Cover Crops for March: Sowing Options and Incorporating Cover Crops

In March, where we undersowed clovers in the broccoli patch in August, the old broccoli trunks are surrounded by a sea of green clover.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

In December I wrote about Cover Crop Planning for Next Year, including 5 steps of cover crop planning for all opportunities. I have a slideshow Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops, which I find to my surprise that I haven’t posted here since my 2014 version.

Here it is now

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In January I shared some resources to give the Big Picture of Cover Crops, including a compilation of slides for SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) and my slideshow Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers.

In February, I described limiting winter annual weeds by sowing oats in spaces without a cover crop and no planned food crop for 6-10 weeks. Six–ten weeks (depending on your climate) is long enough in early spring to get worthwhile growth from oats before prepping for the food crop.

This month I will include some options for cover crops you might sow in March (in central Virginia and similar climates), and then talk about incorporating cover crops, which surely you will be doing this month!

Cover crops to sow in March, and other options

Purple stemmed mizuna. Mizuna and other frilly mustards are fast-growing crops, attractive to the eye and the palate.
Photo Pam Dawling

Depending on the stage of the year where you are, you could revisit any of those posts.

  • In early March the oats plan still works for us.
  • In early spring, the air and the soil are cold, and sowing a fast-growing vegetable crop will not be successful with a gap of less than eight weeks. Crops take too long to grow at this time of year.
  • If you have more than eight weeks you could try those fast-growing vegetables: kale, spinach, Tokyo bekana, radishes, chard, lots of salad crops, senposai, mizuna, tatsoi, land cress. Or try Eat-All Greens, an idea from Carol Deppe. Patches of carefully chosen cooking greens are sown in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ (30 cm) tall, Carol cuts the top 9″ (23 cm) off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil.
  • In late March or April in climates like ours, we can sow winter wheat or winter rye – they will not head up, but will “wimp out” when it gets hot. That is, they will stop growing, so you won’t get a lot of biomass, but you will have some live roots in the soil, holding it together and taking care of the soil microfauna, and discouraging weeds form germinating. One year when our spring-planted potatoes got flooded, we transplanted potato plants to the drier end of the patch and sowed winter rye in the lower end, once the floods had subsided. This kept the soil covered, scavenged the compost we had spread for the potatoes, and was easy to deal with in July when we harvested the potatoes. It was also much more hopeful; to look at an area of green cover crop than an area of green weeds!
  • Once we get to March 31 here, it is too late in the year for us to sow oats (they will quickly head up after making very little growth) and too soon to rely on frost-tender cover crops. See the section in February’s post on the Stale Seedbed and Tarping Techniques.

    Tarping beds to kill weeds.
    Photo Cornell Small Farms Unit
  • By mid-April, it is an option to sow a mix of oats and buckwheat. The oats will protect the buckwheat somewhat from the cold. I’ll come back to that idea next month.

Incorporating cover crops, or not

See Barbara Pleasant: How to Take Cover Crops Down. Gardeners working with small tools can start by mowing their live cover crops, grazing poultry on them, or scything them and hauling them aside to use later for mulch. On a very small scale, you can pull your cover crop plants, although I think it is valuable to leave the roots in the soil. On a larger scale, you can graze larger animals, or cut the cover crop down. If the cover crop was winter-killed, the stems will easily disintegrate, so you can skip the cutting down part of these instructions.

If you plan to incorporate the cover crop, choose a mowing method that cuts the plants into small pieces, making them easier and faster to incorporate. On a small scale, this could be a weed whip or a lawn mower; on a larger scale a bush hog. If you plan to use the cover crop for mulch, cut it in a way that leaves the stems as whole as possible. On a small scale this means a sickle or scythe, on a bigger scale, the kind of machinery you might use to cut hay.

Cover crop of rye, vetch and crimson clover in March.
Photo Kathryn Simmons
Rows of Roma paste tomatoes, some on bioplastic, some no-till. Credit Bridget Aleshire

After getting the cover crop down, you could tarp for a minimum of three weeks (allow for more), or you could work the residue into the soil, with a chopping hoe or by digging it in, or using a walk-behind two-wheel tractor such as BCS with a rototiller or a power harrow, or a four-wheel tractor and discs. Cornell has posted a webinar Pairing Tarping with Cover Crops, by Brian Marr.

