CCD killed my bees; GMO corn suspected

Today I had to destroy my hives.

New beekeepers might find this surprising, that bees can die mysteriously. But it’s becoming a common problem for beeks.

About two weeks ago, I noticed that no bees were coming and going from my two hives. I watched them, and knew they were dead. It wasn’t a total surprise. Last summer, I had die-offs in both hives, so I didn’t rob the honey, hoping the colonies would bounce back. It was my hope that by leaving the honey, then they could survive the winter. They didn’t.

So, today, I opened up the hives — a chore I had been putting off.

Each of my hives held about 65 pounds of honey -- a classic symptom of colony collapse disorder (CCD): lots of honey, no bees. (Photo: shooflyfarm, Jim Ewing)

Each of my hives held about 65 pounds of honey — a classic symptom of colony collapse disorder (CCD): lots of honey, no bees. (Photo: shooflyfarmblog, Jim Ewing)

What I found was at first surprising. Each of the hives held about 65 pounds of honey. So, they didn’t starve (as I figured they wouldn’t if I didn’t harvest the honey this year). But there were no dead bees in the first hive. Just honey.

That’s a classic symptom of colony collapse disorder (CCD): lots of honey, no bees.

In the second hive, there was the same but with a difference. There was honey, but at the bottom of the hive were hundreds of dead bees. But, in addition, there were dozens of cockroaches, but also dead.

Whatever killed the bees killed the cockroaches that ate them.

I moved to town one year ago. While I had had ups and downs with the bees over the years when I lived out in the country, good years and not-so-good years, the bees adjusted to the various conditions. I requeened when I had to, captured swarms, and so forth, to keep them going. They survived drought and heavy rains, vicious cold spells and warm seasons. Adjusting.

But the moment I moved to town I had problems. The bees just couldn’t adjust.

I don’t think it’s just living in town, as urban beekeeping has become a national phenomenon. Hundreds of beekeepers live in New York City, for example; even swanky hotels have bee hives on their top floors. They are thriving.

But behind my house, a few subdivisions away and within the two-mile range of my bees, are literally miles of GMO corn. You can drive for 30 minutes and see nothing but corn fields interspersed with cotton fields.

Today, the harsh chemicals that once characterized cotton farming have become highly regulated with EPA rules that require quick breakdown of toxic chemicals. But the controversy rages over GMO corn and a host of pesticides for corn called neonicotinoids.

As Xerces has reported, neonicotinoids are a relatively new class of insecticides that share a common mode of action that affect the central nervous system of insects, resulting in paralysis and death.

According to Xerces:

— Several of these insecticides are highly toxic to honey bees and bumblebees. Neonicotinoid residues are found in pollen and nectar consumed by pollinators such as bees and butterflies. The residues can reach lethal concentrations in some situations.
— Neonicotinoids can persist in soil for months or years after a single application. Measurable amounts of residues were found in woody plants up to six years after application.
— Untreated plants may absorb chemical residues left over in the soil from the previous year.
For more, see: http://www.xerces.org/neonicotinoids-and-bees/

Neonicotinoids are found in many garden products, and it’s possible that my bees died from that exposure here in town. But I suspect the corn, mainly because whenever herbicides and pesticides are sprayed on the miles and miles of fields outside of town, the odor permeates the area. It’s difficult to drive through or near those fields in the spring, fall and certain times in the summer.

According to various research reports, though the Big Ag seed producers and chemical companies vehemently reject the claim, it is believed that millions of bees die because of neonicotinoid pesticides. And the majority of GMO corn and soy are treated with neonicotinoid pesticides.

According to the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA), 94 percent of U.S. corn seeds are treated with either imidacloprid or clothianidin (specific neonicotinoid poisons believed to kill bees) and as a result, honey bees are subjected to increasingly toxic load of neonicotinoids in corn fields.

Moreover, according to a Purdue University study released last year, the most damaging use of neonicotinoids is a type of coating applied to many genetically engineered (GMO) corn seeds to kill pests that the GMO Bt toxin (inserted genetically into the seed) cannot destroy.

While European countries have banned their use, neonicotinoids remain widely used in the United States, despite the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency’s own scientists have warned of the danger to the nation’s pollinators.

These nicotine-based neurotoxins impair the bees’ navigational ability and compromise their immune and nervous systems, causing paralysis and eventually death. It has been likened to a honeybee getting Alzheimer’s and forgetting how to return to the hive.

That would explain the first hive with its abundance of honey and missing bees.

But neonicotinoids use has an equally disastrous effect that research is showing (even research that the chemical scientists employed by industrial agriculture cannot explain away). And that is that even if a hive’s bees do not mysteriously disappear by the Alzheimer’s effect (CCD), the toxic load of neonicotinoids stresses hives to the extent that they die from other causes. Specifically, that can be either a disastrous increase in susceptibility to common diseases and parasites, or from other pesticides that might otherwise have sickened the bees but not killed them.

Nor do bees have to go to the corn to be poisoned. Pesticide-laden dust particles are carried for miles. And because the pesticides are systemic, they are absorbed by other plants, such as dandelions, that bees can be exposed to while gathering pollen and bringing it back to the hive.

The poison also is absorbed by soil and, hence, is found in plants that grow in that soil — as well as in our streams and rivers.

One might say, ah, but there’s no proof here that GMO killed the bees. To a certain extent, yes, there is no proven direct link, as there is no proven direct link between neonicotinoids and bee deaths (though the evidence seems overwhelming).

The fact is that rather than reducing pesticide inputs, GMOs are causing them to skyrocket in amount and toxicity because the most common forms of insect pests (not bees!) are developing immunity to those used in conjunction with GMOs. That means ever more amounts and ever more varieties of toxic chemicals being applied (including herbicides).

That also might be illustrated by the simultaneous effect in my second hive: CCD evidence with honey but no bees found, as well as hundreds of bees killed by an unknown cause that also resulted in the deaths of the cockroaches that ate some of the dead bees.

I am not a scientist. I’m just a backyard gardener, former organic farmer, and (now, regrettably, former) beekeeper. I can only present conclusions as to what might have happened to my bees based on observation, reading and my own firsthand experience.

I am also very sad.

Come See Me in Kissimmee

I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on soil health at a small farms conference in Florida Aug. 2.

Rachel (right), daughter of longtime friends Nick and Margie Pikarsky, and her friend (and now my friend) Nicole Fiori, were great to be around at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla, Aug. 2-4.

Rachel (right), daughter of longtime friends Nick and Margie Pikarsky, and her friend (and now my friend) Nicole Fiori, were great to be around at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla, Aug. 2-4, 2013. While it may appear all fun and games, I’ll be back again this year working hard – operating the booth for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) program, promoting and educating about sustainable agriculture for ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, and moderating a panel discussion on cover crops and soil health featuring experts in the field from the University of Florida and other organizations.

Here’s the who, what, where, why, when:

Conference: Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference
Topic: Soil Health in the Subtropics and Tropics
Presenter: Jim Ewing, Moderator
Location: Kissimmee, Florida
Date: 2014-08-02
Registration Info: Learn more about farming as well as alternative enterprises, through farm tours, a trade show, networking opportunities, live animal exhibits, and hands-on workshops.
Registration Link: http://www.conference.ifas.ufl.edu/smallfarms/registration.html

I went to the conference last year, operating a booth for NCAT’s ATTRA (National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) program. If you are an organic grower or interested in sustainable agriculture in Florida and the region, it’s definitely the place to be! I wrote about it on this blog, outlining some of the offerings, including detailed information about aquaponics.

Already, the talk I’ll be moderating is quickly filling up. If you are interested in cover crops and soil health, it should be quite informative, with experts and farmers who are actively growing cover crops available to share their knowledge.

I’ll also be operating a booth for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) program. I’ll be handing out lots of free information about sustainable agriculture.

Come see me!

I’ll be on Twitter @OrganicWriter

Young Couple Turns to Crowdfunding for Farm Expansion

(I’ve written about Dustin and Ali several times before in this blog. They are truly role models for young people entering farming. I wrote this piece to highlight their plight as they face regulatory barriers to achieving the American dream of being successful, sustainable small farmers in a world of agri-giants. Please feel free to repost it, share it, retweet it, whatever. They could use a little help. Thanks, Jim)
STARKVILLE, Miss. — By all outside measures, young farmers Dustin Pinion and Ali Fratesi are the picture of success. They’ve grown their Beaverdam Farm operation from nothing to now having about 350 laying hens and 800 meat birds a few miles from here in Clay County. 
Dustin Pinion (center) and Ali Fratesi (left) explain the basics of their pastured poultry/cattle operation at High Hope Farm in Clay County, MS. The couple has been hit by regulations aimed at larger industrial agricultural operations threatening to shut them down and have turned to crowd funding to build a processing center that meets state and federal approval. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Dustin Pinion (center) and Ali Fratesi (left) explain the basics of their pastured poultry/cattle operation at High Hope Farm in Clay County, MS. The couple has been hit by regulations aimed at larger industrial agricultural operations threatening to shut them down and have turned to crowd funding to build a processing center that meets state and federal approval.   (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

