Tag Archives: rural life

Organic, urban, backyard farming can turn ‘Big Ag’ around

Nov. 18, 2011
Organic, urban, backyard farmers can turn ‘big ag’ around
Why I support organic backyard gardening, urban farming and community-supported agriculture: There’s a huge knowledge gap in farm country today.
People like my father, who grew up in the 1930s Depression, knew how to grow and prepare their own food on the farm self-sufficiently.
People today think rural areas are filled with the farms of that time, and the marketing on television seeks to perpetuate that myth, even down to only picturing 1950s-era tractors in their photos of lush farm fields.
But agriculture today is all about industrialization, for plants and animals.
Many farmers today don’t know how to grow food. They grow commodities – corn, soy, rice, etc. – that’s planted by machines mile after mile and hauled off and processed into semi-synthetic “food products.”
Many farmers today, even owning thousands of acres, don’t – and don’t know how to – grow their own food, much less for anyone else, or even want to do it. That knowledge is fast disappearing, or gone in big farm areas. Rural people are as dependent on grocery stores, fast food, junk food and reprocessed commodities
(fake food in a fancy package) as anyone else.
Our rural state is filled with “food deserts,” areas where there is no fresh produce for sale, anywhere. Our state is also a food importer; we no longer provide our own communities with food.
I’m pushing 60 and live out in the country, but few people here grow their own food. I do know how to grow a turnip. A lot of rural folks, young and old, wouldn’t know what one looks like, much less how to plant it, grow it, prepare it and eat it.
Some young people are taking to backyard farming and urban farming, both of which are growing as a nationwide trend, which may be the salvation of American (and rural) self-reliance.
Robert Rodale, a founder of the organic movement, wrote prophetically shortly before his death in 1990 in his book Our Next Frontier: “The highly productive home gardens of tomorrow will, I think, be the sprouts from which many new small farms will grow. The small-scale farmers of the future can hardly learn their craft in the land-grant colleges, which preach bigness in almost every way. These new farmers will start as gardeners and grow from there. I think that we will see the size of gardens increase, so that the distinction between a large
garden and a small farm will become blurred. The new wave of small farms will fill in the chinks of land made available as some of the old-style farmers are driven out of business by ever-bigger farming conglomerates.”
His prediction of bigness driving out small farmers has proven true; enough so, that much or most of that wisdom is gone. (Look to your elders! They are a fast-disappearing resource!)
But there’s still hope that young people will reject the agri-biz juggernaut and learn to provide for themselves and their families, friends, and neighbors, and return some food independence to the people, and food sovereignty to the nation.
Why should we willingly be hungry beggars to the multinational corporations that hold no allegiance to any nation or people but their own profit?
Feeding ourselves and our families and sharing our abundance can indeed feed the world, or at least add substantially to it.
Food: I noticed that Rainbow Natural Foods in Jackson has been selling (Organic Valley) raw milk cheeses in the dairy case. I bought some. Pretty good! Wish we had some local cheeses.
Online: Here’s a great place to order artisan raw milk cheeses online: www.artisanalcheese.com
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Soil amendments

March 4, 2011

Greensand, trace minerals offer good soil amendments

The warm weather has people in their yards and it is a good time to work in soil amendments for your 4×8-foot organic “Jim’s plot.”

Lately, for example, we have been working in greensand and lime.

Greensand is mined from deposits of minerals that were originally part of the ocean floor and is used as an organic fertilizer (0-0-3) and soil conditioner.

It contains potash, iron, magnesium, potassium, silica and as many as 30 other trace minerals. It helps loosen heavy, clay soils, soften hard water, improve drought tolerance and boost root growth.

Lime, more specifically for organic gardeners, palletized dolomitic lime, adds calcium and magnesium, helps soil structure (by aiding soil bacteria), raises soil pH (makes it less acidic) and allows plants to utilize soil nutrients more efficiently.

Both are sold locally.

If you have sent for a soil test, the results will tell if you need these ingredients.

I was picking greens in the warm weather and a bee landed next to me. When temps are more than 50 degrees, they forage and the mustard greens are bolting, that is, flowering and going to seed.

Folks may be familiar with the little gentle yellow Italian bees popular with beekeepers in the 1950s-’60s. But this was one of the local dark feral bees, called the European dark bee or German black bee (Apis mellifera mellifera).

These were the first bees brought to America, coming over in the 1700s with the colonists in New England and Spanish friars in the South and Southwest (to provide honey to eat and wax for candles).

I laughed because I read somewhere (probably the Internet) that the dark bee was extinct, wiped out by the varroa mite and colony collapse disorder. Well, whoever wrote that needs to come to Leake County. We have plenty of them!

We also have another bee that’s rarer still: a dark bee with little black veins going through its wings, called Apis mellifera mellifera nigra.

I’ve noticed that our little golden “girls” (Russian hybrids) are interbreeding with the locals and lightening them up some.

I’m glad there are plenty of bees, and lots of variety, to keep us company in the garden.

Speaking of bees, beginning beekeepers may qualify for up to $180 reimbursement state ag grants to get started. For more info, see http://bit.ly/g1kliG ; or write Harry Fulton, Box 5207, Mississippi State MS 39762 or e-mail harry@mdac.state.ms.usn.

Reader response: Remember, when I started this column, I said there were no “dumb” questions. You want to pick your greens by plucking the larger leaves on the outside, using the first finger and thumb in a pinching motion. Don’t twist or pull. By pinching off the leaves, it’s easier for the plant to repair itself. Do not cut the plant from the stalk.

