A Growing Culture
  • July14th

    The Library for Food Sovereignty

    By Freya Yost – Director of Information Services

    For the past 5 years, A Growing Culture (AGC) has been developing an online library that collects farmer-led innovations and techniques from around the world. Many of you have shared success stories, debated methods, and confronted the leading challenges that face our food system today. The library now includes over 150 technical essays, a collection of farmer profiles, interviews and opinion pieces from a large and diverse group of agrarians. This growing collection, along with the feedback and enthusiasm we’ve received from the community, has led us to inquire further into ways we can improve intractability.

    AGC has been studying the information needs and trends of farmers and the traditional avenues of information dissemination and access. We learned that much of academic research does not reach farmers. While data-driven research is valuable for government, policy makers, and industrial farmers, it doesn’t always meet the needs of small-scale farmers and is often neglected by them entirely. In fact, policies and techniques derived from research communities alone are not successful, as the beneficiaries—the farmers—often don’t practice them. We also learned something even more important: most farmers conduct their own research and develop innovative methods as a result of that research. Farmer-led research has proven to be incredibly effective and empowering—especially for small-scale farming businesses. In an iPES report the New Science of Sustainable Food Systems (2015) the author writes,

    “Leaving out social actors in the stages of framing, conducting and analyzing research means leaving un-tapped the potential of the knowledge they possess; and it means limiting the transformative potential of that research.”

    In an evolving and increasingly digital world, AGC sees an opportunity for a collective and interactive library that encourages farmer-led information exchange. Using sophisticated digital technologies, AGC is planning a revamped library service that restores agricultural research back into the hands of the world’s farmers. The Library for Food Sovereignty will provide a platform for hosting, organizing, storing, and sharing knowledge, techniques, moving image, photos, data, slideshows and more. AGC is currently in the process of partnering with like-minded organizations to solicit content from their own networks of farming communities. These organizations will be “information hubs” and will help document and represent the innovations of the farmers they work with. Together with our partners, we will form a library steering committee that ensures the collection continues to serve farmers and the movements on the ground. The library and AGC mission are to serve small and medium sized farmers, encouraging an ecological practice of agriculture. We stand behind a free and open library for all communities regardless of race, gender, farming type, or jurisdictional borders.

    It has been an honor to work with some of the finest agrarians from around the world. Small-scale farmers produce 50-70% of the world’s food, make up 85% of farms, and represent 70% of the hungry and malnourished. The hard work, innovative practices, and resilience we have seen have been incredibly inspiring. AGC believes that harnessing these innovations—and providing access to them through the digital library—is key to encouraging farmer autonomy, independence, and amplifying the voices of the underrepresented.

  • January26th

    Homeless Garden Project: Cultivating Community Through Urban Farming

    Men working in the gardenby Holloway

    The Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, California is one of the many community garden projects in the area, yet is unique in its mission and its everyday actions. This particular site is still known for its organic produce and sustainable practices, but it is the devotion to the city and its homeless populations that makes the Homeless Garden Project unique. On any given day, a mixture of students, professional workers, and homeless men and women work kneel in beds of lavender, kale, and cover crops, to produce fresh produce and to enrich not only their own lives, but the community as a whole. The Homeless Garden Project (HGP) is a certified organic community garden in Santa Cruz, California, that “provides job training, transitional employment and support services to people who are homeless”(What We Do). The mission statement of the HGP is that “In the soil of our urban farm and garden, people find the tools they need to build a home in the world”.

    The HGP operates on three acres of land between the Monterey Bay and the redwood forests of Santa Cruz. The garden is open to the public every day from dawn until dusk, and visitors are welcome to walk through the gardens and sample a fresh strawberry. From Thursday through Sunday volunteers may come to work and join in the day’s activities. There they meet the staff and trainees, and share a meal with all who make the garden happen. Through community involvement, sustainable farming, and a genuine desire to help the homeless population, the HGP has established itself as a principle actor in the sustainable agriculture movement in the Central Coast, and a model cooperative for others to follow.

