2023-2024 Conference Tips 3 – Climate Change, less usual edible plants

Carrots under shade cloth in summer.
Photo Pam Dawling

2023-2024 Conference Tips Part 3 – Climate Change, Less Usual Edible Plants

I reported earlier on good tips I got from the CFSA Conference and the VABF-SFOP Summit.  Here I’ll continue the theme.

At the VABF-SFOP Summit, I also attended workshops on Meeting the Climate Challenge with Mark Schonbeck, and Eating and Marketing the Whole Plant with Chris Smith. I’ll tell you more about those now, then move on to the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference.

Meeting the Climate Challenge: Sharing Stories, Co-Creating Solutions with Mark Schonbeck

Mark’s slides and handout will be available soon on the VABF website. In our region we are experiencing hotter summer nights, which are hard on plants (and livestock, I’m sure). At 95F (35C) most crops close down completely or slow their growth. For every 1.8F (1C) in warming, 3-10% of the Organic Matter is lost (burned up) and nitrous oxide emissions may increase 18-28%. Daffodils are flowering up to 5 weeks earlier, fruit trees are budding out earlier, risking losing the fruit to freezing nights. In the spring we are getting later cold snaps below 10F (-12C) in March.

We are having a longer frost-free period, with more generations of bugs. Downy mildew of cucurbits is spreading further north than previously.

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

In Virginia we are getting more intense and heavier rains, with more flooding. The erratic nature of the rains means we can experience flash floods, followed by droughts and wildfires. Heavy rainfall leads plants to grow shallower roots, which then die if a sudden drought follows.

Keeping living roots in the soil will increase climate resilience, as will other ways of building healthy soils, such as diversified rotations, and varied agricultural enterprises. Here’s Mark’s list of

6 Organic Principles of Soil Health:

  1. Keep the soil covered
  2. Maintain living roots
  3. Return organic residues to the soil
  4. Minimize soil disturbance
  5. Diversify crops
  6. Integrate livestock.
Teff cover crop.
Photo Wikipedia

Increasing the use of cover crops will help with 1, 2, 3 and 5. Teff can be considered as a summer cover crop in alleys between plastic mulched beds. Mixing with clover gives better soil coverage. I have not yet tried this myself. Oats/barley/peas/mustard sown in March will grow big by June, adding lots of biomass. Oats/radish/legume cover crop mix will winter-kill. Silage tarps and landscape fabrics can help hold the soil in place.

Installing terraces, berms and swales will help with water management. Installing drip irrigation will help manage droughts. Protected growing, in hoophouses or caterpillar tunnels, will help protect from many kinds of extreme weather. There are steps we can take to mitigate climate change, and more information is becoming available.

Eating and Marketing the Whole Plant with Chris Smith

Chris is the author of The Whole Okra, and part of his presentation was about the many uses of okra, beyond cooking the pods. Okra leaf chips are the latest thing he has tried. The leaves are used for soup in Nigeria. The flowers can be eaten or dried for tea. The oil from okra seeds is nutty, citrusy, a bit like olive oil, although the yield is small, at 9-20%. The oil presscake can be ground for defatted flour.

Book Edible Leaves of the Tropics by Franklin Martin, Ruth Ruberte and Laura S Meitzner

Chris showed us a remarkable book Edible Leaves of the Tropics, by Franklin Martin, Ruth Ruberte and Laura S Meitzner. Plants for a Future  has a database of 8000 plants, including edible plants.  The Book of Greens by Jenn Louis and Legume Species as Leafy Vegetables by Robert P Barrett (online) are also valuable resources on edible plants.

DIYseeds.org educational films on seed production

Go to https://www.diyseeds.org  then search for info on growing seeds.

Male squash flowers can sell at $1/flower for an 8-week season. Winter squash yields can increase if some of the early male flowers are removed! Wisteria, redbud and black locust flowers are edible. Kudzu offers many food options (eat it up!) Roots of dandelion, burdock, thistle, sassafras, daylily, dahlia, runner bean and chayote are all edible.

Soil Health, Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Planning, Rachel Schattman, Sara Keleman and Nic Cook

In February 2024, I participated in the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference.  The first session I attended there was Soil Health, Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Planning, with speakers from the University of Maine Climate Science department. They reported that the NE has seen a 15% increase in Growing Degree Days since 1948, and the frost-free growing season in Maine has increased by 14 days since 1895. California has seen a 40-50 day increase in that period. In Maine the temperature changes are greater in winter than in summer. Since 2012, half of the US has shifted to the next warmer winter-hardiness zone. It is helpful to watch indicator species to determine when to plant particular crops. (See my post on Phenology). Warmer temperatures mean that the air holds more water (7% more for each C degree). This means slower storms, more storms heavier rainfall. They also experience droughts, and distinguish between agricultural drought, meteorological drought, and hydrologic drought – be sure which kind your conversations are about.

Young blueberry plant in snow. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Sea level rise is dramatic on the East coast because of past glaciation. The other main impacts they are seeing on agriculture include False Spring (fruit bud kill after a “warm snap”), winter soil erosion and rain ponding, and new pests, diseases and invasive species, warm season heat stress including crop quality deterioration, greater irrigation demands and needs for shade and ventilation (drought can decrease yields 30%), storm intensity including hail and high winds, longer power outages, soil compaction and nutrient runoff, increased rainfall leading to delayed planting and crop losses. These are all possibilities to prepare for. The silver lining is that there may be new crops we can grow, or longer seasons of familiar crops. NRCS, Extension and other resources are available. Climate-Smart Farming and Marketing is a program for farmers from Maine to South Carolina, offering financial support and technical help to farmers implementing climate-smart practices such as cover cropping, agroforestry, reduced tillage and prescribed grazing.

