Tag Archive for: Sustainable Agriculture

Growhaus Sign

We want to share GrowHaus with you. During recent travels, we toured this amazing micro-farm in the northeast section of Denver, CO. Starting with an old flower greenhouse in an isolated immigrant neighborhood, this is now a model of innovative urban farming.

Healthy Food is a Right, not a Privilege

GrowHaus is a non-profit indoor farm, marketplace and educational center in north Denver, CO. The neighborhood of Elyria-Swansea is a historically working class immigrant community. It is surrounded by industrial manufacturing and transportation industries. As a result the neighborhood is listed as the most polluted ZIP code in Colorado.

The Elyria-Swansea neighborhood has been a first home for recent immigrants since the 1880s. It has always had one of the lowest household incomes in the city with low education and employment levels.  

The area has endured a lack of access to healthy and affordable food with high rates of diet-related illnesses. This is due to their isolation within the industrial manufacturing and heavy industry areas.  

Their motto is “Healthy food is a right, not a privilege.”

GrowHaus developed out of an old flower greenhouse.  It incorporates several methods of growing food for local residents and restaurants in Denver.


Growhaus Market

We saw this is still a very busy industrial area with a large roofing and asphalt company and 4 lines of railroad tracks across the street.

The large hand-painted “Mercado” sign above a roll-up garage door indicated something unusual. The sign shows that vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy and more are available inside. Spanish and English are the predominant languages spoken here now, but historically this area has been a settling place for many different nationalities.

Challenging Conditions

Growhaus Map

The map shows just how crowded things are. A major rail line with multiple tracks is less than 50 feet from the front door. A large roofing and asphalt company are across the street to the east.

The modest sized homes are clear, with the line of older single wide mobile homes just to the right in the photo.

Just outside of the photo to the bottom is I-70, with its update and expansion just beginning. Much of the neighborhood to the south of the GrowHaus will be lost to the expansion and re-alignment.

When completed, I-70 will come within a couple hundred feet of the greenhouse. Two new light rail lines will be built in the next 10 years, cutting through the neighborhood.


Growhaus Map Closeup

Click to expand the close-up photo of the greenhouse and see just how tightly packed in the GrowHaus is.

The amount of food, education and community improvement that happens in this space is nothing short of amazing!


 Growhaus Tourguide

Our tour guide was an employee who is also a local resident. His insights and comments were very beneficial, having grown up in the neighborhood.

The food grown in the greenhouse is a world better than the boxed and fast foods he grew up eating!


Serious Food Production in a Small Space

Aquaponic Farming

There is both a hydroponics and aquaponics operation in the greenhouse. By partnering with local residents to grow food, provide jobs and education, everyone lives better.

Residents gain a valuable skill while earning money growing food they share with their families.

The hydroponics operation is 5,000 square feet and grows leafy greens. The customers are residents and local markets and restaurants throughout Denver. They grow about 1,200 heads of leafy greens per week using 90% less water than conventional farming.

The aquaponics side is 3,200 square feet, growing more leafy greens.

A commercial mushroom farm produces fresh specialty mushrooms year round for local use, restaurants and markets.

There is also a seedling starting nursery that’s just getting started. The nursery provides seedlings and young plant starts to area gardeners. 

GrowHaus is a vibrant and essential part of both the local and extended community in Denver.


Growhaus Tour Group

Our tour guide explains the growing, marketing and distribution of the butter lettuce from the hydroponics farm. Local residents who qualify buy food at cost with a sliding scale for other customers.


Aquaponics Butter Lettuce

A closer look at the butter lettuce and packaging. It is marketed as “living” lettuce because the roots are still attached. It stays fresher longer than conventionally grown lettuce that is cut from its roots when harvested.

This brings a premium price from restaurants and markets in Denver, increasing the earnings of the hydroponics farm.


Easing the Food Desert

Community Market Sign

The Elyria-Swansea neighborhood is classified as a “food desert”. This is defined as “an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.”

GrowHaus works to overcome this through three food distribution programs. They are  food boxes, the GrowHaus market and Cosechando Salud, a free food pantry and cooking class.

Food boxes are like a traditional CSA with food from GrowHaus and partner organizations. They have fresh fruits, vegetables and other items. The program is open to anyone in the greater Denver area.

The Mercado de al Lado is the neighborhood market, offering fresh produce, meat and dairy products year round.

The pricing is unique, using a tiered pricing system so that everyone has the maximum access to the healthiest foods possible.

Those that qualify can buy food at cost or a small percentage above the production cost. This gives greater access to healthy and fresh food to those who really need it.

Those who can afford to pay slightly below retail up to full retail prices, bringing profits to the program and keeping it running. 

The Cosechando Salud is a free food pantry and cooking class. It is supported by the profits of the distribution programs. It teaches cooking essentials while providing healthy food that was not sold at the markets, avoiding excess food waste. 


Permaculture and Classroom Space

Growhaus Common Area

The class space and common area are a permaculture design. It is a self-regulating edible ecosystem with figs, bananas and papayas. There are composting systems with worms, along with rabbits and chickens.

Growing bananas and papayas at a mile high in Denver’s climate is pretty impressive!

People Making a Difference

It is inspiring seeing the scope of the operations at GrowHaus, along with the number of programs and organizations they partner with.

A small group of dedicated individuals have accomplished much with a challenging environment in an isolated neighborhood. 

They have created a working, local, sustainable healthy food system which lives up to its mission. In doing so, they have also created a model of how inclusive participation and open cooperation with other like-minded organizations can expand the positive impact.

We left with the realization that one person can make a difference, even if it is in one other person’s life. That difference, and the results, are worth it!

Industrial Agriculture

What if we are seeing the peak of industrial agriculture, sort of like Peak Oil? What if this is as good as commercial, chemical, industrial and corporate agriculture gets? There are some early signs that this may, in fact, be true. Yes, the USDA shows that all agriculture added around $444 billion to our economy in 2012, but that doesn’t mean we are growing more food to feed more people, unlike the mantra of corporate ag of “feeding the world.” Industrial, commercial agriculture is growing more commodity crops – like #2 field corn that is not eaten directly, but pulled apart in labs and re-synthesized to make over 600 ingredients in packaged foods – for ethanol, for export or to feed animals in confined feedlots.

Surprisingly, the American Farm Bureau Federation was the one saying to their constituent farmers to get ready for a slowdown, or even a pull-back from the high water mark of today. Several reasons go into this prediction;  less demand for corn ethanol in gasoline, less imports of commodity crops of soybeans and corn from China and increasing restrictions on GMO crops of corn, soybeans and cotton in more countries around the world. Bob Young, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s top economist told a group at the annual meeting in Billings, MT that,”You’d almost have to view this period as ‘This is the best of times.’ I’d also tell you that whatever goes up like that, sooner or later, more than likely, one has to expect, one has to think about getting ready for it to go the other way.”

I’ve said many times that we will wind up in a sustainable economy with sustainable agriculture, either by choice or by force. Either we will figure out how to grow enough food to feed ourselves without stripping the soil of its nutrients and wrecking the planet or we will be thrown off that cliff and find ourselves at the bottom, picking ourselves up and trying to figure out how to feed those that remain. The same goes for the economy, we will learn to live within our means or face the consequences. 

I, for one, want to be able to choose how we move forward; to learn how to grow enough food to feed ourselves in an intelligent manner, eliminating the horrible 40% of food that is wasted in today’s systems.

The bright spot in all of this is that local, sustainable agriculture is taking off like never before, with no signs of slowing down. From younger people with no farming experience getting into growing, returning veterans taking up farming and growing both for food production and to heal themselves, urban agriculture plots and micro-farms forming CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture shares, to ever-increasing numbers of people switching to eating more organic produce and the double digit growth of Farmer’s Markets across the country, sustainable agriculture is really beginning to hit its stride.

All of this is the result of independent, de-centralized, non-governement directed, led or supported efforts of people all across the country who are working to make their own lives better and in the process, making those around them better as well. As Richard McCarthy, Executive Director for Slow Food USA says, “We need to celebrate those who are working to make a better food system, wherever they are.”



Move Over, Big Ag: Sustainability’s Moment Is Here

Agriculture poised for a decline, economist says

Farm to School Program

We are constantly talking about and promoting local, sustainable agriculture and the power of an individual’s choice. Many of the things that are going right in our world of agriculture, food, nutrition and health are the direct result of the intersection of local agriculture and an individual’s choice. One such example is the local Yavapai County Farm to School program that is in the beginning stages as a result of Paradigm Permaculture Coalition’s work.

Here is the press release for their work and first fundraiser, to be held this October 18th and 19th. We are pleased to share this with everyone as an invitation to help this particular program, but also to be inspired and invited to work within your local community to create something similar!

Dear Northern and Central Arizona Friends and Customers:

We are excited to be involved with a new grass-roots organization based right here in Yavapai County, the Paradigm Permaculture Coalition with the goal of bringing a Farm to School program to Yavapai County. Getting fresh, local foods into our schools here and across the nation is important in growing the next generation. We wanted to share with you more about this organization and upcoming events in October that we hope you will support.


Farm to School is a nationally recognized and USDA supported program with its inception in 1996-1997. A Farm to School initiative in Yavapai County was seeded in 2012 by a group of local educators and concerned citizens. The Yavapai County Farm to School Grant Advisory Committee applied for the 2012-2013 USDA Farm to School Planning Grant. In 2013, this group of invested partners grew to include Quad-City school districts, local agencies, and non-profits that are in alignment with providing nutrition education, access to fresh local produce for school meal programs, and hands-on gardening activities for school children. The committee applied for the 2013-2014 Planning Grant and will be notified in October if a recipient. The outcome of these efforts was the founding of Paradigm Permaculture Coalition. We are a 501c-3 in partnership with Cornucopia Community Advocates located in Sedona.

Mission & Vision

Paradigm Permaculture Coalition is an educational organization that inspires regenerative living practices in the desert southwest by promoting locally based agriculture through education, community outreach and networking. The term Permaculture was coined over 25 years ago by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, as a “Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements” or a conjunction of “permanent-culture, permanent-agriculture”.  This is a technology that mimics eco-systems and therefore, society via a system of zones or guilds.

We envision healthy relationships, happy hearts, and empowered people through the lens of permaculture principles of:  care of the earth, care of people, and a fair share for all. These actions encourage abundant growth and distribution of local and regional food, provide experiential education opportunities, and enrich local economies that nourish our communities for future generations.

Get Involved: Farm to Table Fundraiser

Our inaugural event will celebrate National Farm to School Month while informing parents, local educators, administrators, businesses and government officials through the engagement of an experiential education field day and ‘Cultural Connections through Local Food’ fun-raising event.

Mark your calendars for October 18th and 19th, 2013. Friday evening fun-raiser will feature local foods dinner, keynote speakers, multi-media presentations, silent auction and raffle. Saturday’s field day will include a visit to the Prescott Farmers Market, a tour of a local farm, and a luncheon with Q & A Farm to School Panel. These comprehensive groups of speakers are instrumental in their own Southwest communities, working toward Farm to School efforts. They offer us valuable information to guide our initiative in the planning and implementation for Yavapai County.

Friday, October 18, 2013 5:30 pm to 9:00 pm

Cultural Connections through Local Food – Yavapai County Farm to School Fundraiser

This fun filled evening will feature informative agricultural presentations by speakers from the Dine’ and Pima Indian Tribes, multi-media presentation on Farm to School, silent auction and raffle, with local foods dinner.  $20/per ticket, a portion of which is tax-deductable. All proceeds go toward the successful development of a Farm to School program in Yavapai County. Register for the Yavapai County Farm to School Fundraiser here!

Saturday, October 19, 2013 8:00 am to 3:00 pm

Educational Field Day

To include a visit to the Prescott Farmers Market, a tour of Mortimer Family Farm in Dewey, Chino Valley Farms in Chino Valley and a luncheon buffet with Q & A Farm to School Panel. This comprehensive group of speakers is instrumental in their own Southwest communities, developing and enhancing Farm to School programs. The panel will also include individuals working in our local school districts and Health Department to address food safety issues. They offer us valuable information to guide our initiative in the planning and implementation for Yavapai County. Register for the Educational Field Day here!

Thank you for supporting this project, please forward this email to your friends and neighbors to help spread the word!

Slow Food Southwest Regional Meeting

The Slow Food Southwest regional meeting was held in Chino Valley, AZ on June 8 and 9, 2013 with members from several Slow Food chapters including Phoenix, Prescott, Santa Fe, Southern Arizona and the Navajo Churro Lamb Presidia. In addition, Slow Food USA was present with Richard McCarthy, Executive Director and Aimee Thunberg, Associate Director of Communications.

The meeting was held at the Prescott chapter leader’s house, Molly Beverly. Regional and seasonal dishes were prepared and brought to the meeting, or cooked at the event. Several fermented salsas were offered as starters, with a wide range of dishes for the dinner and next day’s Sunday brunch.

Richard McCarthy, the new Executive Director for Slow Food USA opened the meeting with a thoughtful and honest overview of Slow Food’s successes and challenges that have come from its growth in the past several years. He then turned to look at the future and what he and the board have for the vision of Slow Food in the United States. There are some great things that are set to appear on the horizon in the next few months!

After the meeting finished, dinner was prepared by the Prescott chapter while everyone enjoyed getting to know each other. New friendships and partnerships were formed over some incredibly tasty food, along with a lot of laughter and joking. At our table the two Navajo representatives demonstrated that they have a seriously funny side to them that is both creative and has stamina as we were hooting and hollering for well over an hour! Several people from the other table came over to see what all the noise was about, and wound up staying to enjoy the good times.

The next morning started with an indescribably delicious Sunday brunch, after which we finished up the meeting. A lot of networking happened both days, with a result that the Southwest chapters are looking forward to working much more closely together to share and spread the word of how wonderful Slow Food is.