If you incorporate the cover crop into the soil green, you will also need to wait two or three weeks (or more in early spring) to plant or sow, to give the cover crop time to break down in the soil before it can be available for your crop.

Winter rye produces allelopathic substances that can temporarily inhibit the germination and growth of small seeds. Wait three weeks after turning under before sowing. Transplants don’t suffer the same problem. Oats, wheat, and other cereals also have this tendency, but to a much smaller degree, usually small enough to ignore. Sorghum-Sudan grass hybrid incorporated fresh in the soil hinders the growth of tomatoes, lettuce, and broccoli, but that’s a summer cover crop you won’t need to think about for several months.

I still haven’t got to my Conference notes on cover crop workshops, 2023-2024, but this is enough for one post!

Book Review: The Lean Micro Farm, Ben Hartman

 

The Lean Micro Farm cover

The Lean Micro Farm: How to Get Small, Embrace Local, Live Better, and Work Less. Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green Publishers, November 2023. 260 pages, 7 x 10 inches, with color photos, charts and diagrams throughout. $34.95.

 Jump in and learn how to make a good living growing vegetables on 1/3 of an acre. Support two adults and two children and provide good-paying jobs for a small farm crew. The ideas and methods here can also be used by home gardeners seeking efficient use of time and space. Or first read Ben Hartman’s previous books The Lean Farm and The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables, where Ben teaches how to cut out waste and maximize efficiency on a 1-acre farm, before this newest book. As in his farming, Ben’s books have minimal waste! Descriptions and explanations are concise, to the point, clear, thoughtful and inspiring.

Even after applying Lean principles (from manufacturing) to his previous two farms, Ben was working too much and not having enough time for family and friends. He and his partner Rachel embarked on a quest to make the same amount of income, and support their family on 1/3 of an acre instead of the one acre they had farmed for 11 years. They reduced their travel time by moving closer to schools and customers. All their produce is now sold within 1½ miles of their farm! All their crops grow within 60 paces of their barn-house.

This book is packed with ideas for maximizing efficiency on farms of all sizes, including finding hyper-local markets, using deep-mulch no-till beds with quick two-step bed flips, choosing ergonomic and efficient tools and focusing on five crops that maximize income. An appendix provides tips for seven more crops.

Rachel and Ben discovered, as other farmers have, that having children changes things. Even with a few years of careful planning, and streamlining all their farming systems before the children were born, they were overworked and stressed. More changes were called for.

Get-Small pairs well with Lean, especially with selling very locally. Applying the Lean system starts with decluttering and organizing, keeping only frequently-used items in the production areas. Next identify precisely what your customers value. Then cut out waste that doesn’t contribute to efficiently providing produce that meets those values. Overproduction, waiting, transportation, over-processing, holding excess inventory, wasted motion, defective products, overburdening, uneven production and sales, and unused talent are all forms of waste that Ben identifies. Lastly, practice kaizen, or continuous improvement.

Images from Clay Bottom Farm

Small farms can help combat climate change (less shipping), reduce food waste, reduce start-up costs (enabling new farmers of lesser means, including more cultural diversity), reduce food deserts, increase biodiversity, and stabilize food supply in times of disruption. Small farmers are providing 70% of the world’s food while using only 30% of the world’s resources. Macro-ag provides sugar, corn syrup, soybeans, corn, mostly used to make junk food for humans and livestock.

The Lean Micro Farm explains five principles of getting small, illustrated by six tiny-farm profiles from across the world, where farmers are choosing a resilient, ecological approach, with minimal waste, and less use of plastics, petroleum and fertilizer.

The five principles are:

  1. Leverage Constraint
  2. Build Just Enough
  3. Essentialize
  4. Simplify
  5. Localize

Leverage Constraint means to identify a few specific limits, based on your values, that you will use to steer your farm, and be more focused. By their seventh year, Clay Bottom Farm was very successful. They built their 4th greenhouse while working flat out 6 days a week, growing 60 crops and selling all they grew to 50 CSA customers, 10 restaurants and 2 grocery stores. The farm hosted interns, dinners, and parties. Then baby #1 arrived, and #2 followed 18 months later. Time to set limits on the farm work! Doing this pushed them to move location, starting with a land search in 2017.