    The HGP offers four main programs to benefit the homeless population and Santa Cruz residents at large. The Women’s Organic Flower Enterprise teaches female trainees to dry herbs and flowers and design arrangements out of them. Revenues generated from the flower projects are then channeled back into the program, and throughout the year women are trained in job skills while making valuable connections with other women. The HGP participates in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, which sell organic produce to community members at prices dependent on need, and teaches trainees important skills in marketing. The HGP is an education center, and its Cultivating Community program invites groups to attend workshops and lectures on the farm. The Connecting with Community Program links homeless trainees with local resources such as housing, food stamps, drug rehabilitation, counseling, and low-cost physical and mental health services (Programs). Throughout their programs, the HGP promotes job training, support, and re-assimilation into society.

    Along with essential support and training for the local homeless population, the HGP also commits to ecological practices by employing organic and sustainable methods in their farm. This component of the project largely stems from the first director, Paul Lee. When the Citizens Committee for the Homeless created the HGP in 1990 Paul brought his experiences from the Chadwick Garden at the UCSC campus (Rabkin, Reti, and Farmer 229). Lee incorporated his learned sustainable practices into the HGP, which included French intensive, bio-intensive, and no-till practices.

    Shovelling in the gardenThe French intensive system of gardening is a raised bed style that involves hand-working and deep cultivation (French Intensive 1). This technique is very calculated, and provides the soil with targeted drainage, air, and key nutrients at specific levels. Advocates of French intensive claim that, in tandem with cover crops, the time to develop one foot of topsoil decreases dramatically compared to traditional methods (French Intensive 2). Today, the HGP still follows these practices; beans and grasses cover the beds during the off-seasons, before they are hand-cut and incorporated back into the soil to release essential nutrients like nitrogen. The garden also has an extensive composting system, and volunteers can be seen sifting compost and gently raking it into the top portion of soil. The farm does not use machines, pesticides or herbicides of any kind (Omer). At the HGP, as in many sustainable growing operations, the earth is treated with as much care as the workers, and the product is a high yielding garden with a devoted staff.

    The HGP, like most urban gardens, faces a multitude of obstacles, primarily involving land acquisition, water management, and finances (Omer). The HGP relies upon financial support in the form of donations and government grants, to help them acquire tools, water, and funding for their projects. However, their land is much less secure than their financing (Omer). Although the farm has devoted immense care and attention to developing healthy topsoil, they are on borrowed land, and may be asked to relocate at any moment (Omer).

    The farm began on a lot in Santa Cruz in 1990, and expanded to include a second garden location in 1994. In 1998, the original lot was sold as city property for housing development, and the HGP consolidated at the second and current location (History). The current plot is owned by a local Santa Cruz resident, and is leased to HGP for a small monthly price (Omer). In 1998 the City of Santa Cruz devised a plan for a new location for the HGP, a 614-acre area bordering the university (History). However, the HGP has faced numerous barriers to this plan, like a source of water and adequate funding to construct the site.

    Because the HGP cannot guarantee the length of time they will spend on a plot, certain projects must either be sacrificed or implemented with the knowledge that they may not be completed. For instance, the HGP could plant an orchard, but fruit trees take years to bear adequate fruit. The HGP can either invest resources to grow fruit trees with the hopes that they will be at the location in five years, or they can focus on crops like berries that will yield fruits each year. These tradeoffs are common themes of the sustainable, urban agriculture movement. However, the HGP embraces these challenges, and remains optimistic that wherever they are located, their original goals will prevail.

    As is the case with many environmental movements, issues arise when we try to sort urban agricultural projects into one of two opposing categories. Nathan McClintock, a professor of Urban Planning, claims that scholars either praise urban farms for their positive contributions to food security, sustainable education, and community-building, or they question the authenticity of urban farms based on the concern that these farms focus too much on the financial aspect. (McClintock 148). However, the HGP may not fit neatly into one category, as it has largely succeeded in linking sustainability, social progress, and community involvement with marketing skills and financial gains.

    In 1990, the HGP arose to combat issues of homelessness and food insecurity in Santa Cruz, and throughout the years the HGP has not wavered from its original goals. The HGP believes in “deeds, not words” (Omer), and this is reflected in their commitment to acting in the best interest of the homeless population and the sustainable agriculture movement.

    Works Cited

    French Intensive Gardening: A Retrospective. California: UCSC Farm and Garden, n.d.