Enjoy the video and overview of the Southwest Regional meeting!

From New York to Africa, Why Food is Saving the World

Brian Halweil shares an important message about how food can and does change the world for the better. This short TED talk reminded me of my days in college and reading the same Paul Ehrlich title. Sometimes as individuals we can be overwhelmed with facts and figures, doom and gloom. In order to make positive changes in the world and home, we each need to take one step at a time. We hope this video inspires you to do just that!

Our local Slow Food Prescott chapter held its almost-monthly meeting and potluck, along with a fermentation workshop hosted by Allison Jack, Agroecology faculty at Prescott College and Molly Beverly, Chef at Crossroads Café of Prescott College. This workshop was a reprisal of the fermentation workshop and book-signing that Sandor Katz presented on October 24th. Unfortunately, we were in Italy, tasting our way through Turin and missed his presentation and workshop.

The evening got its usual tasty Slow Food start with a potluck of home-made, home-grown or locally sourced dishes. It has been remarkable to see the growth of this chapter in the past couple of years in respect to its palate, understanding of quality ingredients and love for truly locally made foods. It is pretty common to hear of someone describing their dish as having the majority of the ingredients from their own garden, or proudly naming who grew or raised them from the area. The array of dishes from almost 40 people was inspiring! Not only was the number of people attending impressive, the quality and flavor of the dishes would be at home in a high-end restaurant or supper club. There was a fermented section, with fermented tomato paste, beets, carrots and sourdough bread all adding their unique flavors to the dining.

After dinner was finished the main event was then opened, with Allison presenting some tried and true recipes for a quick kim chee and Hungarian sauerkraut. Everyone brought assorted vegetables that they wanted to ferment, and the fun began! After a short presentation by Allison, everyone got to grating, chopping and slicing their veggies and putting them into jars to start the fermentation. People got to see some new techniques of vegetable processing, new combinations to ferment and generally had a lot of fun learning from each other.

We recorded a short video to help bring the experience and flavors to you. Enjoy!

Local Food Economy

The Local Food Movement Gets A New Prescription

The local food economy is entering a completely new chapter with such seemingly unlikely partners as St. Joseph Mercy Hospital of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Leading edge, innovative hospitals such as St. Joseph’s are working to incorporate more local, sustainably grown produce into their menus and food systems. Things quickly become complicated due to the sheer amount of food that is prepared and the time needed for prepping. For instance the soup du jour for 600 people is 65 gallons. The ingredients needed in one just day’s vegetable soup would require hours of prepping and chopping, but is supplied by the current food distribution system already pre-washed, sliced, diced or cubed and ready for the cooking process. As an example, the green beans sourced from a local grower – 200 pounds of them – required 8 hours of washing, snipping, stringing and slicing to prep for that day’s evening meal. Even though the food was sustainable, the processing wasn’t as the kitchen isn’t equipped to handle that amount of prep work on a continuous, daily basis.

There is a tremendous enthusiasm and pressure from consumers of all sizes for more local food. These consumers aren’t just the mom and dad at the farmer’s market on Saturday, but are increasingly including the large scale commercial consumers such as hospitals, universities and large businesses that are looking to satisfy their customers and employees desire for better tasting, more healthy, local food. This is a good, or possibly great thing, if it can be handled to benefit everyone in the equation. One of the biggest challenges for local food economies is that the commercial consumers have been set up to take advantage of the industrial food distributors efficiency and convenience. They are the keystones as to why and how large distributors reign supreme in this market. Everything shows up prepped and ready to use – something that isn’t even thought of in the local food model. Granted, there can be some improvements in the commercial consumers kitchens, as most of them do not have any facilities set up for any prepping whatsoever. This can be remedied, but takes dollars, forethought, planning, construction and time to accomplish.

Farmer’s markets are an important piece of building the local food system, but they are still such a small part of the entire US food production – less than 1 percent for the just over 7,000 markets across the country- that significant growth and positive impacts for the legion of local growers can be realized by connecting small and mid-sized local farms with these institutional, commercial consumers in their local communities. Even very small changes in the purchasing patterns of these consumers can have major changes in the local food system, as an average sized hospital’s food budget can easily top $4 million annually. Just 1% of that is $40,000 that would stay in the local food system, making a huge positive impact. A more realistic figure of 2 – 3% purchasing change means $80,000 – $120,000 going into the local grower’s systems. What benefits and opportunities can you see $80,000 having on your local farmer’s market and local food network?

There are a couple of workable solutions to the questions of efficient local food distribution to make life easier for these larger customers. One is a regional food distribution hub, which some models have proven successful and others have failed in different regions of the country. Another is a co-operative system that partners with a smaller, regional food distribution system that is already in place, effectively adding a “local, sustainable food” section to it’s inventory of supplies and services. There are still others that bear examining and evaluating to see if they would work for a particular need or application.

There are a growing number of institutions just like St. Joseph’s who are responding to their customer’s desires and needs by putting their not inconsiderable moral, ethical and financial weight behind new local food initiatives. The market is there, it just needs some evaluating, adjustments and planning to make it happen, with hugely beneficial results for both the growers who can create the relationships and supply the needs as well as the institutional consumers that can broadcast the triumphs of inter-weaving local, healthy, sustainable food into their menus.

A New Prescription For the Local Food Movement

Food is at the forefront of many people’s minds today, with daily news channels reporting on foods to avoid for health reasons, food safety recalls almost daily, foods that a new study has shown will fight this or that disease, the growth of farmer’s markets and endless debates on local, sustainable food. Some articles and organizations trumpet the dire need to “feed the world”, while others are talking about feeding ourselves. There is ample evidence that food waste is a serious problem and that distribution systems are the culprit. Food has become noticeably more expensive over the past couple of years, with higher prices expected due to this year’s hard drought across much of the Midwestern US.

What’s a person to do today about sourcing and eating real, good and healthy food? One excellent example is that of Hnin W. Hnin, or more specifically, her mom. That’s right, her mom – a local, sustainable, cultural food hero to her family and an example of what is possible for everyone. Hnin’s family immigrated to New York over 25 years ago, but her mom has faithfully kept their cultural food traditions alive by cooking daily. She shops at the local farmer’s markets when she can, and the supermarket or discount stores when she can’t. She doesn’t cook every day to be hip, trendy or because some article in some magazine said it was the thing to do. She does it because that’s how she has been able to keep her family fed all these years on a shoestring budget. They have cooked their traditional, cultural foods that have helped them keep their identities intact in a world that wants to assimilate and homogenize everyone and everything. We could learn some serious lessons from them. Americans have the blessings and simultaneous curse of having a melting pot culture. Many of us have no strong cultural identity to ground us today, and so are swayed by corporate advertising that promises us a better life or to make us feel better about ourselves if we eat this or drink that. We are lead to believe that healthy food is more expensive, when the exact opposite is more often the case.

Eating real, good and healthy food everyday is not just the realm of the wealthy or famous, as is sometimes thought when we see the prices of organic produce in a Whole Foods market. It is possible to eat well and not spend a fortune doing so. That is where food justice and local and sustainable agriculture comes in. Everyone is more engaged with a local agricultural community, from the producers to the consumers. There is much more transparency, so everyone has a higher stake in the process, with resulting higher overall quality. The Slow Food organization mission statement is for food that is “good, clean and fair”. There are no modifiers in that statement, so it applies to everyone, everywhere. By bringing together a focus on good food – healthy, tasty, chemical free with clean food such as organic, local and sustainable along with fair food that brings sovereignty, food access and fair wage and labor into the mix there is a community of diversity that has not been seen yet on the world stage that is food. There is some real potential here, a nationwide community that is as diverse as it is engaged, committed and passionate about “good, clean and fair” food for everyone. It is surprising to some to see the growth in decentralized, independent food communities and pathways that have appeared across the nation. It is of no surprise to others who have worked to make it happen, a little at a time.

Sustainable food is how we will eventually feed ourselves on this planet, either by choice or by force. The current system is patently unsustainable and will continue to create more damages than benefits as it grows and continues, until it collapses. By definition, we will arrive at a sustainable food system or we won’t arrive at all. Exactly how this sustainable system functions is very much a work and dialogue in progress, with everyone having a say in it. Good, clean and fair are excellent starting points to found this new paradigm, and continue the work of building a network of diverse local food communities that nourish all of us.

Mom knows best: How food justice starts at home

Betting on Sustainable Agriculture

“It now appears that we are about five years into a chronic global food crisis that is unlikely to fade for many decades…”

These words were written by none other than an investment strategist who looks at what is or will be profitable in the future and he is betting that sustainable agriculture is one of them. Jeremy Grantham has also talked about the finite resources that are becoming apparent to all but those in government, industry and economists. He believes that our most pressing issue we are facing today is not energy or one of many other crises that we are facing, but food. Food, the third most important ingredient for life is, or soon will become center stage of the world’s attention.

Why the focus on food? Won’t GMOs and industrial agriculture feed us all? The fact of the matter is that system is completely unsustainable. It requires massive amounts of petrochemicals and petroleum just to keep it moving, much less expanding. As the cost of those petrochemicals and fuel continue to rise it will simply become much too expensive to grow food in that system, despite any and all subsidies, price protections or trade restrictions. Right now the foundation of the food system is in crises. The farmers are being squeezed while the corporate food manufacturers are still profitable. It is very easy to see the declining grain production (even before the drought of the past 2 years), across the board increases in resource costs and plummeting crop yields from petrochemical fertilizers. The future of industrial scale farming isn’t looking too rosy right now. What happens when the farmers can’t afford to farm? When they can’t afford the costs to run the tractors, buy the seeds, fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides that are required to grow the industrial crops? Who will do the growing then?

From his quarterly letter –

• Grain productivity has fallen decade by decade since 1970 from 3.5% to 1.5%. Quite probably, the most efficient grain producers are approaching a “glass ceiling” where further increases in productivity per acre approach zero at the grain species’ limit (just as race horses do not run materially faster now than in the 1920s). Remarkably, investment in agricultural research has steadily fallen globally, as a percent of GDP.
• Water problems will increase to a point where gains from increased irrigation will be offset by the loss of underground water and the salination of the soil.
• Persistent bad farming practices perpetuate land degradation, which will continue to undermine our long-term sustainable productive capacity.
• Incremental returns from increasing fertilizer use will steadily decline on the margin for fertilizer use has increased five-fold in the last 50 years and the easy pickings are behind us.
• There will be increased weather instability, notably floods and droughts, but also steadily increasing heat. The last three years of global weather were so bad that to draw three such years randomly would have been a remote possibility. The climate is changing.
• The costs of fertilizer and fuel will rise rapidly.

Grantham believes that we will transition to a more or less to a sustainable, organic and largely regional food system in the foreseeable future. This, coincidentally, is almost the exact same argument that organic and sustainable farming folks have been talking about for several years now, although for somewhat different reasons. His thoughts are that we have a choice – we can voluntarily create and adapt the above mentioned sustainable food production model, or we will be forced to do so. Not by any government or corporation, but by scarcity. When industrial, chemical agriculture finally proves that it really can’t feed the world, what then? Organic, sustainable agriculture may be the only player left at the table.

He has bet on organic and sustainable agriculture by establishing foundations that finance research into better organic agriculture methods. Once the best practices and highest productivity methods are known, he wants to directly finance those organic farms. This will take some time, as there is no current infrastructure, training or experience on this scale to draw from and must be created. Current models need to be scaled up and tested to be able to dovetail into an overall system that not only helps to maintain itself, but grows itself as organically as the food it produces.

A Banker Bets on Organic Farming

Francis Land House, VA

“We are in an era when gardens are front and center for hopes and dreams of a better world or just a better neighborhood…”

What if urban farming isn’t just about feeding the hungry? There are many other crops – tangible and intangible – that are cultivated, raised, protected, harvested and shared from the soil of an urban garden or farm. The immediately obvious ones are the foods produced, but there are others such as education in many different directions, from how food is grown to ideals of peace and justice grown from your own backyard soil. Connections are planted, grown and strengthened as well. People get to know each other and can learn to accept other viewpoints and ideologies without the need to be right or win a discussion. Skills and growing techniques are passed on and strengthened.

One of the biggest crops that urban farming and indeed all human scaled agriculture is planting today is hope and reconnection. Hope that there is a way to provide food for ourselves and those that need a little extra without all of the destruction and isolation that is the norm for today’s industrial corporate agricultural model. Hope that we can heal the land that has fed us for multiple generations but has been so severely disrupted and damaged by chemical agriculture in the name of more production. The reconnection comes when ordinary everyday folks see how food is grown and can be grown in a simple, approachable and honorable manner. One that restores and improves the soil and landscape with each successive crop instead of weakening it.

By many indications, urban farming and human scale agriculture is on the rise and has been proven a success in many major cities across the United States. Burlington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and dozens of other American cities are showing that sustainable urban agriculture is not only possible, but effective in growing many more crops than just food. There is a saying, “If you want to change the world, plant a garden.” How does that work, exactly? Some of the produce is understanding, community, social transformation, and catalytic action along with the tomatoes and kale. Food connects people to economics, justice, pleasure, work, health and the future. The lessons learned and shared that are grown and harvested in the garden have far reaching effects, feeding minds as well as bodies.

Revolutionary Plots | Urban agriculture is producing a lot more than food

Urban Garden

Can Urban Farming Really Work?

Today we are going to look at a couple of opposing viewpoints on urban farming- that being the practice of growing food in an urban environment, more of a food producer than a hobby gardener with a windowsill box of daisies. Urban farming has become hip, cool and somewhat radical in mainstream America over the past few years, with Patti Moreno showcasing the Garden Girl TV that helped lead the way for growing food in the city to become acceptable. Long before that, Will Allen started Growing Power in Milwaukee, WI growing food in an urban landscape and teaching others how to do the same.