But the couple, in their 20s, are now what some might say are “victims of their own success.”
Dustin, 27, worked hard to get where he is, apprenticing under now-famous author, speaker and Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, to learn the ways of pastured poultry.
He has been a managing partner of High Hope Farm, a combined pastured poultry, swine and grass-fed beef farm, to try to save enough money to someday buy his own farm.
Fratesi, 26, his partner, works from before first light to well after dark, doing farm chores and tending to their buying club – which has more than 700 members – and carrying their dressed, all natural, chemical-free chickens 140 miles to sell at the Jackson Farmers Market on High Street. These are “better than organic!” they proclaim.
Every day, they monitor or move the netted and open bottom enclosures they have built from scrap tin and old cotton trailers so that the chickens are allowed to free range over the pasture. They follow the cattle that are constantly herded using temporary electric fencing so they might intensively feed on lush, green grass. They follow the swine that have been turned loose into scrub wood land that they are rooting and clearing for food, again herded by temporary electric wire to do the job a bulldozer would otherwise do, but is now done in a natural and sustainable way.
It’s a 7-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day job. And, yes, Ali admitted recently over her farmers market stall with fresh grown vegetables from their garden, it’s a hard life. But it’s one they relish – as countless other young couples have done in building a farm business from a few eggs and a lot of hard work.
Now, though, they’ve met a barrier to their dreams. They have reached the “1,000-bird limit” for small direct market poultry farmers and must build an on-site processing facility.The good part: it will allow them to process up to 20,000 birds a year. They hard part: they have to raise $30,000 to help them meet that goal.
Like a lot of young couples, Dustin and Ali don’t have a lot of money, certainly not $30,000 – and being young people with few tangible assets, they don’t qualify for much in the way of loans. So, they have turned to the public in trying to reach their goal. Called “crowdfunding,” they have turned to friends to help them launch a “kickstarter” campaign to raise the funds. (See: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1682257709/growing-the-farm-feeding-mississippi)
At this writing, they are about halfway toward their goal — a testament to the support they have from the community and their customers. But the goal is still elusive.
To lure donors, they are offering a lot of gifts that people might find enticing: from a mention on their website ($15) to naming a pig after you ($50) to really cool-looking T-shirts ($75), all the way up to $1,200 for a three-day farm stay weekend.
“The biggest problem we are facing is we are charting unknown waters,” they say. “Regulations and recommendations are in place for large scale chicken processing plants in Mississippi, but not for small farms like us.”
While the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce and the state Health Department are helping guide them in designing an on-site facility that should pass inspection, they don’t know what further fees and expenses they may face.
They believe that small, direct market growers like themselves are the future of agriculture in Mississippi and the nation.
It would be a shame if the ability to help make that dream a reality fell short because of state and federal regulations.
Take a look at their kickstarter page, buy a t-shirt, or a day on the farm! Helping young people achieve their dreams is a lasting gift in itself.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

A Delightful Evening with Michael Pollan

 

Last night, I had a wonderful time visiting with Michael Pollan, American author, journalist, activist, and professor of journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

There also were about 600 other people in the room for “An Evening With Michael Pollan” in the Music Building at the University of Mississippi at Oxford. Judging by their rapt attention and applause, I’d say they had a splendid time, too! If you care about food (other than stuffing it in your mouth), its history, its social importance, and health effects, then Pollan is an expert worth heeding. The fact that his six books on the subject have all reached bestseller status is testimony that plenty of people are interested in heeding him.

Author Michael Pollan speaks at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, May 21, 2014. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Author Michael Pollan speaks at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, May 21, 2014. I was thrilled to sit on the third row in the packed auditorium. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

The event was sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance and Square Books of Oxford. Pollan’s latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, has just come out in paperback and Pollan was on a book-signing tour.

His talk, which lasted about 70 minutes, started out with background and stories from the gathering of information about the book. He regaled the audience with humorous stories about his immersion into the making of barbecue — and the audience laughed at his tales, which included pork aficionados’ crack-like desire for “skins” or crackling.

The Southern Foodways Alliance had two short films that illustrated the cooking of pork and places featured in the book that were located in North Carolina.

Pollans’ talk vaguely paralleled the layout of the book: Fire (barbecue); Water (soups); Air (bread); and Earth (fermentation). It’s a superlative book; but I’m not an impartial observer. I’m a big fan, and it really made my day to briefly chat with him afterward and give him a signed copy of my book, Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing: Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press, 2012) while having him sign my copy of Cooked.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that my reading the hardcover copy of Cooked last year led me to start baking my own bread. I figured, if Michael Pollan can do it, I can, too! Baking bread – particularly sourdough bread – is now one of my favorite hobbies. I have three different sourdough starters bubbling in the fridge, even now. (Might have to pull one out and bake a loaf this weekend!)

Readers of my book, Conscious Food, will remember that a central question is: How did we become so distanced from the making and appreciation of our food, including its spiritual aspects?

It’s a puzzling and disturbing quality of modern life, and Pollan also brought it up, saying that only a generation ago no one would have bought his books explaining where food came from because it was so tied to daily life. There would be no mystery, no question. Now, of course, that’s not so.

In fact, as Pollan pointed out, there are laws being enacted and proposed to actually prevent people from seeing how food is made, making it a crime to photograph a slaughterhouse or chicken factory farm. The highly processed food we eat, composed of highly refined sugars, starches and carbohydrates often can only truly be called “food products” rather than food. That processed foods also almost certainly contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is also a cause for alarm among many.

That’s how far we’ve come in making something which should be wholesome and good (making food) into something that is feared, insulated, even secretive.

A long line snakes down to author Michael Pollan in the Music Building at the University of Mississippi, May 21, 2014, where he appeared for a speech and a book signing.  (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

A long line snakes down to author Michael Pollan in the Music Building at the University of Mississippi, May 21, 2014, where he appeared for a speech and a book signing. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

While Pollan seemed to get the most interest by the audience in his tales of making barbecue, he also explored the other foodstuffs in the book. He discussed the making of bread – not nearly enough in detail for my avid interest, of course. But he did point out in great detail how sourdough bread, and other fermented products such as cheese and krauts are healthful when done in traditional ways.

Illustrating the benefits of probiotics (good bacteria versus bad bacteria) he told of one experiment that showed that raw milk processed into cheese in stainless steel vats and injected with e. coli became toxic while the same milk in reused wooden barrels did not because they contained accumulated beneficial bacteria that held the e. coli in check.  So much for our theories of anti-bacterial cleaning!

He even often insights that what we usually eat – for flavor, texture, etc. – is aimed at only 10 percent of us; the part that tastes food. Ninety percent of real food feeds the “gut” – the microorganisms that do the work of digestion, absorption of nutrients and health protection. Mother’s milk, he pointed out, is 100 percent food. A pizza or cheeseburger or “Supersized” cola would be 10 percent.

Soups, he noted, extended the lifespans of humans since, generally, people lose teeth when they age; it allows nutrients to be obtained with a minimum of chewing. Taking a swipe at raw foods, he said that cooking unleashes myriad nutrients and chemically changes food; but he also said that raw food enthusiasts can obtain premium nutrients by processing their food with a mixer. I love my Vitamixer!

I know I’m not doing him justice here. His talk was insightful, interesting and not only repeated some information in the book but provided his thinking behind it and revealed his zeal in pursuing and promoting a healthier society that exalts good food. He was singing my song, for sure!

If he appears anywhere near you, and you care about these subjects, I’d highly recommend you go hear him and, of course, buy the book. The talk was three and a half hours away from me by car — I didn’t get back home until after midnight. But it was well worth it and I would certainly do so again!

Before the "Evening with Michael Pollan," I spent a few moments in one of my favorite places: Square Books in the courthouse square in Oxford, MS, having a cup of coffee and a couple of cookies! (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Before the “Evening with Michael Pollan,” I spent a few moments in one of my favorite places: Square Books in the courthouse square in Oxford, MS, having a cup of coffee and a couple of cookies! (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

I also got to visit for a while beforehand at Square Books in the courthouse square in Oxford — one of my favorite independent bookstores. Naturally, I bought a couple of books while there and since I had a few moments before the talk started, I also had a cup of delicious fresh-brewed coffee and a couple of homemade cookies.

What  delight!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Let’s Update Mississippi’s Local Food Laws!

A few months ago, I wrote a blog about a really great small farm operation in Clay County that produces pasture-raised poultry, and grass-fed beef and swine. See: “Farm Field Day Draws Lots of Moms, Kids” – https://shooflyfarmblog.wordpress.com/tag/grazing/

Operated by Dustin Pinion and his partner Ali Fratesi, it’s truly a model farm for sustainability – and was showcased as a good example for other farmers by both the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) which partnered with Gaining Ground – Sustainability Institute to hold a field day there. It was also promoted as a premier example of small farming by the Mississippi Sustainable Ag Network.

But farms like this are in danger of going bust – or never getting started – because of the way food laws are skewed to protect large industrial operations and punish or deter small, sustainable family farms.

Local Food

For many visitors to High Hope Farm, Beaverdam Farm, and other local farm producers that have customer lists and farmers market presence, their operations are often the first and perhaps only time to see a real non-corporate family farm in operation. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Mike and Alison Buehler, founders of GGSIM, are promoting a petition to update Mississippi’s local food laws to allow mom-and-pop farmers like High Hope Farm and Beaverdam Farms to sell poultry at farmers markets. It’s long overdue.

Farmers across the South, I’ve found, have similar issues regarding on-site processing of the food they grow. Joe Salatin is perhaps the best known proponent of the “idiocy” of local food laws. See his book: “Everything I want to do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front.”