Prescribed grazing is the intentional use of ruminant animals (hoofed herbivores such as cows, sheep, and goats) on the landscape. Unlike conventional grazing, prescribed grazing utilizes a grazing plan that dictates the location and duration of graze periods. This plan is informed by the ecology of the grazing area.” (Community Environmental Council).

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

We were helped through an 8-stage planning process:

  1. Risk Assessment (prioritizing which aspect of climate change to deal with first). Heavier rains, then high temperatures, wildfire and smoke, plant diseases.
  2. Vulnerability (looking at your system, climate, location, and seasonal time period). Consider both Exposure to the risk and your farm’s Adaptive Capacity.
  3. Option ID. Consider all of small, medium large and total transformation of your farming. Divide your options up into 4 quadrants on axes of cheap-expensive, difficult-easy; low Greenhouse Gas-high GHG, reducing risk-increasing risk; low impact-high impact, quick to install-takes a long time.
  4. Evaluate tradeoffs (financial, ecological, social). Rank your options and select one that meets as many of your priorities as possible.
  5. Try to meet several goals with one solution. Consider seeking advice or funding.
  6. Monitoring and assessment. How will you measure the improvements?
  7. Revising/tweaking. Reflect and assess. Consider success at each stage.
  8. Share what you learned. Don’t expect perfection, or that others will expect that from you.

Next followed a section on funding. Currently there is lots in Inflation Reduction Act coffers for efficiency increases, renewable energy, conservation practices. Try REAP (Rural Energy for America Program), USDA, NRCS, Rural Development Office for your state, SARE funding for experimentation and trials, state agriculture departments, advocacy organizations, regional non-profits, Chesapeake Bay Trust, Farmer Resource Network, county grants, Beginner Farmer grants, grants for historically under-served farmers, Ambrook Accounting software for American farms..

Take a buddy with you to the offices!

Farmer Resource Network

Growing for Market, Organic Broadcaster, using rainy days

June2016_cover_300 pxThe summer issue of Growing for Market (June/July) has been out for a couple of weeks. We’re having a very rainy Fourth of July, so that pushed my mind towards good reading material. Assuming you stayed home and didn’t join the millions on the roads.

This issue has an interesting article by Amy Halloran about sustainably grown food grains as an addition to the crop portfolio for vegetable and flower producers. Sometimes we’re looking to diversify our crops to help the rotation (thwart the usual pests and diseases), or to even out the workload over the year. Local artisanal bakers and brewers might be looking for locally grown grain, or you can sell small bags alongside your vegetables. One advantage of grains is that they have a good shelf-life, so you can bring them out to your CSA or you market when you wan to add something new and different. Heirloom grains and dry beans have appeal for those who want to return to their roots.

Eric and Joanna Reuter wrote a helpful farmers’ guide to applying for a SARE grant. They give a clear overview explanation, then a step-by-step guide to how to apply. They talk about how to design a suitable project, how to set it up, run it, evaluate and fit with the deadlines. They include an example of a SARE farmer-directed research project that changed their farm management. It was Kevin Cooley’s pilot project using supermarket baskets (factory seconds) to harvest, wash and store vegetables. The vegetables stay in the basket they’re picked into. It saves a lot of time and reduced handling.

Wendy Carpenter wrote a very useful article reviewing use of moveable high tunnels. Five years have passed since this idea really took off, and they are no longer “flavor of the month.” Unsurprisingly, there are pros and cons to using a moveable tunnel, and many cautionary tales. If you are thinking of buying a slideable/dragable tunnel, and especially if you are thinking of designing and building your own hardware, read this article first! Save money and tears! Like many people, I was intrigued by the idea of having a hoophouse that could have a summer home and a winter home. But after some reading and reflection, I’ve come down on the side of staying put, for us. We value a draft-free winter hoophouse (moveable ones can be hard to close up well.) I have been nervous enough when we have high winds – I don’t want to add to that uncertainty. And we have a crop rotation worked out that suits us. We gradually replace the winter and early spring greens with early tomatoes, peppers, squash. Our climate is warm enough that we don’t need it to grow these crops in the hoophouse in the height of summer – they do fine outside. Growers in colder climate zones like to use their tunnels for nightshades and cucurbits all summer, which can make crop rotation difficult. I can see the benefit they get from a moveable house. In high summer we grow a bean seed crop, which helps our rotation, improves the soil and pays its way. We do use a big sheet of shade cloth over the top when it’s hot.

We cover our hoophouse from mid-May to mid-September with shadecloth. Photo Kathryn Simmons
We cover our hoophouse from mid-May to mid-September with shadecloth.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Linda Hepler Beaty writes about adding a “WOW factor” to farmers market booths. Gretel Adams provides new information about growing lisianthus, a popular topic she has covered before. Theirs are grown in a hoophouse, using horizontal netting to keep the stems upright.


The Organic Broadcaster for May/June has been out (but I’ve been too busy to read it. . . ) it includes articles about industrial hemp farming, sprouted fodder grains, working on the National Organic Standards Board, transitioning to Organic, assessing the financial wisdom of buying machinery, the impact of warm season grasses on organic dairy cows, farming for wildlife with hedgerows (including elderberry and currants), a review of Lisa Kivirist’s book about women farmers Soil Sisters, farm safety for children, and there is the usual round up  of organic field days and events, news briefs, and classified ads. The 20 pages are packed!

Lisa Kivirist and her newest book. See this site for details of an August Soil Sisters event in Wisconsin.

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