Our first article comes via AG Professional, an industrial farming magazine. The author – Maurice Hladik – is from a farming background with a degree in ag economics and was an ag diplomat to several countries. He says that he is a gardener and really enjoys it, but that urban farming in no way can make any measurable positive impact on our food supply, or feed any significant number of people in cities. He uses national land use figures and statistics to prove that the urban landscape is entirely unsuited to growing food. Um, really? What gave you that idea? He cites the fact that his house is built on a rocky outcropping and had to have many truckloads of soil brought in to create the lawn and gardening spaces.

The desire and skillsets of urban dwellers is brought into question next, with the comment of “hype and encouragement” for city folks to get out and grow a garden, with little visible results “given the lack of enthusiastic and capable gardeners” according to him. He challenges the sustainability of urban farming with the lack of suitable soil for growing that has to be trucked in. That soil was once farmland that has been removed from productivity, he states. Apparently he has never heard of the French intensive growing method that fed 90% of the city of Paris with 6 – 7% of the land inside the city limits. For over 350 years.

Water availability is addressed next, saying that rooftop gardens are water guzzlers in a water distribution system that has little excess capacity for irrigation. No mention of drip systems, gray water useage, rainwater collections, mulching or any of the other myriad approaches to reducing the amount of water needed. Urban farming on rooftops is a “thin layer of soil on a cement surface” that needs much more water than a conventional garden. Again, really? He cites a city of Toronto bylaw that states any buildings with flat roofs over 2,000 square feet are required to have some sort of garden. He goes on to say that because of the water issue, food production is out of the question and drought tolerant sedums are used almost exclusively there.

The two most disturbing and concerning points that he makes are at the end of the article. The first is that gardeners should enjoy their hobby and not worry their pretty little heads about feeding the world. Leave that burden to those who can. How @$#!* condescending! The second is that “someone” has a responsibility to feed the world. That “someone”, obviously, is industrial agrobusiness and not anyone else. Why does there have to be one entity that acts as the world’s supermarket? Is there really that need, or is this mantra another construct that has been promoted and pushed for so long that many now believe it? What about improving the capacity of each community and nation to feed itself and get away from the extractive export model? Look at Cuba and Russia as examples of how small, human scale agriculture can, in a real world situation, feed itself.

The article is worth reading, especially the reader comments!

Urban farming is an urban myth

Here is a great rebuttal written by Devon G. Peña, a professor of agroecology, ethnoecology, and the anthropology of food in Seattle.

history shows urban farms can feed cities

Sustainable Food Grows in Strip Mall Parking Lot

The Holland Town Center in Holland, MI is a mostly empty, struggling strip mall with an engaging, unique story. Located in what is described as a food desert – a low-income population center that has limited access to supermarkets or large grocery stores – the mall management contacted Eighth Day Farm about tearing up 1.3 acres of parking lot to grow a sustainable food garden, feeding and educating the local community from it. Produce from the farm will go to Eighth Day’s CSA program, with a farm stand on the property selling directly to the local public.

As one would imagine, there were significant challenges to overcome just in getting the soil ready for planting. After stripping off the asphalt, the top 2 feet of soil were removed and replaced with quality topsoil. Irrigation had to be completely established, compost worked into the soil, fencing built, beds planned and made before planting could even be thought of. They were starting a lot further back than just vacant land.

The Holland Town Center location is much larger than their other property, allowing them to expand the amount of food they can grow and reach many more people that do not otherwise have reasonable access to fresh and healthy food. In reaching this new market segment, people will have the opportunity not only to visit the farm when buying food at the farmstand, but participate in learning how and where some of their food is grown including picking their own food. There has been incredible community interest and support in the early stages of the new project.

Strip Mall Parking Lot Torn Up to Make Way for Sustainable Urban Farm Oasis in Food Desert

Eighth Day Farm KickStarter Project

Barry Estabrook is well-known for his new book “Tomatoland” that shows how, exactly, those perfect red, round, hard and tasteless tomatoes show up on our grocery store shelves. Here is an article that he wrote on the ongoing debate of how are we going to feed ouselves- all of us- in the coming years. Please take the time to look at the links to articles and studies, it’s well worth your time!

The Atlantic Home

Read the original article online at:


Organic Can Feed the World
By Barry Estabrook

“Given that current production systems leave nearly one billion people undernourished, the onus should be on the agribusiness industry to prove its model, not the other way around.”

“We all have things that drive us crazy,” wrote Steve Kopperud in a blog post this fall for Brownfield, an organization that disseminates agricultural news online and through radio broadcasts. Kopperud, who is a lobbyist for agribusiness interests in Washington, D.C., then got downright personal: “Firmly ensconced at the top of my list are people who consider themselves experts on an issue when judging by what they say and do, they’re sitting high in an ivory tower somewhere contemplating only the ‘wouldn’t-it-be-nice’ aspects.”

At the top of that heap, Kopperud put Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, a contributor to Atlantic Life and the author of Food Politics, the title of both her most well-known book and her daily blog.

“There’s a huge chunk of reality missing from Dr. Nestle’s academic approach to life,” Kopperud wrote. “The missing bit is, quite simply, the answer to the following question: How do you feed seven billion people today and nine billion by 2040 through organic, natural, and local food production?” He then answers his own question. “You can’t.”

What is notably lacking in the “conventional” versus organic debate are studies backing up the claim that organic can’t feed the world’s growing population.

As a journalist who takes issues surrounding food production seriously, I too have things that drive me crazy.

At the top of my list are agribusiness advocates such as Kopperud (and, more recently, Steve Sexton of Freakonomics) who dismiss well-thought-out concerns about today’s dysfunctional food production system with the old saw that organic farming can’t save the world. They persist in repeating this as an irrefutable fact, even as one scientific study after another concludes the exact opposite: not only that organic can indeed feed nine billion human beings but that it is the only hope we have of doing so.

“There isn’t enough land to feed the nine billion people” is one tired argument that gets trotted out by the anti-organic crowd, including Kopperud. That assertion ignores a 2007 study led by Ivette Perfecto, of the University of Michigan, showing that in developing countries, where the chances of famine are greatest, organic methods could double or triple crop yields.

“My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can’t produce enough food through organic agriculture,” Perfecto told Science Daily at the time.

Too bad solid, scientific research hasn’t been enough to drive that nail home. A 2010 United Nations study (PDF) concluded that organic and other sustainable farming methods that come under the umbrella of what the study’s authors called “agroecology” would be necessary to feed the future world. Two years earlier, a U.N. examination (PDF) of farming in 24 African countries found that organic or near-organic farming resulted in yield increases of more than 100 percent. Another U.N.-supported report entitled “Agriculture at a Crossroads” (PDF), compiled by 400 international experts, said that the way the world grows food will have to change radically to meet future demand. It called for governments to pay more attention to small-scale farmers and sustainable practices — shooting down the bigger-is-inevitably-better notion that huge factory farms and their efficiencies of scale are necessary to feed the world.

Suspicious of the political motives of the U.N.? Well, there’s a study that came out in 2010 from the all-American National Research Council. Written by professors from seven universities, including the University of California, Iowa State University, and the University of Maryland, the report finds that organic farming, grass-fed livestock husbandry, and the production of meat and crops on the same farm will be needed to sustain food production in this country.

The Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute is an unequivocal supporter of all things organic. But that’s no reason to dismiss its 2008 report “The Organic Green Revolution” (PDF), which provides a concise argument for why a return to organic principles is necessary to stave off world hunger, and which backs the assertion with citations of more than 50 scientific studies.

Rodale concludes that farming must move away from using unsustainable, increasingly unaffordable, petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides and turn to “organic, regenerative farming systems that sustain and improve the health of the world population, our soil, and our environment.” The science the report so amply cites shows that such a system would

  • give competitive yields to “conventional” methods
  • improve soil and boost its capacity to hold water, particularly important during droughts
  • save farmers money on pesticides and fertilizers
  • save energy because organic production requires 20 to 50 percent less input
  • mitigate global warming because cover crops and compost can sequester close to 40 percent of global CO2 emissions
  • increase food nutrient density

What is notably lacking in the “conventional” versus organic debate are studies backing up the claim that organic can’t feed the world’s growing population. In an exhaustive review using Google and several academic search engines of all the scientific literature published between 1999 and 2007 addressing the question of whether or not organic agriculture could feed the world, the British Soil Association, which supports and certifies organic farms, found (PDF) that there had been 98 papers published in the previous eight years addressing the question of whether organic could feed the world. Every one of the papers showed that organic farming had that potential. Not one argued otherwise.

The most troubling part of Kopperud’s post is where he says that he finds the food movement of which Pollan and Nestle are respected leaders “almost dangerous.” He’s wrong. The real danger is when an untruth is repeated so often that people accept it as fact.

Given that the current food production system, which is really a 75-year-old experiment, leaves nearly one billion of the world’s seven billion humans seriously undernourished today, the onus should be on the advocates of agribusiness to prove their model can feed a future population of nine billion — not the other way around.

Copyright © 2012 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.

The most powerful, compelling statements of this article are in the last three paragraphs, appropriately enough. The statement by conventional, industrial Agribusiness advocates and lobbyists is repeated often enough, and with a chilling similarity to the GMO statements to make us believe them, just because we hear it non-stop. Interestingly, those statements are all about quantity, yield and production with no mention of nutrition, quality and health- of the soil, plants and the people eating them. One of the major disconnects of modern, industrial agribusiness is the intense focus on throughputs (chemicals) and outputs (production) that leads to profits, without acknowledging just what it is that the system is creating- food, the third most important ingredient in life, behind air and water. Food that should nourish, heal and energize us, not just keep us alive.

Conventional agriculture should be made to prove its mantra of being the only solution to feeding the world, seeing how at the same time it is failing to do just that by leaving 1 out of 7 of the current world population undernourished or starving. It is very curious to see how organic, local agriculture is dismissed out of hand as being an almost ridiculous fantasy notion, while there has been no proof offered at all to support its claim.

A rational, reasoned debate would be possible if there were a few studies that supported the industrial agribusiness’ position with the same quality of studies as those 98 showing organic, local agriculture can, in fact, feed us.

We introduced CoffeeCSA to our eNewsletter readers last issue in a brief article with the promise to do a follow-up once we had received our order and tasted it. After conducting extensive research- several enjoyable cups of incredible mochas, lattes and espressos- the time has come to do the actual writing!

Why CoffeeCSA Makes so Much Sense, on so Many Levels

CoffeeCSA is a new venture, launched in early April this year and has seen significant exposure in the press, with The New York Times, Huffington Post and RSF Social Finance all writing about them. Early response has been very positive as well.  CSAs, or Community Supported Agriculture, has gained attention in the past few years with it’s fresh, locally produced food model that directly connects the consumer with the farmer that grew their food. There are many benefits to this model, as the eater gets to meet and usually get to know the producer; supply chains are non-existant with the consumer picking up their food directly from the grower; the grower can respond to consumer requests for different varieties rapidly; and the grower/farmer/producer gets paid up front and in full, not after everyone else has taken their profit.

This is all well and good, you say, but what exactly does this have to do with coffee? Lots.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any coffee growers in the United States, as coffee is strictly a tropical crop. That means that there aren’t any local growers to most of the world’s population, and coffee is a food that will always be shipped in. This is where CoffeeCSA shines as it is 100% grower owned, 100% of the profits go to the farmers, the coffee has all of the great labels- fair-trade, shade grown, organic, hand roasted, single origin, etc. etc. Pachamama is the parent organization with about 140,000 farmers making up it’s ownership worldwide, so it is in good hands.

The grower-owned model is beneficial for all involved, as it provides a higher quality, sustainable, traceable cup of coffee for the drinker and much

Peruvian Coffee Beans

Peruvian Coffee Beans

more profits for the grower who is more able to remain in business providing that incredibly delicious cup of coffee we crave. Commercial commodity coffee growers make about $1.64 per pound of coffee and fair trade growers make around $2.18 per pound. CoffeeCSA growers get about $4.60 per pound from the sale of their own coffee, plus up to $3.60 per pound that comes from the cooperative profits. That’s double what fair trade certified growers get right from the start, with a significant amount more in profit sharing possible. All of this happens at a price that is usually quite a bit less than what you’d pay for similar quality coffee- around $9.99 per pound plus shipping.

The mechanics are similar to any other CSA. You go to CoffeeCSA.org, create your free membership, select how you want your coffee, buy it and wait for it to arrive at your door. The coffee is fresh roasted in Davis, CA and shipped soon after roasting so it is much fresher than that you are used to seeing in stores, even high-end ones that depend on traditional distribution channels after roasting. Some coffee is anywhere from a week to 10 days old before it even hits the shelves!

We ordered on a Thursday and received the coffee the next Monday by UPS where we live in Arizona. Upon opening the bag, I was surprised at how fresh and intense the aroma of the whole beans was. The primal scent of coffee was immediately there, closely followed by a rich earthy smell, then ending with chocolate. Now this was a great start!

Fresh Ground Coffee Beans

Fresh Ground Coffee Beans

The next morning was the first tasting. This is a medium roast, so there isn’t much oil on the outside of the bean. After grinding for the espresso machine, I caught a strong floral scent in addition to the others from the day before. The charge tamped a bit easier than other coffees, and the flow of crema was very full from the portafilter. Poking my nose into the cup after the double shot was done was educational, as it was much more intense, fresh, clean and lively than what I’m used to smelling. I’m thinking that these qualities are due to the single, hand grown origin, hand roasting and overall freshness of the beans. It really seemed that there was a huge amount of care, attention and love that I was inhaling the aroma of!