Here in Mississippi, though, it appears that a very simple change in the law could help rectify the situation, at least as far as selling sustainably grown chicken is concerned.

Alison and Michael write:

The federal poultry regulations provide an exemption for small farmers processing less than 20,000 birds a year in an approved facility. However, only in Mississippi do the regulations say all poultry sold off the farm premises must bear a mark of inspection:

b. All poultry products offered for sale by a vendor at a farmers market must be sold by a vendor who holds a retail mobile food establishment license from the Department. The poultry products must bear marks of inspection from a poultry inspection program administered by the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce or the United States Department of Agriculture.

 There is no inspection facility located in Mississippi. This significantly cuts off farmers from their customers, and only allows them to sell from the farm.

Every other state allows for farmers under the 20,000 bird exemption to sell off site. Here is an example from Pennsylvania:

Producers who raise and slaughter no more than 20,000 poultry on their premises in a calendar year may, under PDA inspection, sell within Pennsylvania to customers through the following venues:

§  farmers markets

§  farm stands

§  CSA members

§  buying clubs

§  hotels and restaurants

§  schools

§  hospitals

§  wholesale distributors (sales within the state),retail stores

Small farmers are finally on the resurgence in Mississippi. In order to foster their success so we can continue to access healthy food, our regulations need to be updated to reflect this change. They simply haven’t been addressed because there were no small poultry producers in the state. We now have dozens of young farmers coming into the market.

The Mississippi Department of Agriculture wants to support small farmers. They simply haven’t had it brought to the table up until now. After long emails and discussions with them, they encouraged us to create a petition that would show them where public will fell on this issue. They want to hear from us. While the regulations they have dealt with in the past were designed to keep people safe in the face of super-large poultry operations, they also want to know how to create realistic and safe regulations for small farmers.

Here is how you help.

1.    We need an individual present at EVERY farmers market in the state this week, beginning May 17th collecting electronic signatures. All you have to say is, “Do you think farmers markets should be allowed to sell chicken? Let the MS Dept of Ag know!” If you are interested in being one of these coordinators, please let me know.alison.buehler@ggsim.org

I already have covered: 2 Oxford Markets, Starkville, Brookhaven, Jackson, Hernando, and Meridian

2.    Sign up for our 20 Calls for 20 Days campaign to tell 5 people at the MS Department of Agriculture Thank You for aligning our regulations on small poultry producers with the surrounding states. Thank You for supporting small farmers. We appreciate you efforts to increase our access to fresh, local foods. If you sign up, get your spouse to sign up. You will receive a script and a reminder email the day before you make your calls. We need to fill this asap because calls begin the day the petition is delivered.  http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10C0844ADA829A75-mississippi

3.    Sign the petition. Get your spouse, your mother and father, you kids over 18 to sign it. Share it with your churches, your co-ops, your organizations. We have one week to get as many signatures as possible. Our lawyer is drafting this today. It will be on the FB page tomorrow to start sharing.

This is doable! Don’t sit back and wait for someone else to make this happen for you. Don’t lament that other state have better food options. Make this a reality here!

Me again: If you truly are concerned about promoting local food, take action. This is a simple way to do it!

 Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Growing Organic – and Vegan – Tomatoes

 

I’ve been out of town during a lot of April, so I didn’t get my garden in as early as I normally would (usually the week after Easter). But, given the crazy weather – from frost to tornadoes and torrential rains – maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Annette, my ex wife who lives in North Carolina, planted early and got hit by the frost.

Here’s a little garden update.

I'm not unhappy about the wild white clover growing in my backyard. In fact, I'm happy for the bees! It's like a little nature preserve. (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

I’m not unhappy about the wild white clover growing in my backyard. In fact, I’m happy for the bees! It’s like a little nature preserve. (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

As you can see, the wild white clover is running amok in the back yard; but I’m not concerned about it. In fact, I’ve been happy for the bees! (Next, I’ll add supers to the hives on the right.) Sadly, I’ve had to mow the clover in the front yard, so the house will look nice from the street (don’t want anybody to complain!). But the backyard looks like a little nature preserve, somewhat.🙂

Earlier, I had planted red clover in the plot. You can see how it has started to take root. If you were standing there, you would also see bare spots where pooling from heavy rains pushed some of the seeds together. I came back over it today, seeding the bare spots. I didn’t use the seeder; but sowed by hand.

This is not meant to be a pretty garden. The major goal of this garden is to put nitrogen in the soil so I can plant greens in fall; adding tomato plants is a lagniappe.

Also, notice the mulch paper. I prefer paper over plastic, as plastic is not good for the environment and has to be removed and thrown away. In the past, when I was farming and had big fields, I used WeedGuardPlus, which can be bought in long rolls for open fields. It’s 100 percent biodegradable. I recommend it because I’ve used it and I know it works; I’m not paid anything to endorse it. (Read more: https://www.weedguardplus.com)

This time, because I’m only using a few feet in a small garden, I’m using another paper mulch: Planters Planter. It does the same thing; it’s available from http://www.groworganic.com

With either product, at the end of the season, just till it under and it will biodegrade. I also on this garden put bricks to hold it down, just because I had a lot of them. Normally, you would cover the edges with soil. I put this down a few weeks ago when I put down compost and planted the clover. When it was put down, it was darker; but the sun has lightened it.

Today, we’ll focus on growing tomatoes.

To plant, dip you started tomato plant into a root starter or planting mix. You can buy starters or mix your own, including vegan recipes. (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

To plant, dip you started tomato plant into a root starter or planting mix. You can buy starters or mix your own, including vegan recipes. (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

The process is simple. Tear a hole in the mulch; dig a trench about 4 inches deep and eight inches long; dip your plant in starter or planting mix; and cover it up about two-thirds of its length. Viola! Planted. Now for the details.

First, you need to create a planting mix. I’ve written about this before, so I’ll quote:

“The general rule is that if a product or ingredient is listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), then it’s OK for certified organic use. Root Tone product, for example, is not listed on the OMRI site, nor is its active ingredient: idole-3 butyric acid, or indolebutyric acid; neither is the other most popular ingredient on the market: napthalacetic acid. Both are synthetics.
However, there are a number of organic root stimulators that are approved; including products such as Hygrozyme and Biorhizotonic. For more, see:
http://www.omri.org/simple-opl-search/results/root — or look up the name of the product. OMRI does not list synthetic products.

“Farmers themselves often have their own “secret” natural concoctions that may include fish oil, blood meal or other natural fertilizers. (We use a mixture of water, kelp meal and fish emulsion.) Just use your finger or a trowel to poke a hole in the soil, dip the roots of each start in the mixture and plop it in, gently patting the soil around it.”

This time, I didn’t have much time, so I used Earth Juice, which is essentially the same mix I usually use, but premixed and store-bought. Note: If you’re vegan, and object to using any animal products in your garden, you can use Vegan Mix fertilizer, see: http://www.groworganic.com/vegan-mix-3-2-2-6-lb-box.html

It’s possible to have an entirely vegan, organic garden: the only animal life is the pollination by the bees, aeration of the soil by earth worms, and whatever birds come to visit. (Notice in the photos, I also have a plastic owl; that’s to keep birds from pecking my tomatoes!)

If you have lots of compost from leftovers from your vegan meals, you’re simply transferring fertility from wherever those plants were grown to your backyard. Those plants will provide the trace elements your garden will need. If you are having problems with insects or blights, there are organic (and if you look hard enough, frequently vegan) solutions on the NCAT/ATTRA database:  https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/biorationals/

It’s a free, quick way to diagnose problems in the organic garden.

Lay the plant down in the trench so only to top sticks out and cover it up. (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Lay the plant down in the trench so only to top sticks out and cover it up. (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Plant your started tomato plant using a small trench. We have heavy soils, so going down, rather than across, would drown the roots. You can plant your plant 5 or 6 inches deep if it’s well drained; otherwise, dig a small trench about four inches deep and 8 inches long, or 2/3rds of the plant’s length and lay it in the trench.

Notice out little friend. Because we had prepped the soil earlier with lots of compost, the garden was full of earthworms. (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Notice out little friend. Because we had prepped the soil earlier with lots of compost, the garden was full of earthworms. (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Because we had prepped the soil earlier with lots of compost, the garden was full of earthworms. You couldn’t dig a trowel full without revealing one. This wouldn’t happen if we were using harsh synthetic chemicals or manufactured fertilizers.

Use Earth friendly potting mixes for your tomato starts - no synthetic ingredients! (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Use Earth friendly potting mixes for your tomato starts – no synthetic ingredients! (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

If you're in a hurry and don't have time to mix starters for your plants, Earth Juice works great. Later on, use with in a sprayer for side dressing and foliar feeding. (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

If you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to mix starters for your plants, Earth Juice works great. Later on, use with a sprayer for side dressing and foliar feeding. (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Water the plants thoroughly; don’t be alarmed if they are rather wilty to begin with; they’ll pop back up. Be prepared to replace a plant or two; sometimes they can’t withstand the shock of transplant, or an animal or bugs might get them. Keep them watered, but not muddy. The soil needs to drain, but don’t let them dry out either. And you should do fine.

This is a simple garden designed for little maintenance that also puts nitrogen in the soil. (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

This is a simple garden designed for little maintenance that also puts nitrogen in the soil. (Photo: Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Most of all, relax! Enjoy! This is your little Garden of Eden. What a wonderful way to start the day!