Areas for limit setting can include income, work time, resource consumption, infrastructure, land, driving around. One boundary they agreed on is to complete their farm work in 35 hours a week, max. To achieve this, they hired people. Another is to grow on 1/3 acre or less, which they achieved by giving up low-value crops, reducing crop failures, and filling unplanted space within 2 weeks. Their third boundary is to sell only in Goshen, their home city. This greatly reduces driving time, gasoline use and their carbon footprint.

Unsurprisingly, introducing constraints also introduced some anxiety and emotional reluctance. The worries did not pan out. They discovered that clear limits help you do better, and having a written summary of goals and limits, and another person to check-in with, help prevent “limit creep”.

The principle of Building Just Enough saves resources. When designing farm buildings from scratch, study traditional farm buildings in different cultures. Let the design follow from the flow of activities in the building. Build to last and be environmentally friendly. Making maximum use of the infrastructure you have helps spread fixed costs over a bigger base. The Barn-house is divided by a cement-floored workroom; a propagation greenhouse is attached to the south house wall.

The principle of Essentializing (Do less, but better) makes use of the Pareto Principle: about 20% of the products generate 80% of the income, 20% of the customers provide 80% of the cash. To apply this principle, first determine which crops are vital. There are three essential factors: the crop has to be one you can produce in high volume, with low costs, that sells at a good fair-market price. As well as cash crops for their income, Clay Bottom grows a home garden. I think the time spent on the homesteading crops doesn’t count as work within the 35-hour limit.

Also consider your customers and which are essential. You can’t include everyone! Keep customers that provide consistent high-volume orders, pay fair prices and are closest to your farm. You may also choose to sell at a discount to a worthy cause. Be sure the essential customers get what they need, and you get enough income. Be sure you understand what the customers really value. Don’t waste effort fulfilling imagined values.

The book includes bubble charts where crops, or customers, are represented by circles with areas showing their relative sales revenue. This is a visual way to learn that equal efforts don’t produce equal outcomes. If you want to work less, ruthlessly focus on the overlap between the 20% of vital products and the 20% of vital customers. Rachel and Ben are now able to make more than $85,000 in sales annually.

At Clay Bottom Farm, their five vital crops include tomatoes, salad mix, cilantro, spinach and kale. The four secondary crops are cucumbers, carrots, basil and sugar snap peas. As far as their vital few customers, they stopped delivery to 3 of their 7 restaurants, the winter farmers market, and paused their CSA.

Ben was transplanting tomatoes in the greenhouse on the day the restaurants closed with the Covid pandemic. They brainstormed and made a plan to deliver vegetables they’d planted for the restaurants, along with some fast-growing ones they hastily sowed, to CSA customers. The vegetables were delivered (without packaging) into coolers set out on their porches. Their quick pivot saved the business.

The Simplify principle applies particularly to fieldwork. Which tasks are truly essential? How can tasks be simplified? They introduced a no-till deep mulch system, which halved their bed prep time. They keep every tool visible under an overhang, and return them by the end of the workday.

Review completed tasks, and if needed, determine what to change to prevent failure next time. Don’t overplant because you expect failure! Divide possible solutions to a given challenge into four quadrants: complex and productive, simple and productive, complex and inefficient, simple and inefficient. Look for the solutions that are simple and productive.

The Swadeshi principle of weaving into the village includes opening your farm to other local people. Host meals, workshops, events for children. Provide good jobs for local people, host volunteers and interns. Don’t overstep your limits, of course. Localize fertility, by replacing inputs from far away, making your own good compost, inviting delivery of local street leaves, food production byproducts.

Part Two goes into designing and implementing efficient systems for high flow production. It starts with instructions for their deep mulch no-till system. You will need to get the book, as here I am only offering a broad glimpse of what is involved.

To set up a deep mulch system, clear your garden area and lay 4″ of good compost on the surface. Rake it smooth and plant into it. Every two years or so, add another inch of compost on the surface. Methods of clearing your plot include mowing, then tilling or tarping. Tilling is best if you have perennial weeds, or lots of grasses. Don’t be tempted to spread compost on ground with bits of grass growing! 4″ of compost will smother new weeds, but not established grasses. Lumpy compost is OK for this job, but it must be weed-free.