After steaming the milk, the first sip was delightful. I had selected this variety grown by Belhermina Aguilar in Santa Teresa, Peru for its’ description- “This single-origin coffee is sweet & smooth with strong chocolate notes.” The description was dead accurate, with the addition of being delicious! The flavors of the bean melded well with the sweetness of the raw cane sugar and richness of the fresh milk.

We enjoy drinking coffee for its’ flavor, not as a necessity of the caffeine, so this is a real treat to find such a top quality coffee at this price that

Rich Crema

Rich Crema

does so much good for everyone. The downside is that we now have much higher expectations when we go out for coffee, as we have rapidly become used to the superior flavors and aromas that hand-grown, harvested, selected and roasted coffee gives.

We will definitely be continuing with CoffeeCSA!

Why being a foodie isn’t ‘elitist’

There have been a lot of  ‘elitist’ accusations thrown around about just about anyone who is interested in learning more about the source of their food. We hear almost daily how ‘local food’, ‘organic growing’ and ‘sustainable methods’ won’t feed the world and we who are interested in any type of agriculture other than the status quo corporate chemical agriculture are choosing to starve the rest of the world.

To that end I present an article from Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation. My comments will be at the end.

By Eric Schlosser in Washington Post Opinions, April 29, 2011

At the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting this year, Bob Stallman, the group’s president, lashed out at “self-appointed food elitists” who are “hell-bent on misleading consumers.” His target was the growing movement that calls for sustainable farming practices and questions the basic tenets of large-scale industrial agriculture in America.

The “elitist” epithet is a familiar line of attack. In the decade since my book “Fast Food Nation” was published, I’ve been called not only an elitist, but also a socialist, a communist and un-American. In 2009, the documentary “Food, Inc.,” directed by Robby Kenner, was described as “elitist foodie propaganda” by a prominent corporate lobbyist. Nutritionist Marion Nestle has been called a “food fascist,” while an attempt was recently made to cancel a university appearance by Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” who was accused of being an “anti-agricultural” elitist by a wealthy donor.

This name-calling is a form of misdirection, an attempt to evade a serious debate about U.S. agricultural policies. And it gets the elitism charge precisely backward. America’s current system of food production — overly centralized and industrialized, overly controlled by a handful of companies, overly reliant on monocultures, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, chemical additives, genetically modified organisms, factory farms, government subsidies and fossil fuels — is profoundly undemocratic. It is one more sign of how the few now rule the many. And it’s inflicting tremendous harm on American farmers, workers and consumers.

During the past 40 years, our food system has changed more than in the previous 40,000 years. Genetically modified corn and soybeans, cloned animals, McNuggets — none of these technological marvels existed in 1970. The concentrated economic power now prevalent in U.S. agriculture didn’t exist, either. For example, in 1970 the four largest meatpacking companies slaughtered about 21 percent of America’s cattle; today the four largest companies slaughter about 85 percent. The beef industry is more concentrated now than it was in 1906, when Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle” and criticized the unchecked power of the “Beef Trust.” The markets for pork, poultry, grain, farm chemicals and seeds have also become highly concentrated.

America’s ranchers and farmers are suffering from this lack of competition for their goods. In 1970, farmers received about 32 cents for every consumer dollar spent on food; today they get about 16 cents. The average farm household now earns about 87 percent of its income from non-farm sources.

While small farmers and their families have been forced to take second jobs just to stay on their land, wealthy farmers have received substantial help from the federal government. Between 1995 and 2009, about $250 billion in federal subsidies was given directly to American farmers — and about three-quarters of that money was given to the wealthiest 10 percent. Those are the farmers whom the Farm Bureau represents, the ones attacking “big government” and calling the sustainability movement elitist.

Food industry workers are also bearing the brunt of the system’s recent changes. During the 1970s, meatpackers were among America’s highest-paid industrial workers; today they are among the lowest paid. Thanks to the growth of fast-food chains, the wages of restaurant workers have fallen, too. The restaurant industry has long been the largest employer of minimum-wage workers. Since 1968, thanks in part to the industry’s lobbying efforts, the real value of the minimum wage has dropped by 29 percent.

Migrant farmworkers have been hit especially hard. They pick the fresh fruits and vegetables considered the foundation of a healthy diet, but they are hardly well-rewarded for their back-breaking labor. The wages of some migrants, adjusted for inflation, have dropped by more than 50 percent since the late 1970s. Many grape-pickers in California now earn less than their counterparts did a generation ago, when misery in the fields inspired Cesar Chavez to start the United Farm Workers Union.

While workers are earning less, consumers are paying for this industrial food system with their health. Young children, the poor and people of color are being harmed the most. During the past 40 years, the obesity rate among American preschoolers has doubled. Among children ages 6 to 11, it has tripled. Obesity has been linked to asthma, cancer, heart disease and diabetes, among other ailments. Two-thirds of American adults are obese or overweight, and economists from Cornell and Lehigh universities have estimated that obesity is now responsible for 17 percent of the nation’s annual medical costs, or roughly $168 billion.

African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites, and more likely to be poor. As upper-middle-class consumers increasingly seek out healthier foods, fast-food chains are targeting low-income minority communities — much like tobacco companies did when wealthy and well-educated people began to quit smoking.

Some aspects of today’s food movement do smack of elitism, and if left unchecked they could sideline the movement or make it irrelevant. Consider the expensive meals and obscure ingredients favored by a number of celebrity chefs, the snobbery that often oozes from restaurant connoisseurs, and the obsessive interest in exotic cooking techniques among a certain type of gourmand.

Those things may be irritating. But they generally don’t sicken or kill people. And our current industrial food system does.

Just last month, a study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that nearly half of the beef, chicken, pork and turkey at supermarkets nationwide may be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. About 80 percent of the antibiotics in the United States are currently given to livestock, simply to make the animals grow faster or to prevent them from becoming sick amid the terribly overcrowded conditions at factory farms. In addition to antibiotic-resistant germs, a wide variety of other pathogens are being spread by this centralized and industrialized system for producing meat.

Children under age 4 are the most vulnerable to food-borne pathogens and to pesticide residues in food. According to a report by Georgetown University and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the annual cost of food-borne illness in the United States is about $152 billion. That figure does not include the cost of the roughly 20,000 annual deaths from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

One of the goals of the Farm Bureau Federation is to influence public opinion. In addition to denying the threat of global warming and attacking the legitimacy of federal environmental laws, the Farm Bureau recently created an entity called the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance to “enhance public trust in our food supply.” Backed by a long list of powerful trade groups, the alliance also plans to “serve as a resource to food companies” seeking to defend current agricultural practices.

But despite their talk of openness and trust, the giants of the food industry rarely engage in public debate with their critics. Instead they rely on well-paid surrogates — or they file lawsuits. In 1990, McDonald’s sued a small group called London Greenpeace for criticizing the chain’s food, starting a legal battle that lasted 15 years. In 1996, Texas cattlemen sued Oprah Winfrey for her assertion that mad cow disease might have come to the United States, and kept her in court for six years. Thirteen states passed “veggie libel laws” during the 1990s to facilitate similar lawsuits. Although the laws are unconstitutional, they remain on the books and serve their real purpose: to intimidate critics of industrial food.

In the same spirit of limiting public awareness, companies such as Monsanto and Dow Chemical have blocked the labeling of genetically modified foods, while the meatpacking industry has prevented the labeling of milk and meat from cloned animals. If genetic modification and cloning are such wonderful things, why aren’t companies eager to advertise the use of these revolutionary techniques?

The answer is that they don’t want people to think about what they’re eating. The survival of the current food system depends upon widespread ignorance of how it really operates. A Florida state senator recently introduced a bill making it a first-degree felony to take a photograph of any farm or processing plant — even from a public road — without the owner’s permission. Similar bills have been introduced in Minnesota and Iowa, with support from Monsanto.

The cheapness of today’s industrial food is an illusion, and the real cost is too high to pay. While the Farm Bureau Federation clings to an outdated mind-set, companies such as Wal-Mart, Danone, Kellogg’s, General Mills and Compass have invested in organic, sustainable production. Insurance companies such as Kaiser Permanente are opening farmers markets in low-income communities. Whole Foods is demanding fair labor practices, while Chipotle promotes the humane treatment of farm animals. Urban farms are being planted by visionaries such as Milwaukee’s Will Allen; the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is defending the rights of poor migrants; Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is fighting to improve the lives of food-service workers; and Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver and first lady Michelle Obama are pushing for healthier food in schools.

Calling these efforts elitist renders the word meaningless. The wealthy will always eat well. It is the poor and working people who need a new, sustainable food system more than anyone else. They live in the most polluted neighborhoods. They are exposed to the worst toxic chemicals on the job. They are sold the unhealthiest foods and can least afford the medical problems that result.

A food system based on poverty and exploitation will never be sustainable.

Eric Schlosser is the author of “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” and a co-producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Food, Inc.

I find it really funny that the article opened with American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman’s accusation of local food advocates “hell-bent on misleading consumers”, when that is exactly what industrial, corporate agriculture is engaged in daily. The proof is in their advertising, with family farms, cozy, happy cows, strutting chickens and lush fields of green pastures. Where are the real photos of CAFO’s with animals standing in liquid excrement up to their hocks, in pens too small to turn around or even lay down in? It seems that the corporate agriculture world is increasingly under fire- rightfully so- for their methods of growing food and their lack of concern for the animals and their customers, with profit and shareholder returns as their main concerns.

Corporate misleading, misdirecting consumers and misstating facts seem to be a common response today to the growth of more localized, de-centralized food production. With food prices at all time highs, fuel prices rising, disruptive weather patterns damaging crops and food shortages becoming increasingly common, people are concerned about where their food comes from. Add to that the spate of food recalls, dangerously unhealthy food being openly sold to consumers and the increasingly apparent back-door partnerships between corporations and the regulatory or inspection agencies that are supposed to prevent exactly this type of behavior, and it is completely understandable why the common person is suspicious and questioning of their food supply. It also explains the tremendous growth of the more localized and de-centralized food production model, like Farmer’s Markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farm shares and simply trading food with neighbors.

It is darkly interesting to see how far we have come in a generation or so- the past 40 to 50 years. Real income for many agriculture workers has dropped drastically, yet the cost of the food has risen just as significantly. Our food is less healthy and less nutritious than decades before, as is reported almost daily on food contamination and soil depletion. Corporate agriculture is very careful and effective to dampen any critics of the chemical food system while at the same time marginalizing the proponents of de-centralized food production.Perhaps this is why they are so surprised and threatened at the success of the local markets.

Something that is exciting to see is just how many people that are working on positive, beneficial changes to their own food supply that have a spillover effect to their neighbor, city and county. People are starting their own gardens, expanding their gardens and selling or trading the surplus, starting or joining Farmer’s Markets, CSAs and farm share programs. People getting to know each other, how they produce food, the safety, health, nutrition and flavors of that food creates a surprisingly strong and resilient community that forges its own unique and positive direction without wanting or needing government input, regulations or assistance.

At its’ heart, this is what corporate agriculture is afraid of- becoming unnecessary, unneeded and unwanted.

Compost Feeds and Improves Your Soil

Compost is one of the best mulches and soil amendments available, easiest ways to feed your garden soil and can (and should) be used instead of commercial chemical fertilizers. It is easily improved or customized for your specific garden conditions and best of all, compost is cheap. You can often make it without spending anything, or very little.

Using compost improves soil structure, texture, and aeration and increases the soil’s water-holding capacity, while at the same time improving its drainage. All you need are some feedstocks, moisture and time.

Compost loosens clay soils and helps sandy soils retain water. Adding compost improves soil fertility and stimulates healthy root development in plants. The organic matter in compost provides food for the microorganisms that digest and break down the matter, which keeps the soil in a healthy, balanced condition. Feeding of the microorganisms also makes foundational minerals more readily available to the plants such as nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, boron, silicon, magnesium and trace elements.  Well fed, properly produced compost applied to the garden soil can create a condition where few if any soil amendments will be needed.

We will examine several aspects of compost and techniques to build the nutrient value of the compost for the garden. One of the most useful aspects of compost is it’s adaptability, as it can be “customized” or enhanced with many additions that will increase it’s fertility and value to the garden. This is not meant as an introductory how-to compost article – see our article Compost – What We’ve Learned for that. You can use the techniques shown here to customize your compost for your garden’s needs.

For our discussion, we will assume a manure based compost, combined with leaves or straw for the close to ideal 25-30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen (C/N). Here are some examples the C/N ratio for common compost feedstocks-

Compost Carbon/Nitrogen Ratios

Compost Carbon/Nitrogen Ratios

One of the common techniques of the Genetic Engineering industry is called “Stacking”, or combining several traits into one variety to try to achieve multiple benefits. I’m not sure if it works, but the same thought pattern can be applied to our compost, with results that don’t need to be studied for a decade or two to determine if they are indeed dangerous. We will be looking at and discussing several of these techniques, all of which can be “Stacked”, or combined to achieve greater benefits. Some of these techniques are common use in the garden and will have similar effects in the compost pile.

Ingredients That Boost Compost


Azomite or Elemite Trace Minerals

Azomite or Elemite trace minerals

Mineralization– If you’ve followed the previous soil building blog posts, you understand the importance of adding minerals to your garden soil and the incredible benefits it has. For those who haven’t read it, read Mineral Restoration of Your Garden Soil for the first part and Mineral Restoration of Your Garden Soil Part II for the second. Adding a broad-based mineral supplement to your compost will kick-start the decomposition and feeding of the microorganisms, and give them a powerful, healthy start. This will carry over when you apply the compost to your garden, as the remainder of the minerals and trace elements will benefit the garden soil, your plants, veggies and ultimately – you.


