a rural one-acre plot. The authors discuss how to make a garden map and determine which factors influence how you use the site (shade for instance), and what your priorities are. They advocate for standard size raised beds in order to simplify planning and to reuse materials like row cover, netting or drip tape.

There are tables of crop spacing and scheduling for 60 annual vegetables and herbs, about 20 perennial vegetables and fruits and 20 perennial herbs. There is a worksheet to help you calculate how much of each crop to aim for, based on the average serving size, depending on your tastes, whether that’s non-stop arugula, tomatoes for canning or a large amount of carrots for a farmer wedding. Some of the charts can be downloaded from the Seattle Urban Farm Company’s website. There is a table of yields and one of planting dates, working from your own frost dates. There is a Planting Calendar Worksheet blank you can copy and use for each crop you plan to grow.

There are clear instructions on designing a crop rotation, including a chart of crop height, life span and fertility needs. They discuss practical limitations that might lead you towards either two rotations within your garden, or a separate rotation for the greenhouse. They urge you to keep good clear records. (Oh so important! Who has time to make the same mistake twice in farming?).

There is a Seed Order Worksheet, and a clear description of the word “hybrid” which has sometimes become a bad word among some gardeners who misunderstand the plant breeding work of the past century or so, and how it has brought us high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties, which are a boon to gardeners wanting high yields. Sure, you can’t save your own seed from hybrids and have it grow true, but who realistically grows all their own seed? So many crops cross with each other; sometimes seed-saving conflicts with getting food from that planting; seed-growing and selecting is a skilled job. Seed companies can do that work for us. I do grow a few seed crops, so I know what is involved. But I also grow many hybrids, and am grateful for them.

In a couple of places the drawing isn’t as good as a photo would be. The Jericho and Winter Density lettuces don’t look so different, and you couldn’t tell the size difference. The high tunnel (hoophouse) inflation blower tubing drawing on p 263 looks very strange to me, like maybe the artist has never seen a real one, and worked from a description.

There is a chart of seed longevity, a subject not always covered in gardening books. There is an excellent chapter on soil tests and interpreting them, which is very down-to-earth. (“We determined this to be about 75 and 50 pounds per 1000 sq ft.”) Nice and user-friendly, it won’t blind you with science. There is another good chapter on irrigation systems, a subject often ignored in backyard gardening books. “Because we strongly believe that hand watering a large, diversified garden site is an inefficient use of time and resources, we won’t even include it as a viable option for garden irrigation.” “Spending valuable hours trailing a hose through the garden is, at best, a poor use of your time.” Absolutely!

Setting up spaces to start seedlings and keeping them well-lit and watered is clearly explained. So is the subject of small greenhouses. The drawing includes the 1970’s craze of lining the back wall with black barrels of water, although the authors do point out that such devices can help, but will not be enough to warm the air to seed germination temperatures. In my opinion, the space given over to big barrels of water would be better given to more plants and the need for heat addressed in other ways!

There is a chapter on starting seedlings and planning for that on a large scale. It includes tips not found everywhere, such as when to sow rootstock and scion varieties for grafting tomatoes, starting cuttings, growing microgreens and hand pollinating. Planting depth is covered, including laying tall tomato plants in a small trench and planting brassicas up to the lowest leaves, rather than the same height as in the seed flat. There are recipes for mixing your own organic fertilizers, and which plants will respond most to extra nutrients. There are tables of organic management strategies for pests and diseases.

Compost-making is discussed, along with a table of Carbon:Nitrogen ratios of various compost ingredients. There is a table of cold-hardy salad crops and information about building low tunnels, caterpillar tunnels and basic types of small hoophouses for cold-weather growing. If you are planning a big hoophouse, I’d recommend getting more information than in this book. There is a chapter on harvesting, washing and storage.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, this is a book full of valuable gardening charts. If you are a grower who doesn’t want to work with spreadsheets, you can easily print off the Seattle Urban Farm Company’s worksheets and use those. Or take the spreadsheets and run. Either way, this is a valuable book for serious backyard growers.

March Events

I have two events in March, where I am making presentations. The first is an online conference (no travel costs!)

 

CSA Expert Exchange:
An Online Conference
Presented in partnership with Small Farm Central
March 6 – Want to Start a CSA?
Beginning Farmers Session
7:00pm-9:30pm EST
March 7 – CSA Expert Exchange Main Event
11:00am-3:30pm EST

Register for one or both days. Sessions will be recorded.
I am speaking on Crop Planning on Friday at 1.40pm.
Then on Sunday March 16, is the rescheduled day at Lynchburg College (postponed from February 15 because of all the snow). I am speaking on Feeding the Soil.
Ira, Cindy and Pam working on our presentations
Ira, Cindy and Pam working on our presentations. Photo Betsy Trice

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