Clay Bottom Farm does not use cover crops. They leave as much of their crop material in or on the bed as is practical, and make lots of compost. Steve Wisbaum’s low-input compost method is recommended, with turning three times at critical stages, but no fancy equipment or strange amendments. There is a home-gardener version, adding materials bit-by-bit. It only needs turning once a year and should be ready in 9-12 months. I believe our very high phosphorus levels at Twin Oaks are partly due to using lots of compost, and we have beefed up our cover crop practices. I suggest you test your soil every two or three years and see the results of whatever you have been doing.

Ben Hartman using a paperpot transplanter.
https://www.claybottomfarm.com/

Free Paperpot Webinar with Ben Hartman, March 7, 2024

Join Ben at 4pm EST on Thursday, March 7 to learn how to use the paperpot transplanting system, a Japanese method of planting with paper chains, to give your farm or garden a boost. 

If you plan to use a paperpot transplanter, or think you might, design your layout with 75′ beds, as this is length planted by a half-chain of paperpots. Otherwise, choose somewhere in the 50′ to 100′ range for ease of access. Keep paths clear (no mulch) for ease of working with a wheel hoe.

The Two-Step Bed Flip process follows, saving huge amounts of time. For bed prep only two things are necessary: clearing the old crop (or weeds) and smoothing the ground ready for the next crop. Tarping saves a lot of effort, and enables you to plant more than one crop in a season. Cover the old crops with a silage tarp and let the plants decay. In sunny weather this will take just a few weeks. Clay Bottom Farm uses a 14′ x 75′ tarp that covers two beds (and three paths) at a time. Sandbags are set along the tarp edges every two paces. Remove the tarp and rake the surface, pulling any remaining debris into the path. Then replant the bed.

This system leaves the decaying roots in the ground, providing air channels and food for microbes. The decaying matter on the surface feeds the soil. In summer, small greens decompose in a few days. Two weeks is long enough for most crop breakdown in May-September in Indiana. Full size finished fall greens may take until spring to break down. Tall plants need to be cut down before tarping, so the tarp can lie flat and taut. You can plant the new crop between the rows of old crop remains, without disturbing the soil.

The Two-Step Bed Flip keeps the soil biota alive. Use a soil testing lab for nutrient levels and organic matter to assess biological life in the soil, and the Haney soil test to measure CO2 and soil aggregation. Ben has found that on both types of test their soil is improving each year.

If you need the bed sooner than tarping can provide, use a wheel hoe to undercut the old crop, rake it up into a pile at the end of the bed, and replant. Ben recommends the battery-powered Tilmor E-Ox electric wheel hoe for tough jobs.

Learn lean farming online with the Lean Market Growing Masterclass

They drastically reduced their tools to just 7 vital cultivation tools, removing rarely used ones to storage. For bed prep, they use the 30″ rake sold by Johnny’s and Earth Tools. PEX plumbing piping can be fit on tines to mark planting rows. A good wheel hoe with Hoss fixed blade (no oscillation) open sweeps is used to clear paths and loosen compacted soil. An aluminum scoop shovel is used to spread compost and grade paths. Buy one the same width as your paths. An adjustable width wire tine rack is used to tidy paths and between rows. A 6½” De Wit half-moon hoe (swan-neck hoe) performs many tasks around crop plants and a narrow collinear hoe cultivates between close rows of crops. Lastly, a Clarington Forge digging fork is used for removing root crops and tap-rooted perennial weeds. For harvesting, they use curved grape shears and 6″ stainless steel restaurant produce knives.

Learn how to convert a broken upright freezer or fridge into a germination chamber heated with a water-filled slow cooker controlled by an Inkbird thermostat. A working freezer is used in summer to germinate lettuce seeds, using the same thermostat. When the seedlings pop, move the trays to a grow-light table, using power-saving LED lights.