MycoGrow soluble mycorrhizal fungi mix

MycoGrow soluble mycorrhizal fungi mix

Mycorrhizal Fungi– An ancient microscopic group of fungi that develop symbiotic relationships with about 90% of crop species. They colonize in and around the roots and root hairs, sending out hyphae– strands that are about 1/25 the diameter of a human hair- into the surrounding soil anywhere from 15 to 25 inches. This increases the nutrient “reach” of the plant from 10x to sometimes 100x! Mycorrhizae create enzymes to mobilize and release phosphorus, nitrogen, zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, sulfur and several other nutrients from the soil and transport them to the roots of the host plant. They also produce antibiotic and other defensive compounds that fight damaging root diseases by other fungi and bacteria.


Jug of Molasses

Jug of molasses

Molasses– From Wikipedia: Molasses is a viscous by-product of the processing of sugar cane or sugar beets into sugar. Sulfured molasses is made from young sugar cane. Sulfur dioxide, which acts as a preservative, is added during the sugar extraction process. Unsulfured molasses is made from mature sugar cane, which does not require such treatment. There are three grades of molasses: mild or Barbados, also known as first molasses; dark, or second molasses; and blackstrap. The third boiling of the sugar syrup makes blackstrap molasses. The majority of sucrose from the original juice has been crystallized and removed. The calorie content of blackstrap molasses is still mostly from the small remaining sugar content. However, unlike refined sugars, it contains trace amounts of vitamins and significant amounts of several minerals. Blackstrap molasses is a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron; one tablespoon provides up to 20% of the daily value of each of those nutrients.

Molasses is a very valuable addition to the compost pile, as well as to the garden itself. Unsulfured blackstrap is the preferred variety, due to the mineral content, but any of the unsulfured ones will do fine. The benefits beyond the minerals are the natural sugar content that will feed the microorganisms in the compost or soil of the garden. Use one cup to a gallon of water and spray onto the pile, or add to the drip system of the garden. The readily available sugar content will skyrocket the microbial activity. Blackstrap molasses is also commonly used in horticulture as a flower blooming and fruiting enhancer, particularly in organic hydroponics. Use the before mentioned mixture in the drip system, or sprayed alongside the roots of fruiting vegetables as they start to flower to increase their flowering and fruiting.

See Milk & Molasses – Magic for Your Garden for the whole story!


Pitcher of Milk

Pitcher of milk

Milk-Using milk on your compost and in your garden will probably come as a surprise to most. Upon closer inspection, however, it starts to make sense. The amino acids, proteins, enzymes and natural sugars that make milk a food for humans and animals are the same ingredients in nurturing healthy communities of microbes, fungi, and beneficials in your compost and garden soil. Raw milk is the best, as it hasn’t been exposed to heat that alters the components in milk that provide a perfect food for the soil and plants. Using milk on crops and soils is another ancient technique that has been lost to large-scale modern industrial agriculture.

Recently a Nebraska farmer completed a 10-year study on applying milk at different rates to his pastures and recorded the results with the help of the local Agricultural Extension agent, a university soil specialist and weed specialist. What they found was amazing- the grass production was drastically increased; the soil porosity or ability to absorb air and water doubled; microbe activity and populations increased; cows were healthier and produced more milk on treated pastures; the brix or sugar level in the pasture tripled, indicating more nutrients were stored in the grass than before. Grasshoppers abandoned the treated pastures- the sugars are a poison to soft-bodied insects as they do not have a pancreas to process the sugars. This also explains why insects will leave healthy, high brix level plants alone, as they contain more sugars than the stressed and sickly ones.

The ratio can range from 100% milk to a 50/50 mixture with water, with no loss of benefits. Use as a spray on the compost and garden soil prior to planting, and as needed when insects appear. Spray directly on the insects and around the areas they inhabit.

See Milk & Molasses – Magic for Your Garden for the whole story!


Well aged compost

Well-aged compost

Manure– Earlier, I had said the assumption was a manure-based compost. Manure is usually available, even if you don’t have horses or cows. If you get to know farmers at the Farmer’s Market or growers that sell in your area, most have animals and that usually means excess manure. Most folks with animals are happy to have someone pick up their excess manure. The more different animals that contribute to the compost pile will ensure a healthier and more diverse population of microbes and critters in the pile, meaning a better, healthier compost. Horses are not ruminants, so their manure is pretty much just chopped grass and alfalfa. It decomposes well and provides a good compost. Sheep and cattle are ruminants, so their manure has been broken down further and has a lot of beneficial bacteria and microbes that will jump-start the compost. When these are combined, you get the best of both- to your soil’s benefit!


Coffee grounds

Coffee grounds

Coffee Grounds– Another unusual but highly beneficial and productive addition to your compost. The grounds of already brewed coffee are usually about pH neutral, yet have shown to have a great buffering capability. This simply means that if you add coffee grounds to acidic or basic soil, it will help to minimize the acidic or basic effects and bring the pH back toward neutral, about 7.0. Grounds are a Nitrogen source for the 25:1 C/N ratio, so depending on what feedstock is being used, coffee grounds can be very valuable to keep the decomposition moving along. The upper limit on grounds is 25%, so a LOT of coffee grounds can be added if needed! Worms absolutely love coffee grounds, so this acts as a “worm attractant”.

So, now that you’re considering adding coffee grounds to your compost, where in the world do you get them? Your office or work is a good start, as well as home. Starbucks has a corporate policy of working to reduce waste, so they usually have a covered bucket next to their stand that they put the used grounds in. The paper filters are compostable as well, being that they are usually unbleached paper. Coffee shops, diners, restaurants and donut shops are also great resources. If you feel funny asking for coffee grounds, you will probably be surprised when they respond enthusiastically when they understand what you’re trying to do.

See Coffee Grounds Build Compost and Soil Health to learn more! 


Shovelful of charcoal

Shovelful of charcoal

Charcoal or BioChar– This is another of the soil building articles previously written. Please read Terra Preta- Magic Soil of the Lost Amazon for part one and Terra Preta Part II to get up to speed. Charcoal needs to be hardwood or lump, not briquettes and should be crushed to smaller sized chunks, about the size of a corn seed. It needs time to “activate” where it absorbs minerals and trace elements as well as providing a home for the microbes, beneficial bacteria and fungi that make the compost so nourishing to the garden. Charcoal will last at least 100-300 years, so it isn’t something that will be depleted quickly. Adding it in small amounts to the compost, and thus to the garden for several years will only increase the health, fertility, and productivity of your garden soil each year.

Where to Start

Work with what you have. You may not have a lot of nitrogen (green) or an abundance of carbon (brown) ingredients. Use what you have readily available. It’s not complicated, if you don’t have the “correct” ratio, just substitute some time and everything will be just fine. Use the above chart and this article to get the ratio close, and don’t sweat the small stuff. The gentle folks in India have been composting for something like 5,000 years without compost tumblers or fancy enclosures. Work with your local conditions- for instance, we have to water our compost to keep it alive.

Now you can see what is meant by “Stacking” of these techniques! Compost by itself is very valuable, but when combined with some or all of these techniques, things will really start moving, and in a positive direction! The health and fertility benefits will increase exponentially, and not only once, but each time the compost is added to the garden soil, which should be twice a year- in the Spring prior to planting and again in the Fall. This creates an ever increasing spiral of benefits for the garden, the plants, the fruits and vegetables and of course for you and your health.

This proves what Sir Albert Howard said to the House of Commons in England at the end of the 19th Century when he said, “As goes the health of the soil, so goes the health of the nation.” He was laughed out of the House of Commons, but we are realizing now, 120 years later, that what he said is absolutely true. Improve the health of your soil, and your health will be improved from the produce of your garden.

What is the Best Way to Build the Health and Resiliency of my Garden Soil?

Welcome to the second part of Terra Preta, or how using Stone Age agricultural techniques may just be the best way to build the health, fertility, resiliency and nutrient cycling of the soil several fold. We will start with the second part of the article from Acres USA, which is a Q and A session, then will look at several points to consider.

The photo is of a section of Terra Preta that is being studied by Dr. Etelvino Novotny of Brazil, a PhD in Physical Chemistry with a Masters in Soil Science. You can see the depth of the Terra Preta!

Terra Preta Q&A

Why did production of terra preta stop after European contact?
Although the decimation of the Amazonian population and the collapse of the elaborate social systems that supported terra preta creation (to make all that pottery and to make all that charcoal and incorporate it up to 2 feet in the ground really does take a village) was a contributing factor, it was undoubtedly the introduction of the steel axe by the Spanish that, in combination with the impact of contact, led to slash-and-burn by small bands replacing slash-and-char by large groups. When clearing land with a stone axe, a conservation of all biomas and an intensification of soil production becomes a necessity. Steel axes — and, later, chainsaws — contributed to exploiting the very short-term benefits of ash. It must be remembered that traditional methods can die out in a single generation, and that in Amazonian social structure, the elders were responsible for all technical knowledge. It makes sense that the elders were the hardest hit by epidemics, and the loss of their cultural knowledge combined with social disruption would lead to the replacement of a deeply effective technology with an less-effective mimicry.

Did natives use special microbial brews to inoculate the soil to create terra preta?
There is no proof that a “mother” culture was used for starting terra preta. Current research indicates that the incorporation of charcoal of certain qualities (created in relatively low heat, for example) in combination with appropriate initial fertilization (often, in university tests, with conventional fertilizers that are damaging to soil life) will produce a substantial increase in yields. It is assumed that the char provides such an effective habitat for microbes that effective communities will rapidly develop within most soils. What we don’t know yet is whether the simulated terra preta will have the ability to maintain its fertility for as long as the ancient form.

Has terra preta been discovered outside of the Amazon?
Yes, high-carbon terra preta-like dark soils have been discovered in Holland, Japan, South Africa and Indonesia and are currently being studied.

Can carbon inputs other than charcoal be used?
The Japanese are extensively investigating the use of coal dust for promoting field fertility. Coal dust does seem to reproduce many of the positive effects of wood charcoal. The research of Siegfried Marian on the benefits of carbon incorporation, as reported in Leonard Ridzon and Charles Walters’ The Carbon Connection and The Carbon Cycle, led to the development of Ridzon’s NutriCarb product (no longer being produced), which claimed agricultural benefits very similar to those claimed for terra preta . Those who want to use coal dust for soil fertility need to make certain that the dust is from brown coal, which is more humic, and that the coal does not contain toxins.

Why is terra preta often linked to alternative energy and climate change?
Terra preta is a carbon sink, as is most carbon in the soil. Slash-and-burn agriculture contributes greatly to global warming. If terra preta technologies were applied to tropical farming, less land would have to be cleared for farming, and if farmers in temperate zones such as the Midwest incorporated charcoal or other chars into their soil, more carbon could be sequestered. If this char is produced by appropriate technology, such as pyrolysis, both fuel and a “restorative, high-carbon fertilizer” can be produced. This process does not require wood — it is just as effective when agricultural wastes, such as peanut shells, are used as input. A good place to learn about this technology is at www.eprida.com.

How much charcoal needs to be incorporated?
In published reports on pot tests of the effect of charcoal on plant growth, incorporation at 20-30 percent by weight tended to consistently produce the most benefit. In row crops, this would translate to 30 percent by weight of the top 6 inches.

Are there benefits for plant health from terra preta ?

Better plant growth and health is evident with the use of native terra preta. Current investigations are primarily being conducted by archaeologists, geologists and soil scientists. There is no evidence of terra preta studies by an agriculturist, but positive reports from growers suggest that eco-farmers would be well advised to investigate terra preta technology.

Allan Balliett is a biodynamic farmer and educator who operates a CSA serving families in the Washington, D.C. metro area. He is the founder and moderator of BD Now!, the international progressive biodynamic food and farming discussion listserve. He can be reached at Fresh and Local CSA, P.O. Box 3047, Shepherdstown, West Virginia 25443, phone 304-876-3382, email allan@FreshAndLocalCSA.com, website www.freshandlocalcsa.com.

This ends the article from Acres USA.

It is interesting to note that of all the research and reading that I have done, most of the knowledge is indeed from the University research departments. Some are archeological based, others are looking at the carbon sequestering elements of charcoal or bio-char, and more than a few are interested in the continual fertility and regeneration of the soils once they have had charcoal incorporated into them.There are very few resources devoted to the thought of  how to incorporate charcoal into gardening and current agricultural practices.

The following is from a Biochar Discussion List

The following benefits occur with additions of biochar to the soil, in amounts ranging from 3 oz. per square foot up to 16 oz. per square foot-

  • Enhanced plant growth
  • Suppressed methane emission
  • Reduced nitrous oxide emission (estimate 50%)
  • Reduced fertilizer requirement (estimate 10%)
  • Reduced leaching of nutrients
  • Stored carbon in a long term stable sink
  • Reduces soil acidity: raises soil pH
  • Reduces aluminum toxicity
  • Increased soil aggregation due to increased fungal hyphae
  • Improved soil water handling characteristics
  • Increased soil levels of available Ca, Mg, P, and K
  • Increased soil microbial respiration
  • Increased soil microbial biomass
  • Stimulated symbiotic nitrogen fixation in legumes
  • Increased arbuscular mycorrhyzal fungi
  • Increased cation exchange capacity

Sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it? There are many pages of discussions on the positive impacts of charcoal or biochar, what is the best method of making  biochar, how much to add to the soil, etc. and etc. It is easy to read oneself blind. It is wonderful to see so much attention devoted to studying the benefits of charcoal and how it interacts with the soil. The home gardener, however, is usually more concerned with how to incorporate an idea into their garden than reading all of the latest research. Let’s face it, sequestering carbon, qualifying for carbon credits, and reducing greenhouse gases for the home gardener is a smaller interest than the increased soil fertility, nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixing and improving plant growth, health and productivity that charcoal provides.