Then, you enjoy your hammock ….

Enjoy your garden and leisure! (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Enjoy your garden and leisure! (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

And your kitty cat!

Isis

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

What Community Supported Ag is All About

 

A few weeks ago on March 10, I wrote a blog about the family of Will, Amanda and Magnolia Reed and their small farm in Tupelo. Last night, I received word while traveling in Texas that little Magnolia, 1 1/2, has cancer. She underwent surgery this morning and was expected to start chemotherapy.

Little Magnolia, one and a half years old, enjoys the wonders of nature with Farmer/Mom Amanda Reed at their chemical-free Certified Naturally Grown Native Son Farm in Tupelo, MS, March 7, 2014. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Little Magnolia, one and a half years old, enjoys the wonders of nature with Farmer/Mom Amanda Reed at their chemical-free Certified Naturally Grown Native Son Farm in Tupelo, MS, March 7, 2014. (Photo by Jim Ewing) We have since learned that Magnolia was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called  and underwent surgery today.

Here’s the message from Will, as relayed by Mississippi Sustainable Ag Network Executive Director Daniel Doyle:

Our lives have taken a strange turn over the last 24 hours. After taking Magnolia to CSA member Dr Richmond McCarty’s office to have a cough checked out, a chest ex ray revealed that we should be sent to Lebonheur children’s hospital. After receiving a ct scan we have learned that little Magnolia Jane has a very rare cancer called neuroblastoma. Her tumor and bone marrow will be biopsied Monday and she will have a port implanted to receive chemotherapy. We expect chemo to begin next week and to continue until the tumor is shrunken enough to be surgically removed. We are receiving excellent care and remain optimistic. We will likely be absent from the farm for a couple of weeks but have a GREAT crew that is poised to take over. Farmer Sam McLemore is coming over from Starkville to head the farm and will be aided by farmers Taylor Yowell, Cliff Newton, Jana Eakes and Gabe Jordan. These guys are amazing but with 230 shares to pack each week will have a huge workload and could use support from our CSA. We are asking for the community in our community supported agriculture program to come together and help the farm keep going. If you are available to volunteer on the farm, please email Chris Macalilly at cmcalilly@gmail.com and he will try and get you scheduled. If you have other talents or are willing to cook a meal for our/your farm team that would be great as well. Please pray for Magnolia, our family, our farm and farmers.Love,

Will and Amanda Reed
People are chipping in to help the family in Tupelo, and from across the state. They are volunteering to help work the farm and sending donations. This is what “community” in community supported agriculture is all about!
The family has been such an inspiration for so many people – growing food for their community and being a vital part of it in the central part of the city.
If anyone would like to help out, or read more, see the Facebook page titled Thoughts and Prayers for Magnolia Jane Reed: 
The family is certainly in our prayers. They are sweet and wonderful people.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

OK, I Told You So: GMOs A ‘Black Swan’

 

Glad to see that Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of “Black Swan,” agrees with my assessment published Dec. 31, 2012, that the expanded use of GMOs could produce a Black Swan event that could crash the world’s ecosystem!

The author of the 'Black Swan' who predicted the 2008 global economic collapse argues in a statisticsl monograph that continued use of GMO seeds courts an eco-disaster of global proportions. (Photo: Courtesy Flickr/Muffet)

The author of the ‘Black Swan’ who predicted the 2008 global economic collapse argues in a statisticsl monograph that continued use of GMO seeds courts an eco-disaster of global proportions. (Photo: Courtesy Flickr/Muffet)

As published by Global Research March 26, the risk analyst who predicted the 2008 financial crash (and made millions from it), has used statistical tools to show the probability of catastrophe arising from the current unstudied use of genetically modified organisms in our food supply.

The biotech companies that promote GMOs say that it’s “science based.” But as Taleb demonstrates, it’s only a method using science, not a statistically proven “safe” method of seed production.

In fact, he argues, it’s the opposite, in that natural biological processes take several generations so that the products of those unions are in effect field tested by nature and changing conditions. By contrast, the methods employed to insert various genes into plants remove those layers of refinement which can result in sudden and cascading catastrophe.

The focus of science, policy makers and government, instead, he says, should be on the fact that with the use of GMOs, the “total ecocide barrier” is bound to be hit, over a long enough time, with even incredibly small odds.

I concluded the same result, referring to Taleb’s book and methods, in an article Dec. 31, 2012, that was nominated for a James Beard Award for food journalism. (It didn’t get as much notice, however, and didn’t win the Beard Award either.  Maybe I was ahead of my time.)

Here is that article:

See, “What’s in Your Food”
MuckRack Portfolio: http://muckrack.com/OrganicWriter/portfolio/list
Also: http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2012/oct/31/whats-your-food/
And: http://blog.findhornpress.com/?cat=252
And: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?id=19604582873&story_fbid=127495550735179

You can read the Global Research article here: http://www.globalresearch.ca/gmos-could-destroy-the-global-ecosystem-risk-expert/5375349?print=1

Here’s Taleb’s paper: The Precautionary Principle – http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2.pdf

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

An Experiment: Sourdough Pumpernickel Bread

It’s the weekend, so I must be cooking, right? Those who enjoy my blogs on bread making might find my latest experiment of some interest: sourdough pumpernickel.

I'm not sure I would recommend my sourdough pumpernickel bread. It's a bit strong for my taste! (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

I’m not sure I would recommend my sourdough pumpernickel bread. It’s a bit strong for my taste! (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

I debated whether I should write this because frankly, I would say, sourdough pumpernickel may be an acquired taste. Think about it: pumpernickel bread already has a strong flavor; add the “tang” or sour flavor implicit in sourdough bread and what do you have? I can tell you: a very strong flavor! I haven’t decided if I like it or not.

If pressed, the closest flavor I can think of that approximates it is licorice.

I blame my friend Lisa for this! (Joking. Sort of. I’ll take her some and see what she thinks.)

Lisa asked if I was thinking about doing pumpernickel and, if so, to let her know so that we could compare notes. She said she wasn’t satisfied with how her’s came out.  I told her that these days I just do sourdough (except for white bread for my grandson).

After we discussed it a bit, I got curious. I wasn’t even sure if it was possible to make sourdough pumpernickel, since the ingredient that gives it the unique flavor is molasses, and sourdough is all about converting sugars. So, I thought, well, I guess I could try it.

I don’t have a recipe, per se. I just put the ingredients together how I thought they should go. I looked at a pumpernickel bread recipe but substituted sourdough starter and played it by ear from there.

Take some sourdough starter (after feeding it rye flour for a couple of days to acclimate it) and mix it with water, olive oil, caraway seeds, salt, molasses and rye flour. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Take some sourdough starter (after feeding it rye flour for a couple of days to acclimate it) and mix it with water, olive oil, caraway seeds, salt, molasses and rye flour. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

I took my sourdough starter and poured out about a quarter cup into a separate jar three days before I started cooking. I fed the starter (which had been bred with organic all purpose flour) with organic rye flour: one quarter cup with an equal amount of filtered water twice a day. On the third day, I had bubbly starter from the rye flour. (If changing to a different type of flour for sourdough cooking, you need to allow time for your starter to get accustomed to it.)

Amounts are approximate: I mixed one and half cups of the starter and one cup of rye flour with one-half cup of molasses, half a cup of warm water, two tablespoons of olive oil (substituted for shortening), one tablespoon of salt, two tablespoons of caraway seeds. Stir and mix in one cup or so of bread flour judiciously to make it less sticky, and more for your kneading board. Knead thoroughly, then put in a covered, lightly oiled bowl. Let sit for 4 hours.

Take it out and knead and shape it, then put it back in the covered bowl for four more hours. Then put it in a dutch oven, in a heated oven at 400F, with the top on. After 30 minutes, take the top off, and back for another 15 minutes.

Put on a rack and let it cool.

Let the sourdough pumpernickel bread cool on a rack before eating. Yes, that's the hardest part: waiting for it to cool! (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Let the sourdough pumpernickel bread cool on a rack before eating. Yes, that’s the hardest part: waiting for it to cool! (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Again, I’m not sure I would recommend this. I did not leave it overnight, which might improve it, since that’s how most sourdoughs are made, but I was a bit hesitant since I added so much molasses and wanted to keep an eye on it; also, leaving dough overnight normally makes the flavor stronger (which might not be a good thing with pumpernickel).

 

Next time, if I choose to make pumpernickel bread, I think I’ll just use the rye flour by itself and not sourdough starter. It’s just a bit too strong for my taste.

Onward!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Sorry, Southern Gardeners, Insects Undeterred by Cold

So, Southern farmers and gardeners, you thought that with all this cold weather, it would knock back the insects and help you make a better crop this year.
Not so! Says an Auburn University professor quoted in this month’s Alabama IPM Communicator.

If you were hoping that the cold weather would kill off the bugs that call your garden home, that's unlikely, says an Auburn University entomologist. (Photo: Brown Stinkbug, www.ent.uga.edu)

If you were hoping that the cold weather would kill off the bugs that call your garden home, that’s unlikely, says an Auburn University entomologist. (Photo: Brown Stinkbug, http://www.ent.uga.edu)

“Some crops, fruit trees and even livestock animals may fall prey to cold weather, but insects can survive even record cold,” says Dr. XingPing Hu, an Alabama Extension entomologist and Auburn University professor of entomology.