I know that people are used to, for example, seeing organic collards and other greens offered with a cut stalk at the grocery store, but that’s for a reason. Most grocery stores, even with “organic” produce, are supplied by big industrial agriculture conglomerates that plant all their plants at one time and harvest all their plants at one time. They don’t care if they chop down the whole plant because the entire 1,000-acre field is denuded by clipping the plant, then replanted.

But organic gardeners and small farmers pick their plants again and again until the plant’s life cycle is over. That means, going out and taking a few leaves from this plant, a few from that, picking the larger leaves from the outside, so that in a few days, the smaller leaves will have grown larger – ripe for picking – along with producing new baby leaves as the stalk grows taller.

You want to develop a relationship with the plant, so that it keeps producing tender, tasty, healthy leaves. You both benefit: the plant by living out its life cycle; you by harvesting fresh produce again and again.

Back to rural life: When I was lamenting the demise of rural communities in last week’s column, I should have added that one of the greatest treasures lost by depopulation as farmers have gone out of business and farms have become big corporate concerns with only a few owners is the demise of knowledge.

The residual wisdom of rural people is a tremendous asset now largely gone, along with the power of communities as viable, self-sustaining units.

Our civilization is so bombarded with TV images of stereotypes and the promotion of caricatures that few may remember that real, live, living, intelligent, thinking, feeling human beings once populated those now lonely expanses between the population centers.

Rural life was neither Green Acres nor Mississippi Burning, and isn’t still.

If you notice, the fields are covered with tiny purple flowers called henbit. Farmers, if you can wait a bit before you plow again until the flowers are gone, the bees will thank you with more honey!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Soil fertility, humus, tilth

February 25, 2011

Test soil of gardens, lawns to ensure fertility, balance

In a previous column, we wrote about how one can look at the weeds growing in a field and determine soil deficiencies.

For example, dandelions tell us we have too much soil sedmentation; consider them natural tillers of your field; when they die back, the hollowed out root system is used by earthworms to travel and further break up and fertilize the soil, bringing calcium to the surface. So, far from being “just a weed,” they’re the gardener’s friend. (Thank Charles Walters of Acres USA for this good advice!)

But beyond what our “weed” friends are telling us, it’s a good idea, too, to take a soil sample and have it tested, not only for your organic garden (certified organic growers must test every year), but also for your lawn and flower beds. You might be surprised at what you find (that you’ve been overfertilizing or adding the wrong amendments).

The Mississippi State University 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 extension service office or write: Soil Testing Laboratory, Box 9610, Mississippi State MS 39762; or call (662) 325-3313.

As an example, while it’s not required, we sample three areas of our little ShooFly Farm because we’re on a hill, and we actually have three different types of soil; at the top of the hill, it’s red clay sandy soil, highly acidic; at the middle, halfway down, it’s loamy and high zinc presumably from previous owners using composted chicken manure as fertilizer; at the bottom, it’s dense clay soil.

Each has its own needs. For example, we’ve been steadily working to build humus and composted material in the top area, to hold moisture and build tilth, and provide optimum conditions for microbial life.

In the middle area, we’ve concentrated on building fertility through adding composted horse manure and high nitrogen cover crops.

At the bottom, we’ve just used standard crop rotation along with allowing natural weeds and brush as a “buffer” zone between the highway and our fields.

For your 4-by-8 “Jim’s plot,” of course, it’s a lot simpler. Just take a small trowel or spoon and fill the cardboard box that MSU provides for a soil sample, send it off with your payment, and in a few weeks, you’ll get your results.

Reader response: An online reader wrote from Hawaii about starting a backyard CSA (community supported agriculture) plot to share produce with friends and family:

“But alas, I can’t plant a garden. Military housing is strongly opposed to us digging a garden in our backyards. We can’t even compost in housing here.”

I suggested that perhaps there was a community garden somewhere that she could donate time to help tend in exchange for food, and she wrote back that, in fact, she shopped at a local farmer’s market at least once a week and would look into it.

People who live in urban areas might also consider “yard sharing.” That’s where they link up with people who have space to grow but not the inclination.

Yard sharing has grown in popularity nationwide. To find someone in your area, check out: http://hyperlocavore.ning.com/page/about-us.

It’s a free yardsharing service operated by Liz McLellan in Boise, Idaho.

There is good value in getting your hands dirty and thinking about things. Lately, I’ve been employed a good bit in farm work and, consequently, have had lots of time to mull things over.

One of the items that has long simmered just beneath my consciousness is the sorry state of rural America. I remember when I was a boy, small rural places were bustling. Now, they are like ghost towns. I remember local communities thriving, filled with the commerce of farms and farmers who came and shopped. What happened to those people? Those communities?

We can’t just blame it on the lure of cities. For, indeed, the ties that kept rural people rural were broken loose, over the decades from the 1950s, when I was a boy, to before now.

The economic, social, moral and spiritual collapse of rural America may ultimately prove not to be the result of America’s decline but the cause of it.

Let’s reverse this. Let’s renew rural America from the ground up! I think we can do it with just the same kind of initiative and self-reliance that I’ve been writing about here; with backyard farming, micro-farming, growing local food for neighbors, churches, friends, family, and creating markets for our goods.

We lost our roots because we let them go. But roots can grow again, if we plant our feet and try again.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.