What we do know is this-

  • Charcoal is created by burning wood or similar materials in an oxygen free environment. Charcoal is not ash that comes out of your wood burning stove.
  • The addition of charcoal to soil has profoundly positive effects that are extensive and long lasting. By some estimates the lifespan of charcoal in soil is in excess of 1,600 years.
  • The amount needed is quite small- from 3 oz. per square foot to an upper limit of 16 oz. per square foot.
  • There is a definite, noticeable period of productivity lag after adding charcoal directly to the soil.
  • Charcoal needs to be “charged” or “activated” with minerals and trace elements prior to it being able to contribute to soil fertility. The best way to do this is in compost, preferably a manure-based compost that already has minerals and trace elements.
  • Adding a mineral and trace element rich supplement to the charcoal/compost greatly increases the nutrient cycling and “activation” of the charcoal
  • The time period needed to “charge” the charcoal is at least six months, preferably a year.
  • Soon after adding charcoal to compost, the fungal, microbial and earthworm activity drastically increases.
  • Adding charcoal to compost speeds up the decomposition by several times.
  • The ideal size for the charcoal chunks is between the size of rice and corn.

So how, exactly, does one go about incorporating charcoal into the garden? Charcoal is relatively easy to find. Lowe’s or Home Depot have it in the grill section. Look for “Lump” or “Hardwood” charcoal. Stay away from briquets, as they are pressed and formed out of much more than plain charcoal. They usually have chemical or petroleum fire-starting compounds in them along with fillers. Come to think of it, you probably don’t want to be cooking with them, either, as you don’t want the fillers and fire-starters on your burgers! Right now a 8.8 Lb bag is $6.99 locally. Sam’s Club has 40 Lb bags of mesquite charcoal for $17.00 in the spring and summer. It will look just like a burned log or branch.  Once you get your charcoal, it needs to be broken or crushed to smaller pieces. The optimum size is between a grain of rice and a kernel of corn. Be aware of the dust created from crushing the charcoal, as you don’t want to breathe it. The dust is fine for the compost pile. To crush it, you need to get creative. I have cut an old propane tank in half to make an industrial pestle and mortar, but a 3 Lb drilling hammer or hand sledge hammer on a piece of concrete will do just fine. A rock will do just fine. Remember, this is Stone Age technology here, so don’t over-think or over-complicate it! You want to create crushed charcoal with what tools and materials you have available. Once it is crushed, add it to the compost pile or bin. Make sure to mix it in so it will make the most contact possible with the compost. A very good technique is to crush a little each time you add to the compost. This mixes the charcoal evenly.

After incorporating charcoal into your compost, make sure it has sufficient moisture and let it do it’s magic for the next 6 months. You should see microbial, fungal and earthworm activity starting in about a month, along with an accelerated breakdown of the compost. At the end of the 6 months, it should resemble rich, humic soil that is full of life! Then you feed the garden soil with a top layer of about 2 inches in the fall and spring and watch everything in your garden grow like crazy.

Our next installment on building your garden soil will focus on the mineralization aspect, or how to get a sufficient amount of minerals into your soil without having to lug around endless bags of soil amendments! It ties in closely with the charcoal and compost, so stay tuned…

Terra preta soil

What is the Best Way to Build the Health and Resiliency of my Garden Soil?

This is an exploration on how best to build your garden soil. These are the results of much reading, experimenting and talking with several people who have been engaged in this exact pursuit for over 30 years. Our personal experiences span 20+ years, from rangeland monitoring for Holistic Resource Management, to researching how long it takes to build soil in the arid South West, to examining and monitoring cryptogammic soil crusts and how they fix nutrients that begin the process of building a foundational soil from rock and sand.

Much has been learned or re-learned in the last 30 years by sustainable and biological large scale farmers. These techniques have been combined with state of the art diagnoses and tests to confirm movement in a positive direction, and to correct drift or fall back. The complex but identifiable chemistry of the interactions and sequencing of specific elements and chemicals show us that nature is much, much more complex and inter-related than we originally thought when we came up with the N-P-K fix-all formula for successful farming.

As one farmer puts it, “It’s not difficult, it’s just different.” This is a different approach for many in creating a healthy garden, in starting with the soil. What we have learned is that everything really does start with the soil. Not only the health of the plant, and the attending nutrition that the produce has; but the pest and disease resistance or lack thereof has its foundation in the soil. Something that the commercial sustainable farmers have discovered- once there is enough copper in the soil that is picked up by the plant, grasshoppers won’t come near the crops. Additionally,  insects are attracted to the scent of phosphates, which are given off by diseased or stressed plants. Chemical farming over-utilizes phosphates which worsens the insect attacks, creating more demand for chemical pesticides. Using sustainable, biological farming methods balances the amount of phosphates so that the insects aren’t attracted to the plants. This is all done in and with the soil, not chasing from one perceived “problem” to another. Insects,  diseases and weeds are seen as indicators of weakness and imbalance, not problems in and of themselves.  This is not to say that there will never be the need to address particular pest or disease or weed issues, but they will be smaller, less frequent, and easier to manage.

One of the basic tenants of any scale agriculture is to get more carbon into the soil. There are three types of carbon- green, brown and black. Green carbon is readily used by the soil and its’ organisms for food and energy. It consists of grass clippings, green manures, and young compost. Brown carbon is a more stable form and consists of dried stalks of plants, straw and dead leaves. This is food for the fungi in the soil. Black carbon is the reserve of the soil and is obtained from decomposed brown carbon and mature, aged compost. It is also obtained from charcoal, or bio-char. This is the basis of creating a vibrant, dynamic and healthy soil structure with its attendant communities of fungi and micro-organisms that all play their parts in making nutrients available to the plants, and getting the plant sap sugars in return.

The first article is on Terra Preta, or black soil that is found in the Amazon, one of the harshest agricultural areas in the world. The soil is heavy clay and the enormous rainfall washes most nutrients off or out of the soil within just a few years. Until finding Terra Preta, that is. The results of people systematically working charcoal into the soils are astounding. This is the basis for creating dynamic, resilient soils in our gardens. Read this first article, and our discussion notes afterward. This is in two segments, with the notes after the second segment.

The original article was published by ACRES USA.

Terra Preta- Magic Soil of the Lost Amazon

by Allan Balliett

It’s like finding a lost chapter from Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird’s Secrets of the Soil — Terra Preta (literally “black earth”) is a manmade soil of prehistoric origin that is higher in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium than adjacent soils. It controls water and reduces leaching of nutrients from the rhizosphere. Rich in humus, pieces of pre-Columbian unfired clay pottery, and black carbon, it’s like a “microbial reef” that promotes and sustains the growth of mycorrhizae and other beneficial microbes, and it has been shown to retain its fertility for thousands of years. In university trials, terra preta has increased crop yields by as much as 800 percent. It regrows itself when excavated. It is even possible to produce carbon-negative usable energy (such as diesel or hydrogen) while making the major input (bio-char) for terra preta on the farm.

If these amazing properties haven’t convinced you that terra preta is important to eco-agriculture, then consider this: experts say that terra preta sequesters carbon at such a high rate that, in the near future, farming with this technique could be eligible for lucrative carbon credits.

Perhaps most amazing, though, is the fact that, unlike many if not most of the eco-ag technologies reported in Secrets of the Soil, the incredible properties of terra preta are not denied by myopic academics. In fact, almost everything we know about terra preta is coming from university studies!

Much is still unknown about terra preta and “Amazonian Dark Earths,” but as the key component of a proposed agricultural system that would both feed starving populations and solve global warming, grant money is coming in to fuel university investigations of the technology. For every unanswered question on terra preta, there appears to already be a funded study underway.

Terra preta do indio is a black, earth-like, anthropogenic (manmade) soil with enhanced fertility due to high levels of soil organic matter (SOM) and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and calcium embedded in a landscape of infertile soils. Terra preta soils occur in small patches averaging 20 hectares (50 acres), but 350 hectare (865 acre) sites have also been reported. These 2,000-year-old manmade soils occur in the Brazilian Amazon basin and other regions of South America. Terra preta soils are very popular with the local farmers and are used especially to produce cash crops such as papaya and mango, which grow about three times as rapidly as on surrounding infertile soils.

South American terra preta soils are also full of pieces (sherds) of unfired pottery. It is generally believed that the pottery was introduced into the soil much as modern growers add perlite or sand to potting mix, as a way of keeping the soil from baking completely tight under the tropical sun before a cover of vegetation could grow over it. Much is made of these sherds as “proof” that terra preta deposits are really prehistoric trash piles, but Charles C. Mann asserts there are indications that much of this pottery was actually made specifically for incorporation into the soil.

Associated with terra preta is terra mulata, soils which are lighter than terra preta and tend not to contain cultural artifacts but are said to have similar qualities. Terra preta soils are found near historic settlements, while terra mulata soils are found where agricultural fields were once located. It is assumed that the village- related terra preta is darker because it received continual inputs of household wastes (including humanure), and that terra mulata fields were amended chiefly with bio-char, which was initially created by burning forest cover and later by slow-burning brush, weeds and crop wastes. Because of their overall similarities, terra preta and terra mulata are often grouped under the title “Amazonian Dark Earths” (ADE).

William Devan, a geologist from the University of Wisconsin who is prominent in terra preta research, offers these comments: “The black terra preta is associated with long-enduring Indian village sites, and is filled with ceramics, animal and fish bones, and other cultural debris. The brown terra mulata, on the other hand, is much more extensive, generally surrounds the black midden soils, contains few artifacts, and apparently is the result of semi-intensive cultivation over long periods. Both forms are much more fertile than the surrounding highly weathered reddish soil, mostly oxisol, and they have generally sustained this fertility to the present despite the tropical climate and despite frequent or periodic cultivation. This is probably because of high carbon content and an associated high microbial activity which is self perpetuating.”

Ironically, information about the agricultural value of terra preta is only emerging now because of a paradigm shift among archaeologists that has reevaluated the role of indigenous people (AmerIndians) in the pre-Columbian Americas. Put simply, before contact, there were heavy populations of indigenous people in the Americas, in fact, until the mid-16th century, some of the world’s largest and most sanitary cities were in the Americas. Pre-Columbian Indians made great achievements in architecture, art and agriculture. Not only did they breed many of the economically important plants of today’s world (corn, sunflower, beans, potato, sweet potato, tomato, peanut, avocado, tobacco and cotton), but they also developed incredibly productive methods of agriculture such as raised beds and “three sisters.” As Jerry Brunetti has pointed out, the rate of production of calories by Iroquois agriculture at the time of the New England settlement was unimaginable to Europeans. Not only did the Iroquois Nation produce high-value foods, they were also able to produce enough of it to ensure two to three years’ worth of food in storage at any given time!

What the AmerIndians lacked, unfortunately, was resistance to European diseases. Hard to believe as it is, precontact Amerindians apparently had no human-to-human diseases, with the possible exception of syphilis. According to Charles C. Mann, they didn’t even have the common cold until Europeans arrived. Several waves of deadly diseases (such as small pox and measles) swept through the Americas after Columbus’ first visit, spread not only by subsequent European explorers, but, after contact, by the AmerIndians themselves through their well established, hemisphere-wide, socially motivated trade routes.

By the mid-1500s, most of the indigenous Americans had died as a result of epidemics. Undermined by pain, suffering, superstition and loss of leadership (many important Incan leaders died of European diseases, including the most powerful, which opened the door for Pizarro’s conquest of this powerful empire), AmerIndian society began to collapse. Urban populations could not be fed, and cities were abandoned. In the stone-free Amazon, this meant that metropolises built of wood and soil were absorbed by the jungle at such a rate that areas reported by the first explorer as heavily populated with massive structures were, just 50 years later, reported as jungle wildernesses populated by small bands of scraggly natives.

The bottom line for mainstream archeological interpretation of the history of the Amazon was based on the assumption that the area was a “counterfeit paradise,” with all of its nutrients locked into its canopy, leaving soils poor, acidic and toxic. Although terra preta was described to academic America as early as 1870, rich soils in the Amazon were considered to be an anomaly, the result of prehistoric lakes or hydrological accidents. (An enjoyable period view of the value of Amazon agricultural land can be found in an 1867 book entitled Brazil, the Home for Southerners, by Confederate expatriate Ballard S. Dunn, which lauds the high fertility of Brazil’s Amazonian dark soil among other aspects of “planterlife” in Brazil; it is available online in its entirety through Google Books, www. books.google.com).

Caught in a “believing is seeing” syndrome, archeologists assumed that because typical Amazonian soils were thin and infertile, large populations could never have existed there. Accepting this assumption, they saw no point in looking for evidence of settlement. Betty J. Meggers, the Smithsonian archaeologist, said, “The apparent lushness of the rainforest is a sham. The soils are poor and can’t hold nutrients — the jungle flora exists only because it snatches up everything worthwhile before it leaches away in the rain. Agriculture, which depends on extracting the wealth of the soil, therefore faces inherent ecological limitations in the wet desert of Amazonia.”

Views are changing, however, and a new school of archaeologists, geologists and soil scientists have asserted that the Amazon was in fact heavily populated and that the fertility of terra preta was what made feeding these large groups of people possible. Although many questions remain unanswered, this new school of Amazon investigators feels that there is substantial physical proof that not only was the Amazon rainforest home of very large populations supported by an effective agriculture based on the robust fertility of the manmade terra preta soils, but also that the Amazon forest itself is better thought of as a manmade landscape.

It is important to note that the good news about terra preta is not the news about the physical soils in Brazil. Although soils are illegally mined and sold as potting mix and soil amendments in Brazil and Bolivia, native terra preta is not accessible to U.S. growers. Because they are filled with pre-Columbian artifacts and because they are associated with archaeological sites that have yet to be fully investigated, terra preta cannot be purchased or imported.

The current goal of scientists studying terra preta is to learn what it is and how it works so that it can be replicated anywhere in the world. The focus of most of this work, however, is not on benefiting small farm American agriculture, but on how to make more fertile land available in tropical South America and Africa, along with an interest in carbon sequestration. The time is ripe for innovative eco-growers and agricultural researchers to explore the benefits of the magic soil from a lost world.