Mosquitoes aren’t affected, she said, pointing to Alaska and Minnesota, which have extreme cold — and extreme mosquitoes when it warms up.

Not even the dreaded fire ant is much affected by the type of cold weather the South has experienced this year.

“Fire ants need two weeks of temps below 10 degrees Fahrenheit to have any effect on the number of ant colonies,” she says.

Darn!

For more, see: http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/I/IPMNEWS-0075/IPMNEWS-0075.pdf

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Auburn Alabama Going Bananas!?

Catching up, I wanted to report about some intriguing research I stumbled across regarding growing bananas in the Coastal South, while attending the recent Alabama Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association Conference held at Auburn University.

That’s right: Bananas. In Alabama. At Auburn. Is Auburn going bananas? It gets cold down South!

Dr. Elina Coneva, Alabama Cooperative Extension Service fruit crops specialist, and Edgar Vinson, research associate, Department of Horticulture, Auburn University, explain their research into the feasibility of growing bananas in south Alabama during a demonstration farm tour at Auburn University. The tour was held during the Alabama Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association Conference Feb. 7, 2014. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Dr. Elina Coneva, Alabama Cooperative Extension Service fruit crops specialist, and Edgar Vinson, research associate, Department of Horticulture, Auburn University, explain their research into the feasibility of growing bananas in south Alabama during a demonstration farm tour at Auburn University. The tour was held during the Alabama Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association Conference Feb. 7, 2014. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The field trials are being held with hopes that local growers can provide a crop that competes with grocery imports. The trials are in their infancy; but so far 2 varieties survived last year’s 21- and 25-degree lows to harvest; they think at least one will survive this year’s 9-degree low; and this was in central Alabama, not the Coast. Trials are being held further south in Alabama, as well.

According to literature from the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service (ACES), the banana variety research plot at Auburn University’s Plant Science Research Center in Auburn, Ala., was established in 2011. Banana plants were provided by Dr. Greg Fonsah, an Extension ag economist and international banana production and marketing veteran from the University of Georgia at Tifton, GA.

This research, in my opinion, offers a huge potential resource for local and sustainable growing in the South. As ACES reports, bananas offer many different products that small, local growers can produce. “The fresh fruit can be used as dessert. Banana fruit can be cooked, fried or eaten ripe with stew. They can be used to produce beer, livestock forage, cooking wraps and plates, can be utilized as shade trees and for medicinal purposes. Banana fruit has low fat, cholesterol, sodium and salt content, and is extremely rich in potassium.” And they can be used for ornamental purposes, too.

But a major consideration for consumers interested in buying locally produced fruits and vegetables is that such locally grown products can be sustainably grown: not shipping them for thousands of miles and using up fossil fuels, or bringing up Fair Trade issues regarding worker health and equity. They can be grown as a local resource returning value to the local community.

Admittedly, I have not seen the UGA test site where ACES obtained its first varieties. Here’s an article about Dr. Fonsah and his work: http://www.caes.uga.edu/applications/gafaces/?public=viewStory&pk_id=4983

But I can say that I’m totally intrigued by the concept and hope that small, local and artisanal growers can add this crop to their offerings.

Thirteen varieties of bananas are being tested at Auburn University for their feasibility as a Gulf Coast cash crop. So far, two have shown promise, bouncing back from cold winter temperatures to produce a harvest. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Thirteen varieties of bananas are being tested at Auburn University for their feasibility as a Gulf Coast cash crop. So far, two have shown promise, bouncing back from cold winter temperatures to produce a harvest. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Varieties being tested at Auburn: ‘Gold Finger’, ‘Saba’, ‘Dwarf Cavendish’, ‘Pisang Ceylon’, ‘Double, ‘Dwarf Green’, ‘Dwarf Red’, ‘Raja Puri’, ‘Grand Naine’, ‘Cardaba’, ‘Viente Cohol’, ‘Sweet Heart’, and ‘Ice Cream’.

The tests will be carefully watched not only in Alabama, but across the Gulf States, I’m sure!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Henbit Edible, Prolific, Good for Bees & Hummingbirds

On Monday, on my way to Starkville to attend the Gaining Ground – Sustainability Institute of Mississippi board of directors meeting, I saw a giant field of henbit. I immediately pulled over and took a photo, because this often overlooked and unassuming plant is quite important to bees, hummingbirds, and — should be! — humans.

Some farmers might look at this field and say, ack, weeds! But for pollinators, this field of henbit is the Promised Land! (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Some farmers might look at this field and say, ack, weeds! But for pollinators, this field of henbit is the Promised Land! (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

What a wonderful sight!!! For hungry bees, butterflies and hummingbirds this late winter, early spring “weed” is a godsend for its pollen and nectar.

At this time of year, when bees are foraging for pollen and nectar to stay alive, with their stores of honey from last year often depleted or dangerously low, henbit supplies needed sustenance.

Regular readers of this blog, perhaps, recognize that I’m something of a fanatic on this subject, as every year I urge farmers to please refrain from plowing under their henbit as long as possible, or spraying pre- or post-emerge herbicides. The bees will thank you!

In a few weeks, or now in some parts of the South, hummingbirds are making their way back north from the winter, and henbit provides an abundant supply of nectar for them, too!

It might not be a part of official farm policy to provide food for pollinators, but this humble little purple plant (a member of the mint family that tastes like kale) can be a tremendous food source.

Humans can eat henbit, too. The stem, flowers, and leaves are edible. It’s high in vitamins and you can cook it or eat it raw in salads, or make a tea from it.

According to naturalmedicinalherbs.net it has medicinal uses, including antirheumatic, diaphoretic, excitant, febrifuge, laxative and stimulant.

For more, see: http://www.ediblewildfood.com

So, if you see it growing in your garden and think, ack, what a noxious weed! Think again! This is a beneficial plant for pollinators that can spell the difference between life and death for some.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Still Too Early to Plant in Central MS

Everywhere I go, it seems, I bump into people who say, “I read your blog…. Have you planted your garden yet?” And I have to tell them: No, it’s still too early in central Mississippi.

Traditionally, down here anyway, the time to plant seeds was done by the moon, and around Good Friday.  I plan to plant the week after Easter, or the weekend of April 27 or thereabouts. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Traditionally, down here anyway, the time to plant seeds was done by the moon, and around Good Friday. I plan to plant the week after Easter, or the weekend of April 27 or thereabouts. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Traditionally, down here anyway, the time to plant seeds was done by the moon, and around Good Friday. For more than 30 years, I’ve always planted the week after Easter because we more often than not have a cold spell right at Easter, and I’m fairly assured that the crop will do well if planted afterwards.

This year, Easter is April 20. So, I’ll probably plant the weekend after, or around April 27.

The past two years, we’ve had warm winters, leading people to believe they can plant earlier than normal. (Although last spring was cold and rainy which didn’t do well for early planting.) Normally, April 15 is considered an early planting time. But the year before last, I probably could have planted in February and it would have done OK.

You want to plant as early as you can past the last frost, but not so early that the soil is cold and your seeds or plants just sit there and possibly rot in the ground.

Here’s a pdf frost chart for Miss.: http://bit.ly/f8QSAb.

For all states, see: http://bit.ly/i5SmsT.

As you can see by the chart, it’s a gamble to plant this time of year. As the chart shows, on March 23, for example, for Jackson, MS, it’s 50-50 whether the temperature will drop to 32 degrees and 90 percent that it will go down to 36 degrees. It’s only 10 percent, though, to reach 28 degrees. How lucky do you feel?

Sure, we could have a warm month and  you would be fine. But we could just as equally have an ice storm. Or one killing frost between now and Easter (which often is the case).

I’d just as soon not take the risk of having to reorder all my seeds or worrying if my plants were stunted, and would rather wait a little a bit to plant. It’s true that organic growers want to plant as early as possible to get a headstart on the bugs; a luxury that people who spray poisons can avoid. But having the first tomato on the block is not that important to me; having a good, healthy stand of tomatoes is much higher on the personal scale of priorities.

Most seed packets specify the proper soil temperature for sowing. Some plants do OK in cooler soils; some don’t.

For an ATTRA quick list of U.S. organic seed suppliers, see: http://ow.ly/sSsEm

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Native Son Farm A Real Showplace

Last Friday, it was my privilege to attend a board meeting of the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network (MSAN) held at Native Son Farm in Tupelo, MS. It’s a real showplace!

Will Reed talks about the chemical-free crops he's planted, March 7, 2014. To look at it, you wouldn't know from this photo that Will and Amanda Reed's Native Son Farm is smack dab in the center of Tupelo, MS. It's surrounded by houses and subdivisions. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Will Reed talks about the chemical-free crops he’s planted, March 7, 2014. To look at it, you wouldn’t know from this photo that Will and Amanda Reed’s Native Son Farm is smack dab in the center of Tupelo, MS. It’s surrounded by houses and subdivisions. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

If anyone has ever visited the farm, the first thing that stands out is that it’s rather spread out. By that, Will and Amanda Reed and their toddler live in one house, they have a farm stand about a mile down the road from that, and they have a 30-acre or so plot in the middle of town. They do farming on each spot.

Farmer Will Reed shows visitors some of the 3,000 plants he has started for planting in coming weeks at the high tunnel behind his house at Tupelo, MS, March 7, 2014. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Farmer Will Reed shows visitors some of the 3,000 plants he has started for planting in coming weeks at the high tunnel behind his house at Tupelo, MS, March 7, 2014. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

For example, behind their house they have a high tunnel with about 3,000 plants started. From that, they expect to have about 15,000 to 20,000 tomato plants to feed their 250-member CSA. Will says he intends to start setting plants out around April 15.