    “History of the Project”. Homeless Garden Project. 2010. Web. 3 March 2014

    McClintock, Nathan. 2014. Radical, reformist, and garden-variety neoliberal: coming to terms with urban agriculture’s contradictions. Local Environment. 19:2, 147-171.

    DOI: 10.1080/13549839.2012.752797

    Omer, Chris. Personal Interview. February 20, 2014.

    “Programs”. Homeless Garden Project. 2010. Web. 3 March 2014

    Rabkin, Sarah, Irene Reti, and Ellen Farmer. Cultivating a Movement: An Oral History of Organic Farming and Sustainable Agriculture on California’s Central Coast.

    University of California, Santa Cruz: Regional Oral History Project, 2010.


    “What We Do”. Homeless Garden Project. 2010. Web. 3 March 2014

  • December14th

    EPB Corporate CSA Gaining Ground Recipe Book DayBy Elizabeth Hammitt, EPB Environmental Coordinator

    In 2012, EPB, an electricity and communications distributor, partnered with Gaining Ground, a nonprofit dedicated to local food awareness, to develop a business plan that would make CSAs more accessible. Noting issues for potential customers like upfront-cost financial barriers and education, and issues for farms like program administration, the two groups developed a win-win-win plan that grew from a successful pilot to a solid program. Here are the basics:

    Who: EPB, Crabtree Farms, and Gaining Ground

    What: A program in which Crabtree farms will deliver produce to participating employees at EPB weekly during the 29-week growing season. Full shares are $850. Half shares are $425.

    When: Deliveries will occur at 3:00PM on Fridays. Program would begin in May and end in November. Payroll deductions will begin in April and run to April of the following year.

    How: EPB’s Payroll Team deducts $32.69 ($850/26 paychecks) or $16.35 ($425/26) per pay period for participating employees for the duration of one year. A check is sent to Crabtree Farms on a monthly basis. EPB employees sign a contract committing to the program, holding EPB harmless for anything relating to the CSA, and Crabtree Farms signs a contract outlining the payment structure and other details as agreed upon by both parties. Gaining Ground provides support like seasonal recipe books and other educational materials.

    KohlrabiWin-Win-Win: This program functions well for all parties. The Farm – gets a new customer base, a year round revenue stream, and a streamlined delivery process with little overhead. The Employer – get a no cost (excepting employee time) employee benefit while encouraging employees to eat healthier food, potentially decreasing healthcare costs. The Employer also benefits from the positive press and social/ environmental impact of the program. The Customer: gets a pay-as-you-go product that makes eating organic and local more affordable. In addition, the product is delivered at no additional cost and payment is convenient.

    Crabtree farms was selected to be the CSA provider due to its location within EPB’s service territory, its long standing reputation for quality produce, and its commitment to education.

    The Farm’s Executive Director, Joel Houser, believes the program has been a great way to sell produce: “For Crabtree, this has been a no-brainer. It is a unique, progressive program that we are proud to be part of. We are able to sell more of our food to customers that are within 5 miles of the farm who probably wouldn’t be in our CSA otherwise. It works well with our mission of connecting Chattanoogans with our local foodshed. This is a model that could revolutionize the way that small farms market their produce. If we could sell all of our food in this manner, we would,” says Houser.

    Gaining Ground helped in trouble shooting issues as they arose, creating a survey for pilot participants and brainstorming about solutions.

    Ruth Kerr, program manager at Gaining Ground, believes in the model:EPB has led the way in its commitment to support the local food economy. Their employees were able to experience first hand how local food is better for their health, community, and contributes to the local economy. Because of this commitment, EPB and Crabtree Farms collaborated in a unique way to make this program successful. We hope this model can serve as a springboard for other corporations who want to make local food more accessible to its employees,” says Kerr.