Allan Balliett is a biodynamic farmer and educator who operates a CSA serving families in the Washington, D.C. metro area. He is the founder and moderator of BD Now!, the international progressive biodynamic food and farming discussion listserve. He can be reached at Fresh and Local CSA, P.O. Box 3047, Shepherdstown, West Virginia 25443, phone 304-876-3382, email allan@FreshAndLocalCSA.com, website www.freshandlocalcsa.com.

Part two concludes this article. 

Organic Certification?

Yesterday was the first part of the examination of the answer to the question that many have asked throughout the years. Today we finish with the article and look at some points that it raised.

Acres USA originally published this article, and is used here from their Reprint Archives. This is the second of two segments. Our comments and notes will be inserted throughout.

Mary-Howell Martens is admired and recognized as one of the nation’s pioneering leaders in sustainable agriculture.

Together with her husband Klaas, Ms. Martens owns and operates Lakeview Organic Grain in Penn Yan, New York, one of the Northeast’s largest and most successful organic grain businesses.  Started in 1991, the Martens’ 1400-acre farm and feed mill, which they work with their children Peter, Elizabeth, and Daniel, and 10 employees, currently supplies organic feed and seed to over 300 organic livestock farmers in New York and Pennsylvania.

Is Organic Food More Nutritious Than Conventional Food? Part II

by Mary-Howell R. Martens

Animal nutritionists have noted a drop in nutritional quality of animal feed, especially corn and forages, over the past 25 years. Dave Mattocks of the Fertrell Company in Bainbridge, Pennsylvania, has been formulating animal rations for many years. He reports that he has had to continually increase quantity of protein sources in animal rations in order to maintain a constant level of protein. He feels that this reflects that the average protein level in grain has been dropping. When plants are induced to produce more quantity (higher yield), it is usually at the expense of something else, in this case, certain key molecules that affect quality and nutrition. Confirmation of this observation would probably be available if one took the time to sort through and analyze the reams of data that forage analysis labs have collected over the past 25 years.

Indirectly related to observations about declining feed quality, an article in the March 25, 2000 issue of Science News described research that showed that plants growing with increased air CO2 levels (as is possible in the future with the greenhouse gas effect) do indeed grow faster and produce more carbohydrates, but the protein levels are lower. Insects feeding on these plants eat excessively but grow poorly. Sheep eating such plants eat less, grow poorly, and digest their food more slowly, probably because the essential bacteria in the ruminant gut are themselves protein deficient and malnourished. This is important research that needs to be considered for several critical reasons. First, of course, because the Earth’s atmosphere is changing and we need to anticipate how this may effect vegetation and the organisms that feed on the vegetation. Secondly, this research can offer valuable insight into the critical factor of genotype-x environment interaction, a factor which is largely being overlooked in the biotech and Green Revolution discussions.

Regardless of all the other issues involved with genetically engineered crops, it seems logical that unless we pay attention to the soil and other environmental factors first, efforts to improve yield, nutrient content, or pest resistance of crops through genetics alone will be far less successful than they might be. Results obtained on well-managed research farms may not be repeatable on poorer soils that are not being as intensively managed. Most crops have far more genetic potential than they are able to express already. Producing high yields on poor soils without maintaining fertility levels will only postpone famine until the soil becomes exhausted. We should not see genetics alone as the solution to management problems, as a way that allows farmers to continue poor production practices on their farms. Many American farmers face a corn borer problem because they don’t rotate properly and use other practices, such as no-till, that allow large pest populations to build. Bt corn makes it easier to continue poor management practices, at least until pest populations develop resistance. Obviously, new traits could then be engineered into corn to control the resistant pests, but the underlying problem is still not being addressed by this approach.

Often, when discussions of the relative nutritional merits of organic versus conventional food come up, someone will invariably quote a 1948 study by Dr. Firman Bear at Rutgers University. Unfortunately, using this research to support any such claims is quite incorrect, because this study did not compare organic and conventional food. Instead, it compared crops grown in mineral versus organic (muck) soils, it had nothing to do with use of chemicals. However, perhaps Dr. Bear did get it right on one point. The research showed that the composition of the soil has a major and readily detectable influence on the mineral content and the nutritional quality of food. By better understanding the role that a healthy, microbially active soil can make on nutritional quality of plants, perhaps then we then can design agricultural systems that will maximize this. On an organic farm, careful attention is placed on improving soil quality, increasing soil organic matter, and enhancing soil microbial life, crops are carefully rotated and soil is specifically amended to balance all aspects of soil fertility. It makes logical sense to conclude that plants produced under such a system could indeed be more flavorful and nutritious.

Copyright © 2000 Acres U.S.A.

All rights reserved.

Some comments and thoughts. First off, I agree with what is being said here, mainly that we shouldn’t be caught up in the “organic by default” trap that is so easy to fall into. What is meant by that is the simple absence of anything considered harmful does not equal healthy food. Simply because no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides,  chemical fertilizers, etc. etc. haven’t been applied, does not mean it is tasty and healthy. If nothing at all has been done to or with the soil, does that automatically mean all is well? Not really- there is much to be done in improving the fecundity of the soil including biological as well as structural improvements, organic matter, re-mineralization and nutrient balancing. Who would you want to eat produce from, one who has done nothing and calls it “organic” or one who has increased the biological health of their soil through careful and well researched amendments and inputs that are non-chemical in nature?

“There have been few studies that directly contrast the chemistry of conventional food to organic food.” Gosh, I wonder why… who normally funds such research? The Corporate Abgribusiness are not in the slightest interested if organic food is better, because that is not what they are in the business of.

“…over a two-year period, average levels of essential minerals were much higher in the organically grown apples, pears, potatoes and corn as compared to conventionally produced products. The organically grown food averaged higher in calcium, chromium, iron, magnesium, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium and zinc, and lower in mercury and aluminum. A more recent study out of Australia showed a similar difference between calcium and magnesium levels in organic and non-organic food.” Yet when research is done, it conclusively shows that there are many more minerals that are essential for our health in organic, sustainably raised food.

“Weibel found interesting correlations between the microbial activity in the soil, a condition closely associated with organic management, and the nutritional status of the apples, especially the phosphorus level.” This is a perfect point of healthy soils equal much healthier produce. The correlation can be furthered to include healthier people from eating healthier produce… “This corroborates work done by Elaine Ingham at Oregon State University, who has shown that corn and grape plants grown in association with mycorrhizal fungi produce fruit with higher protein levels.” Mycorrhizal fungi are symbiotic fungi that greatly increase the nutrient uptake in plants and are essential to having biologically living, healthy soil.

Regardless of all the other issues involved with genetically engineered crops, it seems logical that unless we pay attention to the soil and other environmental factors first, efforts to improve yield, nutrient content, or pest resistance of crops through genetics alone will be far less successful than they might be.” Really? Do ya really think? Common sense would dictate that to ignore the very foundation of agriculture- the soil- would be to invite disaster on the scale of many of the world’s other civilizations that ignored their soil. Almost without fail, they do not exist anymore. Those that do are on such a diminished scale in comparison to where they used to be in production as to be almost unbelievable. Who would call Iran, Iraq and Syria “The fertile crescent” or “Breadbasket of the world” today? These are just 3 examples of those that have managed to survived the loss of their soils.

This is a great article that not only introduces some reasoned, rational thought to the perennial question of nutrition, it also introduces many to the thought of what does the term “organic” really mean, and what is it made up of? I really hope this raises more questions than answers and sets you on a direction of learning more about what you eat, where it comes from and how is it raised. Only by answering these and many other questions can you be a true part of the solution of helping to create more demand for healthy, nourishing, sustainably raised food.

Yes, this is work, it takes time, thought and energy, but unless you want to just sit back and consume whatever is sent your way by the advertising and corporate agribusiness giants, this is the only way.

Organic Certification?

Organic or Conventional?

This question is often asked, not only by those who are starting their reading and research into healthier foods, but by almost everyone at some point who actually stops and thinks about their food. This exact question has been the center of debate between the chemical and biological or sustainable agriculture communities for some years now. Those with large advertising budgets have spent dump truck loads of cash selling the public on the idea that there is no difference between spraying a custom mixed chemical slurry onto the soil and using compost, re-mineralization, green manures, proper crop rotation and building the soil health biologically. In fact, the advertising has sold the public and many farmers that the biological method is simply a waste of time and money. We are beginning to know better now.

The large Agribusiness companies are surprised and a little bit worried at the steady double digit growth of local and organic farming, and the reasoned, educated and dedicated support of that agricultural model through Farmer’s Markets, CSA’s, community gardening and farm shares. It can’t be ignored or brushed aside any more.  Many think that the Food Safety Modernization Act- S.510- is a large scale effort to seriously hamper the growth of  local biological agriculture. While a very small percentage of the total market share, the growth of local agriculture has the industry giants concerned, because if only 5-7 percent of the current market departed, that would mean losses in the tens of millions of dollars for them. That is completely unacceptable for the corporations, and their shareholders that control modern Agribusiness.

We wanted to present an article from one who is recognized as being quite knowledgeable in the field. From a basis of formal education leading to real world advisory positions in policy making governmental departments, she has the foundational knowledge to be able to speak authoritatively on the subject. Her own experiences as an award winning organic grain farmer who also educates others how to produce abundance without the chemicals now thought to be essential to successful large scale agriculture uniquely qualifies her to be able to speak on both sides of this question.

Acres USA originally published this article, and is used here from their Reprint Archives. This is a long article, and will be broken up into two successive segments. Our comments and notes will be included at the end of the article.

Mary-Howell Martens is admired and recognized as one of the nation’s pioneering leaders in sustainable agriculture.

Together with her husband Klaas, Ms. Martens owns and operates Lakeview Organic Grain in Penn Yan, New York, one of the Northeast’s largest and most successful organic grain businesses.  Started in 1991, the Martens’ 1400-acre farm and feed mill, which they work with their children Peter, Elizabeth, and Daniel, and 10 employees, currently supplies organic feed and seed to over 300 organic livestock farmers in New York and Pennsylvania.

Noted for her wide-ranging efforts to promote sustainable agriculture, Ms. Martens is equally revered throughout the industry for her innovation, leadership, and stewardship.  She  received the prestigious Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture in 2008, and has testified before the United States House of Representatives.  She and her husband speak throughout the  United States and Canada on sustainable agriculture and have written many articles on the subject.

In addition to her agribusiness endeavors, Ms. Martens, a graduate of the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, served on the USDA Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology from 2000-2002, and on the Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Dean’s Advisory Committee from 2003-2009.  She is also a member of the New York State Department of Ag and Markets’ Organic Advisory Committee and the Yates County Farm Bureau Board of Directors, in addition to numerous community volunteer efforts.

Is Organic Food More Nutritious Than Conventional Food?

by Mary-Howell R. Martens

Is organic food more nutritious or better tasting than conventionally produced food? This is a question that many people are asking, but unfortunately, there is no simple answer. So much more is involved in the nutritional quality of food than simply comparing organic versus chemical agronomic practices. There is certainly quite a bit of incorrect information, confusion, and wishful thinking on both sides concerning this subject, and probably there is as much variation in food quality produced on different organic farms as there is in the quality of food produced on different conventional farms.

Many people do believe that they can taste a difference between organic and nonorganic food. I usually think I can, but that might be because organic food is often fresher and more likely to be locally produced. Margaret Wittenberg, of Whole Foods Inc., says that in their stores, when customers ask whether organic foods are more nutritious, the company policy is to say that there is no evidence to say that this is true. However, she says that many customers remain unphased with this answer due to their own experiences and perceptions.

Some animals apparently can detect a difference in organic crops by taste. Floyd Hoover, in Penn Yan, New York, grows organic corn. One night he left several ears of conventional and organic corn side by side in his barn. The next morning, the organic corn had been nibbled by mice while the conventional corn had been ignored. Floyd then rearranged the order of the cobs, but still the mice avoided the conventional corn. Finally, he hid the organic corn, but the mice refused to touch the conventional corn. Within a few nights, the mice found the hidden organic corn and had a feast. Anecdotal evidence such as this indicate that for many people and apparently animals too, detectable quality differences do exist. Scientifically, however, it is difficult to draw definitive comparisons about the nutritional quality of conventional and organic food. Many environmental factors influence the nutritional quality and flavor of any type of farm product, including soil type, soil moisture, soil microbial activity, weather and other climatic conditions. Cultural practices, such as crop variety, seed source, length of growing season, irrigation, fertilization, cultivation, and post-harvest handling, will also affect food quality.

There have been few studies that directly contrast the chemistry of conventional food to organic food. Research reported in the Journal of Applied Nutrition showed that on a per-weight basis over a two-year period, average levels of essential minerals were much higher in the organically grown apples, pears, potatoes and corn as compared to conventionally produced products. The organically grown food averaged higher in calcium, chromium, iron, magnesium, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium and zinc, and lower in mercury and aluminum. A more recent study out of Australia showed a similar difference between calcium and magnesium levels in organic and non-organic food.

Simply knowing the absolute quantity of chemical elements in a food sample may not be particularly revealing if we don’t know what molecules those elements are incorporated into in the food product. The same simple chemical elements may be organized into nutritious and flavorful molecules or may be organized into toxic, unpleasant-tasting molecules, or even into molecules that render plants more susceptible to insects and diseases. Certain amino acids such as proline have been linked to increased insect feeding and egg laying behavior. A plant slightly deficient in potassium may lack enzymes necessary to convert free amino acids into complex proteins. Another plant with adequate potassium might not show detectable differences in overall nitrogen level, but would contain more protein, might be much different in food flavor and quality, and might be much more resistant to insect attack.