Talk about urban agriculture, their 30-acre plot is in the center of town, surrounded by houses and subdivisions. They already have strawberries growing there for their CSA’s first food boxes in coming weeks. Their farm stand (where the MSAN board met) is big enough to house a good-sized dinner party or banquet if they were of a mind to do it. In one room, for example, where their walk-in coolers are located, they had a vintage Allis Chalmers tractor. (Will says he uses it to pull weeds.)

A vintage Allis Chalmers tractor is housed in a back room of Will and Amanda Reed's Native Son Farm. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

A vintage Allis Chalmers tractor is housed in a back room of Will and Amanda Reed’s Native Son Farm. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

But even with all this spaciousness, it’s still a family farm. Daughter Magnolia, 1 1/2, is at home on the place as are Will and Amanda. That’s a major driver for them to use organic growing methods. Native Son Farm is Certified Naturally Grown (www.naturallygrown.org), a type of third-party certification that is well suited for direct-market growers who sell locally.

Little Magnolia, one and a half years old, enjoys the wonders of nature with Farmer/Mom Amanda Reed at their chemical-free Certified Naturally Grown Native Son Farm in Tupelo, MS, March 7, 2014. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Little Magnolia, one and a half years old, enjoys the wonders of nature with Farmer/Mom Amanda Reed at their chemical-free Certified Naturally Grown Native Son Farm in Tupelo, MS, March 7, 2014. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

As Will and Amanda note on their website (www.nativesonfarm.com) this expansion of their farm is rather new. “Will became interested in farming while living off the grid in California in 2006.  After graduating from Humboldt State University in 2009, Will moved back to Tupelo to begin Native Son Farm.

“Amanda grew up off the grid in Thetford, Vermont.  As a child, self sufficiency and living off the land were basic family values.  This instilled in her an interest in farming for production.  She met Will at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, where she received  a degree in Child Development.  After graduation, she joined Will in Tupelo to begin Native Son Farm.”

They started with a 3/4-acre garden which grew to a 10-acre farm feeding 150 families to the 250 families and 25 acres in production today.

Since he already employs organic growing methods, Will says he might switch to USDA certified organic if he starts to sell to large grocery stores where he can command a higher price to pay for it, but for now, CNG suits him fine.

They are proud to state they are “Committed to growing healthy, chemical free fruits and vegetables for our community…”

The Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Board of Directors meets at the farm stand of Native Son Farm in Tupelo, MS, March 7, 2014. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Board of Directors meets at the farm stand of Native Son Farm in Tupelo, MS, March 7, 2014. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Will is the president of the MSAN Board of Directors. I’m on the board and also am a former board member and serve in an advisory capacity for CNG.

Will and Amanda (and Magnolia!) are fine folks who practice natural, sustainable and organic growing methods worthy of highlighting as a demonstration or teaching farm, and it was great fun to visit on Friday.

For more on MSAN, see: http://www.mssagnet.net

Here’s a video on Native Son Farm: http://www.mssagnet.net/programs/featured-farms/native-son-farm/

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Quick Organic White Bread for Grand Baby

I’ve really been enjoying this first day of Daylight Savings Time, spending it in the kitchen, baking bread.

Today, I'm in the kitchen baking bread. And, yes, I'm listening to "The Splendid Table" on my headphones from my MPBOnline app while I do this. (Selfie Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Today, I’m in the kitchen baking bread. And, yes, I’m listening to “The Splendid Table” on my headphones from my MPBOnline app while I do this. (Selfie Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

You know about my first loaf today: the no-knead sourdough bread (see previous post); but now I’m whipping up an organic white bread for my 16-month-old grand baby Nathan.

My 16-month-old grand baby Nathan Ewing, perusing a book. (Photo by Ross Ewing)

My 16-month-old grand baby Nathan Ewing, perusing a book. (Photo by Ross Ewing)

Intelligent looking chap, isn’t he?

Some months back, my son Ross said that Nathan loved the white bread I made and hinted that it would be welcome to do a repeat. I’ve been busy since then, but thought that today, since I was in the kitchen anyway, why not?

A few preliminaries: I’m using a blend of three quarters Gold Medal organic all-purpose flour and one quarter Gold Medal whole wheat flour. I’m using Newman’s Own Organic Olive Oil with home made honey from hives from my own bees, a smidgeon of iodized salt and Fleischmann’s Rapid Rise Yeast. (These are for informational purposes, not product endorsements; everything was paid for in a grocery store.)

A mister to spray olive oil for cooking - or eating - is a nice device. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarm blog)

A mister to spray olive oil for cooking – or eating – is a nice device. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarm blog)

I will say that a couple of things seem to be helping; one is using a mister to apply olive oil. I found this one at Kroger and it works great. That way, I can lightly apply oil, like spraying Pam, but with a higher quality oil. Also, you can spray the bread slices with olive oil and eat them! (Which I’ve been doing since I made the first loaf!) And for any salad you have, also. Nice gadget.

I keep my oven clean to prevent off gasses from flavoring the bread; and also use a cooking stone to even out the heat. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

I keep my oven clean to prevent off gasses from flavoring the bread; and also use a cooking stone to even out the heat. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Also, I actually clean the oven before I cook in it. It doesn’t take but a moment to wipe it down and keep off gases from flavoring the bread. I also only use filtered water, to keep chlorine out (more important with kefir sourdough, maybe), and I use a cooking stone on the rack to give an even heat.

I’m sure any veteran baker knows a lot more than I about all of this; these are only a few things I’ve found useful.

Personally, I find kneading dough very pleasurable. It seems to come alive in the hands, and there is a sensual quality to it. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

Personally, I find kneading dough very pleasurable. It seems to come alive in the hands, and there is a sensual quality to it. (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

To be honest, I like making regular bread, as opposed to sourdough. Sourdough is a lot of work, and I manage to mess it up quite often. White bread is pretty easy, and quick. And I like the tactile experience of kneading the dough. It feels alive in your hands, very sensuous.

Just mix it up, let it rise for about 30 minutes; then shape it and pop it in the oven.

And here you go, after 35 minutes in the oven at 350F  degrees, a fresh loaf! (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

And here you go, after 35 minutes in the oven at 350F degrees, a fresh loaf! (Photo by Jim Ewing, ShooFlyFarmBlog)

It’s been a great day! Puttering around in the kitchen, listening to The Splendid Table (“The Show for People Who Love to Eat!” http://www.splendidtable.org), and nibbling on homemade sourdough bread garnished with olive oil.

 

And now, I have something good to give my grand baby!

In my next book, I might explore the cooking aspect more, beyond growing an organic, natural and sustainable garden.

It’s a lot cheaper and enjoyable than watching TV!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

No-Knead Sourdough Bread Works Great!

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a rank amateur when it comes to kitchen matters. I can grow food well; it’s the cooking part that stumps me. But I’ve embraced my fears/inadequacies and have been embarking on a trail into the unknown: cooking from scratch.

I think I’ve mastered making bread from scratch – or rather, I can make bread that I’m happy with, even if it maybe wouldn’t win any medals at the county fair. But sourdough bread – which I think is much more nutritious than regular bread (read previous blog entries) – has somewhat eluded me.

With this in mind, I tried a no-knead recipe from Mother Earth News (December 2012/January 2014), and it works great! See: http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/no-knead-sourdough-bread-recipe-zmrz13djzmat.aspx

I can attest that the no-knead sourdough recipe in Mother Earth News works great. If I can do it, you can, too! That's corn meal sprinkled on the top, by the way. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

I can attest that the no-knead sourdough recipe in Mother Earth News works great. If I can do it, you can, too! That’s corn meal sprinkled on the top, by the way. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Part of the problem I’ve been having, I think, is that I haven’t been feeding my starter enough, and I’ve kept it out. If I had fed it until it was robust, then put it in the refrigerator, that probably would have done better.

My old water kefir sourdough starter kind of went limp; so I threw it out and started another starter that I had ordered online – one meant for gluten-free grains. It started off OK, though I used regular organic all-purpose flour; but I left it out too long without feeding it enough and it developed mold.

I researched what to do and was told that you can scrape off the mold and it will recover if you feed it enough. So, I did that — for a week …. scraping of mold, feeding it; scraping off mold, feeding it… Seemed like all I was doing was feeding the mold. So, I threw it out (into the flower bed, so it could return to earth).

But when I came back inside, I noticed there was still a quarter inch of starter clinging to the bottom of the jar and it actually looked pretty good — bubbly — and smelled good — fruity. So, I thought, what the heck, and fed it with quarter cup of flour and quarter cup of filtered water.

Well, it came back great guns! And it’s now fed and resting in the refrigerator. I’ll probably pull it out in a week or two (remembering to feed it once a week), and cook some bread with it.

Meantime, I had started another batch of water kefir sourdough starter (see previous blogs). Since I keep water kefir going, I thought, why not? It’s free.

So, I put two tablespoons of active water kefir with one-quarter cup of flour and quarter cup of filtered water and refed it with flour/water every 12 hours for a week. When the jar was full (Friday), I made my sponge and followed the recipe in Mother Earth News.