    Lessons Learned

    • CSAs will be left. It’s important to develop expectations early around the pick-up time. To ensure that the produce gets used, developing a process for these bags’ alternate “home” is key to keeping the program sustainable. EPB has a strict pick-up cut off time of 7:00 PM; after 7:00 PM, the custodial crew is free to take the produce to use or donate.
    • Corporate Customers are More Traditional. Our survey revealed that while employees will enjoy trying new vegetables and fruits, their tolerance for exotic items like kohlrabi is limited. This year, EPB asked for input in the farm’s crop planning process, and EPB employees are receiving fewer exotic items. This change seems to have increased satisfaction with the program.
    • Corporate Customers Value Structure. People working in a traditional office environment value things like CSAs & farm emails arriving at the same time every week, precise communication around what’s in their weekly bag, and as little dirt or bugs as possible on their produce.
    • Be Specific: Contracts between the employee and employer are a must. Ensure that employees understand that they may not opt out of the program and that they are responsible for their CSA.
    • Make It Fun: Employees enjoyed attending lunch and learns about local food and receiving recipe books.

    Bottom Line

    In last year’s pilot, EPB employees purchased 3,500 pounds of local produce from Crabtree Farms. In 2013, participation increased from 12 to 21.5 “shares,” and there was more interest than could be accommodated. On average, in 2012, CSA participants saved around 45% from the market value of organic, locally grown produce. In addition to getting LEED EBOM credit for the program, it’s an easily replicable way to invest in employees, the environment and local community at no up-front cost.

  • November3rd


    Beans grown under trees

    By Dan Kiprop Kibet

    Kenya is an agricultural country, endowed with an abundance of fertile soils. Farming serves as the most important economic activity for up to 80 per cent of its population. Out of this majority, a large number are small scale farmers, owning plots of less than five acres of land across the country.

    Small scale farmers play a key economic role, not only in food production, but by contributing to self employment and boosting the local economies all over the country. As the UN Special Rapporteur on right to food affirms: “small scale farming is creating employment and contributing to rural development…it is better at preserving ecosystems because farmers combine various plants, trees and animals on the piece of land.”

    Like any other pursuit, small scale farming is fraught with challenges that prevent farmers from reaching their full potential. Obstacles range from: [1] Depletion of soils resulting from constant overuse of the same “shamba”- a Swahili word for land.  [2] Lack of information on sustainable farming approaches [3] pest and disease management and to [4] drought, extreme precipitation and cold weathers.

    Despite all these setbacks, efforts to end hunger and keep the land productive, however small, are now geared toward low-cost, sustainable approaches to farming. Agroforesty is now prominent among these solutions, deemed as the next agricultural solution to feed the world; it is defined as a dynamic and ecological method of land management involving the simultaneous cultivation of farm crops and trees.

    Agroforestry combines agricultural and forestry techniques to create more varied productive, profitable, healthy, and sustainable approaches to land use. It diversifies and sustains production for increased social, economic, and environmental benefits on plots of land of any size.

    Having been practiced by farmers for decades, agroforestry focuses on a wide range of trees that act as fertilizers, soil improvers, fruit providers, fodder, fuel wood, and medicine. Today, trees in farms are seen as a crucial bridge between forestry and agriculture, striking a balance between conservation and production. While Kenya’s forests diminish, more trees are being planted in farms, and small scale farmers are doing this for their own benefit and that of Mother Nature. More so, it is a strategy to compliment the 10% forest cover advocated by the Kenyan government.

    Representing Kenya’s agroforestry for this article is John’s small plot; trees form part of his farming endeavors. Through this noble partnership, he has experienced a constant production of food and other tree products in a rejuvenated soil. He says that, if done well, agroforestry offers the best use of land if joined with good agricultural practices, such as organic farming. “It thus increases resiliency towards fighting hunger,” he adds.

    John Chepsoi, 45 year old small scale farmer  living in Nakuru, North west of Nairobi has incorporated trees which do not compete with his crops (silvoarable system), but bring in multiple benefits to him, his livestock, crops, soil, and the environment at large. They are Nitrogen Fixing Trees (NFTs).

    It began when he planted a few trees on a section of the plot four years back. He observed that the soil in the area with the trees usually looked fertile and alive. The crops were healthier and yielded more compared to the bare land. This led him to introduce more trees on his plot to increase fertility and increase production. He has harvested potatoes and his beans are blossoming. He is expecting a good harvest this season as he says all systems are functioning well under this agroforestry method of farming.