It is possible to identify the specific chemical molecules that cause the typical characteristics we call “flavor” or “quality.” These generally are large, complex molecules, such as sugars, proteins, enzymes, esters, and organic acids. In a preliminary study, Dr. Franco Weibel at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Ackerstrasse, Switzerland, compared a variety of parameters in apples grown under organic and conventional conditions, such as mineral elements, sugars, phenols, malic acid, selenium, dietary fiber, and vitamins C and E. Organic fruit also had significantly firmer flesh and better sensory taste evaluations. Weibel found interesting correlations between the microbial activity in the soil, a condition closely associated with organic management, and the nutritional status of the apples, especially the phosphorus level. The actual chemical soil phosphorus level had little impact on fruit nutritional status. This research also found that organic fruit was considerably higher in phenols. Plants naturally synthesize phenols for defense against pests and diseases. Possibly, the unsprayed organic plants were stimulated to make higher levels of these critical molecules in response to pest attack. These phenolic compounds that protect the plant also have been shown to be disease protectants in humans. This corroborates work done by Elaine Ingham at Oregon State University, who has shown that corn and grape plants grown in association with mycorrhizal fungi produce fruit with higher protein levels.

Research conducted at Ohio State University by Dr. Larry Phelan has shown that European corn borer insects given a choice between organic and conventional corn plants avoid the organic plants. His research is continuing to test two hypotheses for these observations. He feels that the organic soils, with a rich microbial population, may release  plant nutrients more evenly over the season, resulting in slower, sturdier plant growth that is more resistant to insect attack. He also believes that the mineral balance of the soil and the plant plays a key role in insect resistance. In either case, the levels of complex molecules and water content in the plant tissue probably determines how tasty the plant is to an insect.

Copyright © 2000 Acres U.S.A.

All rights reserved.

We will continue this article tomorrow.

Dacha Garden

I came across a great article about how fresh colorful vegetables offer the most nutrition for the money spent. While I definitely agree with this, I believe there are some lost opportunities here; namely growing your own vegetables will prove the truth of several recent findings. Below is the link for the article:

Fresh Vegetable Salads Provide Maximum Nutrition for Each Food Dollar Spent

The first finding is that fresh colorful vegetables have the most nutrition when compared to prepackaged and prepared foods. The second is that naturally grown chemical free vegetables have more minerals and nutrients as compared to conventional chemically grown ones. The third is that the dollar return on money spent for seeds to grow a vegetable garden- even a modest one- is staggering. Several articles I’ve read put the return from $100 in seeds at anywhere from $1000 to $1800 in fresh produce!

“Salads that offer the most nutrition for the money are made with fresh, unprocessed vegetables. Color is the key. Those veggies with the bright, vibrant colors are trying to tell you something. The more colors added to the bowl, the more the salad can keep you looking and feeling young, and put a bounce in your step for the rest of the day. That’s because vibrant colored veggies are loaded with antioxidants, plant compounds that slow the aging process and ward off disease.”

The more colors in the vegetables you eat, the more different types of nutrients, minerals and other vitamins that you get. This is a great start!

“All of these varieties are excellent sources of Vitamins A, E and K. Vitamin A supports eye and respiratory health, and makes sure the immune system is up to speed. It keeps the outer layers of tissues and organs healthy, and promotes strong bones, healthy skin and hair, and strong teeth. Vitamin E slows the aging process, maintains positive cholesterol ratios, provides endurance boosting oxygen, protects lungs from pollution, prevents various forms of cancer, and alleviates fatigue. Vitamin K keeps blood vessels strong and prevents blood clots.

Greens are also excellent sources of folate, manganese, chromium, and potassium. Folate prevents heart disease, defends against intestinal parasites and food poisoning, promotes healthy skin, and helps maintain hair color. Manganese keeps fatigue away, helps muscle reflexes and coordination, boosts memory, and helps prevent osteoporosis. Chromium helps normalize blood pressure and insulin levels. It prevents sugar cravings and sudden drops in energy. Potassium regulates the body’s water balance and normalizes heart rhythms. It aids in clear thinking by sending oxygen to the brain.”

Now if we take this a step further and grow these vegetables ourselves, or at least buy them locally- from the farmers market or “our” farmer/gardener/neighbor that grows way too much to eat themselves- we can stack the advantages of the nutrition in our favor.

Several recently released studies show what is at first glance somewhat common sense- naturally grown vegetables have more nutrients, vitamins and minerals than those grown in the conventional chemically grown manner. The common sense part comes from the fact that chemical agriculture on any scale depends on very few chemicals- NPK familiar to anyone? Nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium are important, but they aren’t the only elements that plants need to grow and produce healthy fruits and vegetables. One study I’ve read showed that a naturally grown vegetable had 84 minerals and elements that were identified as opposed to 8-10 in the same exact vegetable planted from seeds from the same seed packet but grown conventionally with the standard chemical fertilizers and pesticides/herbicides. Something to note- the test didn’t identify the negative elements in the vegetables- such as chemical residues.

Which do you think has better nutrition, which has better taste, and which would you want to eat or serve as dinner to your family?

Continuing the stacking of benefits idea- this is the introduction to the article:

“It looks like food prices will continue to creep steadily higher throughout 2009, even in the face of an economic crisis that has reduced the purchasing power of most Americans. This makes it more important that ever to get the best nutritional value for every food dollar spent.”

I agree completely with this, and seeing this at the end of 2009, the truth of the cost of food vs purchasing power is apparent. What if we can turn this truth around, and make it pay instead of save money? That’s an exciting idea, as saving money is good, but saving in this case is only a stop to spending money. Growing a garden can actually pay you! It is truly not very difficult to grow a garden that produces more than you and your family can eat. Sell the excess, make some money! Farmers and local markets are the fastest growing segment of agriculture for the past several years. Most have a booth just for the backyard gardener to sell/trade their abundance.

Or trade it to your neighbor in return for services or something you need. This won’t give you dollars, but will give you something of value that you didn’t have to spend dollars to obtain.

Or donate some to your local food bank/soup kitchen/Meals on Wheels/etc. Again, not dollars, but karma is good too. So is the increased community that you’ve just created that can help you in ways unforeseen right now.

Now please don’t misunderstand me. I really like the article! I think that there are some ways to capitalize on a good idea and great benefit to achieve much greater results for all of us. Please take the time to read the entire article.

Fall Garden Salad

Many of us have gotten used to eating the few select varieties of fruits and vegetables that are available in the grocery store. The  grocery store produce is pretty, but it doesn’t taste like much.

Incredible, exceptional taste is the single biggest reason so many people are turning to heirloom vegetables. Once you experience the sheer depth of the flavor that any heirloom variety has compared to the supermarket one, you will always want more. You will find heirloom produce to be more flavorful as well as much higher in nutrients. You can eat a salad with no dressing because all the greens and veggies just taste so good. Many heirloom vegetables have been saved and selected for decades and sometimes even centuries because they are have the best flavor and production in home and small market gardens. Flavor is once again the biggest concern for small growers, as they don’t ship their produce farther than the local Farmers Market.

Recent studies have shown that the newer hybrid varieties that are developed to optimize production don’t have as much nutrition as their heirloom counterparts. So now, not only do the supermarket veggies have less taste, but they don’t nourish us as well.  Heirlooms tend to be hardier so it is easier to grow organically without all the chemicals that the popular commercial produce has. So it is also cheaper in the long run to grow plants from heirloom seeds. Heirlooms tend to ripen at different rates, which spreads the production out, unlike hybrids that have been specifically developed to ripen all at once. This means that you have a longer season to enjoy the produce, instead of getting hammered with all of the crop at once.

Another benefit of heirlooms is they don’t have all of the development costs and research associated with hybrids, so the seeds themselves are usually less expensive. Some seed companies try to counter this cost basis by selling seed packets at a smaller charge, but you wind up getting a lot fewer seed- sometimes as few as 10-15! You can save seeds from heirlooms, replant them and they will adapt to your specific garden climate, becoming even more flavorful, nutritious and productive. This is a huge benefit, one that ties directly to how we have fed ourselves for the past 12,000- 15,000 years. Seeds saved from hybrids won’t grow the same plant, and genetically modified seeds either won’t regrow at all or you will face serious lawsuits for saving and replanting their seeds. Heirloom seeds offer many advantages over hybrid and genetically modified seeds.

Square Foot Heirloom Vegetable Garden

Well seed season is upon us! We have been busy with orders and talking to a LOT of incredibly nice and friendly people who are making things happen in the heirloom world. There has been a lot of support for us as  new owners of Underwood Gardens and the direction that we are headed. We have found several new growers that will help us make the transition into more new and unusual heirloom varieties, while ensuring the quality and viability of the seed.

One of the trends we have seen is the amount of new or newer growers/gardeners that are looking at heirlooms for their gardens and food source. This is wonderful, especially in light of the legal action that Monsanto et al are trying to boondoggle America with. We ran across the following article at Kitchen Gardeners International and wanted to reprint it here in its entirety. Please enjoy, will write more later.

Dear Kitchen Gardener,

What’s a home garden worth? With the global economy spiraling downward and Mother Nature preparing to reach upward, it’s a good question to ask and a good time to ask it.

There isn’t one right answer, of course, but I’ll give you mine: $2149.15. Last year, my wife Jacqueline suggested to me that we calculate the total value of the produce coming out of our garden over the course of the growing season. Initially, the thought of doing that was about as appealing to me as a recreational root canal. I remember replying something like: “OK, so let me get this right: in addition to raising three busy boys, managing two careers, volunteering in a school garden, and growing most of our own produce, you’re proposing that we weigh every item that comes out of our garden, write it down in a log book, and spend a few leisurely evenings doing math?” Jacqueline, an economics major in college and a native French speaker, answered with a simple “oui” and so the project began.

There was a lot of work involved, mostly for Jacqueline, but as with gardening itself, it was work with a purpose. It didn’t take long for our log book to start filling up with dates and figures. Although we started eating our first garden salads in late April, we only began recording our harvests as of May 10th, starting first with greens and asparagus. Our last weighable harvest was two weeks ago in the form of a final cutting of Belgian endives forced from roots in our basement.

By the time we had finished weighing it all, we had grown 834 pounds and over six months worth of organic food (we’re still eating our own winter squash, onions, garlic, and frozen items like strawberries, green beans, and pesto cubes). Once we had the weights of the 35 main crops we grew, we then calculated what it would have cost us to buy the same items using three different sets of prices: conventional grocery store, farmers’ market and organic grocery store (Whole Foods, in our case). The total value came to $2196.50, $2431.15, and $2548.93 respectively. For the other economics majors and number crunchers among you, you can see our crunchy, raw data here.

There are things we didn’t include like the wild dandelion greens which we reaped but did not sow, the six or so carving pumpkins which we ultimately fed to our compost pile, and the countless snacks of strawberries, beans, peas, and tomatoes that never made it as far as our kitchen scale. There were also things we forgot to weigh like several pounds of grapes which turned into about 12 jars of jam. As with any growing season, there were hits and misses. The heaviest and most valuable crop was our tomatoes (158 lb/72 kg for a total value of $524). In terms of misses, our apple tree decided to take the year off and very few of our onions started from seed made it requiring me to buy some onion plants.

On the cost side, we had $130 for seeds and supplies, $12 for a soil test, and exceptional costs of $100 for some locally-made organic compost we bought for our “This Lawn is Your Lawn” frontyard garden (normally, we meet most of our soil fertility needs through our own composting). I don’t have a scientific calculation for water costs, but we don’t need to water much and, when we do, water is relatively cheap in Maine. Also, I mulch my beds pretty heavily to keep moisture in and weeds down.  Let’s say $40 in water.  So, if we consider that our out-of-pocket costs were $282 and the total value generated was $2431, that means we had a return on investment of 862%. The cost of our labor is not included because we enjoy gardening and the physical work involved. If I am to include my labor costs, I feel I should also include the gym membership fees, country club dues, or doctors’ bills I didn’t have.

If you really want to play around with the data, you can calculate how much a home garden like ours produces on a per acre basis. If you use the $2400 figure and consider that our garden is roughly 1/25th of an acre, it means that home gardens like ours can gross $60,000/acre. You can also calculate it on a square foot basis which in our case works out to be roughly $1.50/ft2. That would mean that a smaller garden of say 400ft2 would produce $600 of produce. Keep in mind that these are averages and that certain crops are more profitable and space efficient than others. A small garden planted primarily with salad greens and trellised tomatoes, for example, is going to produce more economic value per square foot more than one planted with potatoes and squash. We plant a bit of everything because that’s the way we like to garden and eat.

Clearly, this data is just for one family (of five), one yard (.3 acre), one garden (roughly 1600 square feet), and one climate (Maine, zone 5b/6), but it gives you some sense of what’s possible. If you consider that there are about 90 million households in the US that have some sort of yard, factor in the thousands of new community and school gardens we could be planting, this really could add up. Our savings allowed us to do different things including investing in some weatherization work for our house last fall that is making us a greener household in another way. Some might ask what this would mean for farmers to have more people growing their own food. The local farmers I know welcome it because they correctly believe that the more people discover what fresh, real food tastes like, the more they’ll want to taste. In our case, part of our savings helped us to buy better quality, sustainably-raised meat from a local CSA farmer.

The economics of home gardening may not be enough to convince President Obama or UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown to plant new gardens at the White House or 10 Downing Street, but the healthy savings their citizens could be making and then reinvesting in their local economies could.

In the end, it might come down to the language we use. Instead of saying “Honey, I’m going out to the garden to turn the compost pile”, perhaps we should say “Honey, I’m going outside to do a ‘green job’ and work on our ‘organic stimulus package.’”  I bet that would get the attention of a few economists, not mention a few psychologists!

Happy, healthy March,

Roger Doiron