I also went out and bought a three-and-a-half quart stainless steel dutch oven (stainless because I bake so much now, I get tired of scraping off dough that’s like concrete). And I bought a spritzer that holds olive oil that deposits a fine spray for cooking surfaces. That’s a big help, too.

I’m quite pleased. If I can make it, so can you. Give it whirl! (And,yes, the corn meal on the top adds a little pizzaz.)
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Garden Has Too Much Compost? Or Not Enough?

Just finished reading a fascinating article on soil fertility by Jon Frank (ACRES USA, Dec. 2013) that notes that gardens can “abused” by too much compost. Is there such a thing?

Frank, owner of International Ag Labs, a private soil testing firm (www.aglabs.com) gives examples of gardens “abused by too much compost” and gardens with “neglected/abandoned soil.” (See illustration)

Jon Frank (ACRES USA, Dec. 2013) asserts that gardens can "abused" by too much compost. Interesting article. But I think most gardens are not in that category. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Jon Frank (ACRES USA, Dec. 2013) asserts that gardens can be “abused” by too much compost. Interesting article. But I think most gardens are not in that category. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Frank posits that if you want to have maximum nutrient density in your crops, then you should ignore humus (as it will sort itself out with proper mineral content), and should have:

— Nitrogen: manage by crop needs and conductivity;

— P and K: 200-300 pounds each, 1 to 1 ratio; increase K slightly for Potassium-loving plants;

— Calcium: 3,500-4,000 pounds per acre; calcium to magnesium ration from 7-15:1;

Conductivity: 400-600 micro Siemens/centimeter — and he gives amendments necessary to correct that (for more, see the article).

I say it’s a fascinating article because, honestly, after wracking my brain, I can think of few gardens that suffer from “too much” compost. I do remember one friend’s garden that I suspect was “too much.” The soil was so moist and rich that it probably could have served as a worm bed for all its amendments.

But even Frank notes that the solution to a garden “abused” by too much compost is simply to grow more without adding more. Maybe “abuse” is too strong a word for the issue of adding compost. Additionally, given the fact that it takes so much raw vegetative matter to create so little “black gold,” I doubt too many gardens are approaching the “abuse” stage.

Nonetheless, the figures Frank gives are instructional. Looking at the soil report I obtained for my garden from Mississippi State Cooperative Extension Service (see earlier blog), I can see that there are some interesting figures that conflict with Frank’s interpretations.

Mind you, this garden is brand new; my landlady said the backyard was used as a garden many years ago, but not in the past 10 years or so. My test and the MSU interpretation vs Frank’s interpretation:

Phosphorus — 132 lbs per acre (MSU: high) – Frank says this is low and should be 200-300 lbs. I suspect that, with adding compost, that figure will rise;

Potassium – 156 lbs per acre (MSU: low) – Frank says this is just below the 200-300 pounds that’s ideal. Again, I suspect that compost will raise that.

Magnesium – 369 lbs per acre (MSU: very high) – linked to calcium by Frank;

Zinc – 97.9 lbs per acre (MSU: very high) – Not considered most important by Frank. That could fall, if I’m growing green manures (cover crops), which I expect to do;

Calcium – 3706 lbs per acre – Falls within perfect number for Frank and within the proper ratio to Magnesium he gives.

Everyone who has a garden/farm and pays attention to soil tests probably has his/her own ideas about what the proper ratios should be and how to go about fixing them.

MSU, in my soil report, for example, suggests 34-0-0 pre plant (high nitrogen) fertilizer and 0-0-60 (high Potash) fertilizer — synthetic chemicals. In my opinion, shared by most organic growers, such a course of action would burn the soil, killing earthworms and microbes that keep the soil environment healthy.

Rather, what I intend to do is plant the seeds with a fish emulsion to provide nitrogen, then side dress (adding more natural liquid fertilizer) and foliar feeding after the plants are up. In addition, I plan to plant clover between the rows and on unused soil to build nitrogen for my fall planting.

I don’t know if this falls within Frank’s ideas or not; but I agree with his overarching conclusion that it’s the “pattern” of nutrients in the soil that’s more important than the figures alone. Visual symptoms of the plants themselves will tell you what’s going on with the soil.  And: “Your role as steward of the soil is to create the right pattern in the soil.”

I would say that I disagree on his view on humus; in my opinion, developing proper humus ensures better availability of nutrients, which is what he’s aiming at. You can’t build tilth with minerals alone; you must build humus to create the environment for plants to efficiently process available nutrients. Proper humus assures adequate water retention, oxygen in the soil, and ease of root and fungal growth. This is done by rotating crops, plowing under green manure, adding compost and soil amendments, as needed.

As he notes, plants grown directly above a limestone bed can show a calcium deficiency, but biologically available calcium is as much a product of good soil structure (in my opinion) as the ratio of other minerals that can be tested in the lab.

It may be a question of which end of the microscope you are looking through; the goal — and ingredients — remain the same. But soil structure, humus, tilth, are issues that a organic gardener/farmer can readily see and control. To ignore that end of the equation may be just as much a “neglect” or “abuse” of soils as any scientific test may reveal.

For the average gardener, what does this mean? Give your soil the love it richly deserves, using natural, sustainable and organic growing methods, and it will richly reward you with healthful, nutritionally dense foods.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Spin Composters Can Create Quick Compost

You may have noticed in looking at pictures of my garden in this blog that I have several spin composters, also called barrel composters, rotating barrels or compost tumblers. At least online, gardeners either seem to love them or hate them. I love mine.

Spinning or barrel composters aren't for everyone, but if done right, they can produce rich compost quickly for the small garden. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Spinning or barrel composters aren’t for everyone, but if done right, they can produce rich compost quickly for the small garden. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The reasons people say they don’t like them is because, they claim: 1) they smell; 2) they don’t hold much; 3) they get heavy when they get full, too heavy to spin. And more.

I would counter that spin composters aren’t the be all and end all of composting. They have their limitations and, once you realize those limitations, then they simply are another tool that is appropriate in certain circumstances.

I would say: 1) they don’t smell any more than any other compost pile if you have them correctly balanced “brown” and #green”; they hold half of the capacity of the container and, beyond that 3) they are too heavy to spin.

So, consider, if you have a 60 gallon composter, you can start with a minimum of 30 gallons of (undigested) compost, which will digest down to maybe a little more than half of that, 15 gallons — a good amount for a small garden. That’s a lot smaller than, say, a 4-foot by 4-foot fixed bin, but  it’s not a fixed bin. Presumably, you bought a spin composted for quicker compost and the convenience of having it close to the garden or moving it where you want it.

A spin or barrel composted can provide rich compost in 30 days if fed and maintained correctly. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

A spin or barrel composter can provide rich compost in 30 days if fed and maintained correctly. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

I can attest that it makes good compost. I’ve had these for about four years. Mind you, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a fixed compost bin. Years ago, I had one compost bin  made from wooden pallets wired together that was about 4-foot by 4-foot that I used for about 15 years and it just got better and better. I also used to just dump stuff in it and forget it. That’s fine, too.

At our farm, we had one big bulk pile out near the field where we dumped all manner of matter to be composted from a dump truck. If you are growing several acres, that’s the way to do it. You can turn it with a pitchfork or turning fork or with a tractor, if need be.

But if you only have a garden or small plot, a spin composter works fine. We had these four composters next to two plots where we grew greens: one about 2,500 square feet, the other about 800 square feet. (Note: we did not broadcast the spinners’  compost across the plots, like we did composted horse manure, which we dumped by the quarter ton to build up the soil; but we did use it to build up the rows where we tilled and planted.)

We put those spinners out there behind the house so we could have a place to put kitchen scraps and yard waste from those gardens without having to walk out to the field for the big pile. They fulfilled their function perfectly.

What I do is keep putting stuff in one until it is about half filled; then put duct tape across the top with the date when it was sealed, and continue to spin it once a week while I start filling and spinning another one. That way, I know when it will be ready (in 30 days or more from the date on the duct tape).

Since I have four composters, when they are all going, they are staggered so that I always have some compost, if I need it. It doesn’t hurt if you go over long on it. If you’re too short, you’ll notice when you open it (it will smell bad, or like ammonia, or items in it will not be digested, or it will still be hot).

In the fall, you can go heavy on falling leaves for the spinners if you’re planning on letting them overwinter until spring. These spinners had leaves in them from last fall.

Mix “brown” and “green” materials about equally for best results.

Green materials are what the term implies: fresh stuff, like vegetable food scraps, grass clippings, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags or leftover tea.

Brown materials are dry stuff, like shredded paper, wood chips, old leaves, etc.

Don't throw out those old newspapers! Why waste space in a landfill? Tear the pages into shreds and put them in your compost spinner or compost pile! (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Don’t throw out those old newspapers! Why waste space in a landfill? Tear the pages into shreds and put them in your compost spinner or compost pile! (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Be careful what you put in them: nothing toxic (like sawdust from treated lumber or dead plants sprayed with poisons). Consider your compost bins like living beings. They are digesting material that you could not so that you can return to the earth the materials she produced to feed you and your family once again. It’s all a big Circle of Life.

Some advice: 1) err on the side of brown or dry, to avoid bad smells; 2) avoid manures. Yes, I know, manure (especially cow and horse manure) is great for the garden, but I personally would prefer to have it further from the house and also I would err on the side of caution in composting: longer composting time.