    Luceana Tree

    Luceana tree; a nitrogen fixing and fodder tree

    Walking round his farm, trees which are fast maturing and able to fix nitrogen in the soil are planted; he uses these trees as fodder for livestock and also as fire wood. When cut, he says that they are able to coppice again, hence avoiding the urge to invade the forest. Some of these trees include: grevillea, luceana, calliandra, acacia and sesbania sesban. The Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) provides useful information to field workers and farmers on different useful trees that can be planted in farmland. (www.kefri.org

    One example of the acacia tree, which has long been combined with traditional farming in Africa, is the Faidherbia albida, also known as “Mgunga” in Swahili. It possesses the unique ability to produce much needed nitrogen for the soil and plants. With its phenology, Faidherbia goes dormant and sheds its nitrogen-rich leaves during the early rainy season, when crops are being planted, and resumes leaf growth in the dry season.

    The air we breathe consists of approximately 80% nitrogen gas. This Nitrogen is normally unavailable to plants, but nature has devised a unique way to cycle those nutrients through the trees. This is done through Nitrogen Fixing Trees (NFTs) which are able to utilize the atmospheric nitrogen through an association with a Rhizobium, a bacterium which is hosted in the root system of nitrogen fixing trees. These plants biologically accumulate nitrogen by pulling essential nutrients out of the air for their own use, and if managed well, can make it available to other crops as well. This reduces the need for commercial nitrogen fertilizers.

    Through an agroforestry system, John farms without the application of synthetic fertilizers (DAP/CAN) commonly used by many farmers, but lets nature perform this duty through NFTs.  His style of farming has been a productive and conservative one, and he sees these as a long-term strategy and is happy he followed the path of agroforestry.  “The goodness of agroforest trees is that they are there to offer their free services all year round,” he adds.

    a bean climbing one of the trees

    He is planning to establish an agroforestry nursery in the future where he can raise and sell seedlings to other farmers, in the effort of spreading the benefits of agroforestry in building sustainable future and earning income.

    John explains that during the dry season, from December to March, some trees are able to shed their leaves, while others remain green, which he uses to feed his livestock. He further says that producing staple food crops like maize, sorghum and millet under these agroforestry conditions dramatically increases their drought resilience in dry years because of the positive soil moisture and better microclimate.

    The fallen leaves, weeds and crop residues don’t go to waste. They are heaped to naturally decompose and later used to fertilize the farm. John is keen not to throw away any of this, as he calls it a treasure. After they are heaped, they usually attract many beneficial micro organisms, which feed on them.  As we turn a heap together, there were hundreds of earthworms at work. Earthworms are described as “ecosystem engineers.” Charles Darwin referred them as “Earth ploughs.” They contribute to enriching and improving soil for plants, animals and even humans. Earthworms create tunnels in the soil by burrowing, which aerates the soil to allow air, water and nutrients to reach deep within the soil. Earthworms eat the soil which has organic matter. After the organic matter is digested, the earthworms release waste from their bodies, called castings, which contain many nutrients for the crops. As an important addition to their other roles, trees not only act as natural fertilizers, but as niche for these hardworking earthworms and microbial life.

    Through constant pruning and cutting firewood, he is able to increase the organic matter (leaves) in the soil, which act as mulch, keeping it moist and well aerated, and increases the activity and population of microbial life in the soil. The leaves also act as humus, a very important feature in building soil fertility.

    John also acknowledges that trees are able to suppress weeds, reducing the time and energy needed for weeding, and promoting “easy to work” soil. Other trees, like luecena, attract bees during flowering. While collecting nectar, they help in pollination and repelling harmful insects. Trees here are able to provide a microclimate. The place is cool, and you could feel the breeze. John says he is able to work without feeling the hot sun, and the same applies to the crops. “These trees protect my crops from both dry season and heavy rains,” John says. And adds that, “it conserves soils and reduces run off in my small plot.”

    The NFTs may be integrated into a system in many different ways; including clump plantings, alley cropping, contour hedgerows, shelter belts, or single distribution planting.

    With growing concerns about how small holder farmers can continue to feed themselves in their small farms without destroying local ecosystems agroforestry is the best thing to happen to sustainable farming. I applaud small scale farmers like John and hope that other small scale farmers will follow suit and plant trees on their farms for a better and more productive future.