Field tools include the Jang seeder and the paperpot transplanter. Lithium-ion battery tools such as a brush cutter/string trimmer/edger, a leaf blower and a Jacto PJB backpack sprayer all make life easier for the aging farmer, meaning all of us, as Ben has found with the E-Ox, and the Tilther (good for lighter soils). The Quick-cut greens harvester from Farmers Friend is used several times a week for baby greens. Ben has added handle extensions (made from wiggle-wire channel) for improved ergonomics. Both the tilther and the greens harvester get power from a cordless drill.

Three types of cart haul the bounty: a Vermont garden cart, an electric golf cart and a 24″ wide flatbed cart for moving harvested greenhouse tomatoes between the rows.

Following the tool discussion comes a chapter on designing and building the infrastructure, including dealing with city permits and officials. Rachel and Ben sought a studio lifestyle, like that of other artisans working from home. They got their engineer-drafted site plan approved by the planning department. After that were several building inspections, including farming, mechanical and environmental inspections. Don’t underestimate the costs of all the permits and inspections. From his hard-won experience, Ben offers useful tips, starting with holding an interdepartmental meeting including the fire marshal, engineer, building inspector, planning department and anyone else who might have a stake in the project. Before the meeting date, prepare a good description of your project, with drawings and photos. Hand this out and ask the meeting if the project fits in with the city’s vision, and whether they are willing to work with you in addressing concerns. If possible, include at the beginning any changes you might want in a few years.

For this review I will skip over the sections on electric and solar energy systems, building design, passive heating, wells and more. Those who need that info, especially anyone making a new wash-pack space, will find the book helpful. (I am intrigued by learning of constant pressure well pumps, that adjust the amount of pressure according to the water in use, giving better performance and saving electricity.) Instead of a walk-in cooler, they use a three-door refrigerator cooled with an air-conditioner and a CoolBot, saving a lot on electricity. Produce is delivered within four hours of harvest.

The two plastic greenhouses use rack-and-pinion peak vents and sensors that activate them. In summer they pull shadecloth over the peak of the roof. Peak vent systems are becoming affordable – theirs came from CVS supply, an Amish manufacturer in Ohio (1-877-790-8269) – and can be retrofitted. Installation takes time, but is no more difficult than constructing the greenhouse.

Clay Bottom Farm has several automated greenhouse systems that have proved very worthwhile. One system opens and closes the peak vent and the sidewalls and can act as a thermostat for the heating (VCU2-24 from Advancing Alternatives). A Wi-Fi-enabled system from Orisha Automation sends phone alerts if temperatures get out of range. All of the farm’s automated systems can be controlled remotely.

Greenhouse and beds at Clay Bottom Farm

They built their greenhouses with walls 2′ higher than normal, to maximize useful space; concrete sidewalks across each end wall inside and out, with a lumber and foam sheet thermal barrier directly under the wall; bifold doors that slide up, creating a small overhang when open; steel hat-profile baseboards; a “Swedish skirt” of 1″ foam insulation along the sides of the greenhouse, covered with landscape fabric fastened to the baseboards and edged with steel landscape edging to keep out the weeds;

The book includes a new invention, the ultra-low tunnel, a boxed bed covered with rowcover supported on crosswise cables and held down by bungees. This is used to get an early start on spring crops.

There is a Five-Step Quick-Start Guide for those just starting up in farming, using a 5,000 sq ft plot in your backyard to grow $20,000 worth of produce. The 50′ x 100′ plot is divided into 12 beds. Allow 6 months to set up the infrastructure, starting the fall before your first growing season. Expect to spend $7,700 on seeds, compost, tools and a starter hoophouse, and to spend two or three days a week tending your crops in the peak season. This plan would work for a half-time grower. Buy the book – you know it will be worth it!

Rachel and Ben “Leaned” their farm to have a more satisfying life, less rush and more peace, with more time for their family. I loved seeing the photos of their two young boys at work. They are clearly applying themselves to their tasks, and show a lot of confidence and skill, and enjoyment.

While I fully support farmers figuring out which are the best, most profitable crops to grow, and specializing in those, I’m left with a concern about the bigger picture: when all the growers focus on greens, who will supply the local, sustainably grown potatoes, sweet corn, and squash? We have a two-part food system, with some lovely local organic crops and some jet-lagged pesticide-laced crops. I hope we come up with a more cooperative unified scheme before too long.

Author Ben Hartman

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.