We always got our composted manure from a neighbor who kept horses; the manure was from a pile that had been mucked out the previous season: one full year of composting. (Note: If you are going be certified organic, there are specific rules that must be followed regarding compost, including records of ingredients used, turnings, and temperature readings outlined in Section 205.203(c)(2) of the NOP; rules regarding composted manures are quite stringent; for more info, see: http://tilth.org/certification/frequently-asked-questions/producer-farm-faqs).

Spinners are good for quick compost from household and common materials. Although some people say they can get good manure from a spinner in 15 days, I’d go 30 days minimum: raw compost can harm your crops, not to mention fail to digest weed seeds. Some people also suggest letting the first filling of the spinner sit for a week or so to allow it to heat up before starting to spin.

Thirty days is not gospel; it depends on the materials in the spinner (some items, such as limbs, may take longer), the ambient temperature outside (microbes that break down matter slow or even shut down in cooler temperatures), and the amount of matter to be digested, as well as whether it’s rotated properly, can affect the maturation of the compost. Moreover, materials may be too wet or too dry or clump up in the spinner (just keep spinning; it will break down; if too wet, add more “brown,” too dry, add more “green.”)

 

For bigger projects, if you have the space, in addition to the spinners, designate a back corner of the yard for longterm compost: such as tree limbs, manure, bulk waste.

Turn the barrel once a week, at least. It’s not the end of the world if you forget; but, presumably, you have a compost bucket in the house which you are emptying every day (to avoid smells, bugs, etc.), so presumably also you should be spinning your spinner, too.

In my opinion, some people get too uptight about compost. While it’s true that you want to err on the side of caution regarding manures, even the stringent National Organic Program standards don’t restrict adding raw plant material to your garden. If you’re just composting coffee grounds, newspapers, egg shells, leftover tea, newspapers and yard waste that you know hasn’t been treated with any chemicals, you should be fine. And spin composters can really help with that.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Taking a Soil Sample for Testing Step by Step

Following up on my previous post about testing for soil fertility: For those who don’t know how to take a soil sample, it’s real easy. Here’s a step-by-step walk-through with photos.

The process: Tale a shovel, small trowel or just a spoon and collect a soil sample, send it off with your payment to the soil laboratory you select, and in a few weeks, you’ll get your results. If you don’t have an “official” box, that’s fine. Just use any clean container. For example, I used a box that held cans of catfood.

To obtain a soil sample for testing, take a shovel or implement of some kind and put small amounts of soil in a clean box. Make sure it's not covered in turf grass; but only an inch or so below the roots, so the sample includes only topsoil, not subsoil. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

To obtain a soil sample for testing, take a shovel or implement of some kind and put small amounts of soil in a clean box. Make sure it’s not covered in turf grass; but only an inch or so below the roots, so the sample includes only topsoil, not subsoil. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Go around your garden and take a small amount and put it in the box. Dig below the rootline; you don’t want grass or turf or weeds in it; but just an inch or so deep, so you are getting topsoil and not the harder, more compact subsoil.
Go to another area and do the same.

Once you have put a few spades of soil from various places in the garden, mix them up, so the soil is uniform; pick out any rocks or grass or other debris. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Once you have put a few spades of soil from various places in the garden, mix them up, so the soil is uniform; pick out any rocks or grass or other debris. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Crumble it all up and mix it up and either take it to your local extension service office or send it off. Most states have a testing facility, usually affiliated with a university, university cooperative extension service, or a state department of agriculture or natural resources.

In Mississippi, the Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service Soil Testing Laboratory analyzes soil. It only costs $6 for a routine analysis. For additional information, see http://msucares.com/crops/soils/testing.html, visit your local county extension service office or write: Soil Testing Laboratory, Box 9610, Mississippi State MS 39762; or call (662) 325-3313.

Land grant universities nationally are dropping soil testing programs. So, if you are reading this in a state where it is no longer available, here is a list of commonly used private labs compiled by Colorado State University: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/crops/00520.html

Collecting a soil sample is required annually for certified organic growers; but if you’re not organic, it’s still a good idea to see what’s going on with your soil. As stated in my earlier blog, when I first started sending off samples in Lena, because we lived in a terrain with red clay and sandy soils basically only good for growing pine trees, the tests came back showing high acid in the soil, in the 5.0 range.

Over several years, amending the soil with tons of composted horse manure and growing cover crops year round to build up vegetative matter (called “green manure”) and balance out the acid soil, we managed to bring the soil to a neutral level: 6.6 pH. That was a huge success.

Additionally, by digging a soil sample each year before you plant, you also get a good idea of how your topsoil is doing. Each year, your topsoil should be thicker, the consistency of the soil showing better tilth, and the fertility of the soil greater. If it’s not, then you should address that with more soil amendments and crop rotation.

You want to add humus and composted material to hold moisture and build tilth, increase fertility and provide optimum conditions for microbial life.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Garden Update: Soil Sample Back, Second Tilling

My garden is coming along as it should – even better than I had hoped.

I was able to do my second tilling, which puts me about halfway toward planting a crop of some kind this spring.

This is my new garden tilled for a second time. At present, I'm just trying to break up roots and spread a little compost. It won't be ready to plant for at least one more tilling. If this were an established garden, it wouldn't require such work. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

This is my new garden tilled for a second time. At present, I’m just trying to break up roots and spread a little compost. It won’t be ready to plant for at least one more tilling. If this were an established garden, it wouldn’t require such work. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Yesterday, before the cold rains and sleet came, the weather was beautiful with sunny skies and balmy temps — up to the 80s, in fact!

It was so warm, I was able to ride my bike down to the post office, to the grocery and around town before coming home, stripping off my shirt and tilling the garden bare chested to the warm, gentle, caressing breezes.

There’s nothing like getting your hands in the soft, moist soil and working vigorously in the garden! It’s a whole body affair. After wrestling the tiller, and spreading compost, my whole body is sore today. Quite a workout!

I had last tilled my new garden on Jan. 31, with the intention of coming back for a second tilling a couple of weeks later. But the weather has been so strange — ice storms, sleet, snow accumulations and heavy rains — that it didn’t dry out enough to till until yesterday.

You never want to till your garden when it’s soggy. Some people might say, why not? It’s because, if muddy, the soil will create clods that are difficult to break down. Sure, you could go over it repeatedly later, but that’s inefficient and, besides, human nature being what it is, one might be tempted to just overlook some clumping. If so, you are dooming your garden to failure or at least subpar production before you started. Gardening is all about patience.

The goal of the natural, sustainable or organic garden is to provide good tilth. That means soil that crumbles easily, has consistency and some vegetative matter in it. The reason you want light, airy, crumbly soil is so that the roots of the plant and the microorganisms that serve the plant can breathe easily.

Wet, hard or clumping soils suffocate plants or prevent them from easily accessing nutrients they need to thrive.

‘Conventional’ is a Killing Cocktail of Chemicals

The greatest threat to farmland today is not so much its infertility, but the fact that the chemical soups being used on them kill all the microorganisms and collapse the soil, so that roots struggle, plants are anemic and the soil turns to hardpan. Infertility comes form neglected soil health and no amount of artificial chemical means can reverse that.

If you talk to “conventional” (read: chemical) farmers today, most will tell you a major problem they have is with the composition of their soils. They don’t hold moisture, making them susceptible to drought; they are hard, with topsoil that blows away. That’s why so many farmers are now interested in growing tillage radishes as cover crops – to break up the subsoil and create aeration in the soil.

If they didn’t use so many chemicals that kill all life except the GMO seed varieties bred to withstand such poisons, they wouldn’t have such soil problems to start with. But the big chemical/seed manufacturers have sold farmers on the idea that the soil is simply an inconsequential growing medium for a killing cocktail of chemicals.

Natural, organic and sustainable farmers know that the opposite is true. If you have good healthy soil (read: tilth) then you’ll have good healthy plants.

Soil Sample

If you are certified organic, then you know that the first step each year is to take a soil sample and send it off for analysis. Last month, it just so happened that I was going to attend a national forum on cover crops sponsored by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) program, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Mississippi State University’s Cooperative Extension Service at the local county extension office. So, I took my soil sample with me in order to drop it off while I was there.

They all kidded me when I arrived; the only guy at a soil conference who brought his own soil! (And, yes, they know me as “the organic guy.”)

The local Rankin County office was just great in packaging it up (I had brought it in an empty cat food box) and sending it off. And last week I received the report.

My soil sample report from Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service shows a high fertile, slightly acidic soil. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

My soil sample report from Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service shows a highly fertile, slightly acidic soil. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The report was actually better than I had hoped. It just so happened that one of the participants in the forum was the state agronomist and he took one look at my soil and identified it at Black Prairie. I told him that I thought Black Prairie was only around Meridian, extending east into Alabama, and north into Monroe County in Mississippi. He said there were pockets of it in the state, as well, including the Pelahatchie area.

The soil is distinctive for being black in color and sandy. Really nice soil.

The report showed that my soil is high in phosphorus, which is good, and slightly acidic at pH 6.3. For comparison, neutral is 6.6 to 7.3; where I used to live in Lena, an area covered in red clay soil and pine trees, the soil was highly acidic in the 5.5 to 5.7 range. After years of dumping literally tons of horse manure and growing cover crops year round, I was very pleased to have my fields test out at 6.6.

So, I’m thrilled with 6.3!

I’m still mulling over what I’m going to plant. But I’ve got a good start!

More later …

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.