  • October24th

    By Vanessa Ventola

    McGill students with chickensAbout the McGill, Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens

    Forty kilometers west of downtown Montréal lies the quiet town of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, home to the Macdonald Campus of McGill University. Here, students have taken a farming initiative, and on one and a quarter acre, the McGill, Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens (MSEG) operates a small, yet invaluable, vegetable production system. The student-run gardens have several objectives (see the box below), but first and foremost they are concerned with providing the opportunity for students to learn about and enjoy ecological agriculture. The MSEG program is intimately linked with other student projects by supplying vegetables and labor support to ecologically minded university groups. The students working with MSEG come from many paths of life. Some students are native Quebeçois with a background in agriculture. Others come from the city of Montréal with no farming experience at all. A few come from the United States or the wider international community. What they all share in common, however, is a passion for understanding and implementing sustainability in agriculture, and getting dirty.

    The McGill, Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens currently produces over 100 vegetable varieties including many common favorites such as Roma tomatoes, Black Beauty eggplants, Hungarian Hot Wax peppers, and Bright Lights chard. More unique varieties include the Hakurei turnip, Green Zebra and Wapsipinicon tomatoes (slightly fuzzy, yellow tomatoes), and several Asian green hybrids. Although they are not seeking organic certification, the farm uses organic practices, and is always open to new, innovative ecological agriculture techniques. Last year they had a small flock of chickens and a human-powered, mobile, chicken tractor! The chicken tractor was a bottomless chicken coop that could be easily moved around a field to prevent the over-fertilization of one area. Also, the farm is available for students to perform lab trials or take samples for research projects.

    The vegetables produced by the students are sold through several different outlets including MSEG’s community-supported-agriculture (CSA) shares, the McGill University Farmers’ Market, the Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue Farmers’ Market, a market table at Macdonald Campus, and the student-run Out of the Garden Project, an on campus cafe that serves high quality, homemade, and local, out of the garden, meals to students at Macdonald Campus. MSEG also donates surplus vegetables to the student group Happy Belly, a club that collects near expiration food from local grocery stores and prepares a free vegetarian or vegan meal, which is open to the entire school community on a weekly basis and normally feeds around 60 people. The student-run gardens also collaborate with a group called Farm to School. The Farm to School program works with a local elementary school, and uses visits to MSEG as an instrument in integrating farming and agriculture into the school science curriculum. This year the students in the Farm to School program are in the first and second grade, and they will be learning about plants and insects in the gardens.

    McGill Students with farm toolsThe student-run gardens operate their horticultural production on two separate fields. The first field is located in the Macdonald Campus Horticultural Centre and is only a quarter acre. This is the flagship farm space for MSEG. In Senneville, one sleepy town over, McGill owns agricultural land surrounded by the 245 hectare Morgan Arboretum, a forest reserve. In MSEG’s second season, McGill began loaning one acre of this farm land to the student-run gardens, and for several years a few acres have been rented to Les Jardins Carya, a private, vegetable production organization. The fields of these two farming groups touch, and MSEG and Les Jardins Carya often work together to achieve a common goal. In exchange for mentoring, advice, and the occasional loaned tool from the more established Les Jardins Carya, MSEG sends over a representative once a week to offer a few hours of free farm labor. This idea of cooperation and learning from each other is central to the ecological ideology of the student-run gardens.

    McGill Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Garden Mission StatementTools and Practices

    The McGill, Macdonald Student-Run Ecological Gardens have practiced ecological agriculture since its founding. This year the students implemented a farming system known as biointensive agriculture. While getting started with this new method, they are following the model of a successful biointensive farm, Les Jardins de la Grelinette, a 1.5 acre farm located in Sainte-Armand, Québec. The owner, Jean-Martin Fortier, has published a guidebook for biointensive agriculture titled Le Jardinier-Maraîche. MSEG chose to structure their own biointensive system after Fortier’s because the two farms have much in common. Both gardens are of similar size and are located in the same climate. Their production goals are the same as well: producing high quality vegetables in a small amount of space in an efficient and sustainable way. But perhaps the convincing reason MSEG chose to model their farm after Les Jardins de la Grelinette is because Jean-Martin Fortier is himself a McGill graduate.

    Biointensive agriculture is a generic term for high density, organic productions, but it is important to note that there are some brand name methods that use biointensive agriculture. Most research on the subject will lead you to the well known GROW BIOINTENSIVE® by Ecology Action, a farming system that outlines highly specific methods, steps, and rules. It is easy to confuse this popular brand with the general ideology of biointensive farming. The student-run ecological gardens are practicing biointensive agriculture, but their system is not yet established enough to fulfill all of the requirements of the trademarked systems, nor are all the requirements applicable to their type of farm. For example, the student-run ecological gardens do not need to aim for the highest calorie density, while GROW BIOINTENSIVE® encourages small scale farmers to consider calorie planting.

    Biointensive agriculture is an organic production system that requires careful planning. It aims to maximize yields in small spaces by protecting soil fertility and structure in the long term, and by having an optimal rotation and companion planting plan. Biointensive agriculture usually employs raised beds. This year MSEG has a small tractor for the first time. The BCS walk-behind tractor allowed them to construct permanent raised beds. Raised beds reduce soil compaction in planted areas (no person or machine is ever allowed on the bed!), encouraging better soil drainage and more soil accessibility for deep rooting plants. In the cold climate of Montréal raised beds have another advantage: the soil warms faster in the spring.

    In addition to raised beds, the student-run ecological gardens hope to gain funding for caterpillar tunnels to extend the growing season for cold sensitive plants. Caterpillar tunnels are constructed from a series of pipe arches pounded into the ground with a clear plastic sheet secured around them. It is a low cost alternative to using a high tunnel or hoop house. An added advantage of using caterpillar tunnels is that the same pipes can be covered with floating row cover or shade cloth when necessitated. For MSEG, the caterpillar tunnels would be especially important for growing the Solanaceae family, which includes tomatoes and peppers. Tomatoes are one of the farm’s most profitable crops, and in Montréal their growing season is cut especially short. Although MSEG has not yet been able to get caterpillar tunnels, they do have smaller, flexible hoops set up for floating-row cover.

    Without large machinery, the student-run gardens have tried multiple seeders. Last year MSEG used the Planet Junior Seeder, which is a single row seeder. This year they upgraded to the Glaser Seeder, a single row seeder that has a clear hopper to keep seeds from spilling, three seed hole sizes, and a rear roller to press down the seeds. However, MSEG has still found that the three seed hole sizes do not accommodate the range of seed sizes they use. In addition to the Glaser, they bought a six-row seeder for the first time. The six row seeder allows the students to plant dense crops with more ease. For example, MSEG uses their six row seeder to plant mesclun greens which are tightly grown and harvested looseleaf. Yet, the sad reality is that most hand seeders are fussy and work optimally only when the plant beds are smooth. After the implementation of raised beds, the soil surface at the student-run gardens is more uniform, making seeding an easier task.

    One of the most important aspects of their biointensive farming operation is the addition of compost. The student-run gardens apply compost to the raised beds as part of plant bed preparation before seeding. The compost has a number of benefits for the farm. Applying the compost to the raised beds helps build up the amount of plant accessible soil. Compost is also a source of soil organic matter. Keeping adequate levels of soil organic matter encourages proper soil aeration and pore size, good soil aggregation (meaning the soil clumps just the way it should), and water retention. Compost is also a source of nitrogen, a major plant macronutrient. The student-run ecological gardens are not producing their own compost, but hope to create composting facilities in the future. For MSEG, having the capability to produce compost would mean completing their nutrient cycle and reducing expenses.

    Like so many other student farming and gardening initiatives, the McGill, Macdonald Student Gardens are hoping to help others understand that ecological agriculture is imperative in a world where soil and ecological degradation is widespread. By providing the opportunity for other students to purchase, eat, and grow vegetables that are produced sustainably, locally, and with a variety of ecological practices, they are helping a greater community get back in touch with food production.


    McGill, Macdonald Student-Run Gardens Facebook:


    McGill, Macdonald Student-Run Gardens Web Page:


    Information about Le Jardins de la Grelinette:



  • October8th

    by Filippa Harrington-Griffin

    Eric Swarts“I want to be able to sleep at night. I want to know that the food I’m selling people is going to help their health, not make them sick.”

    These are the words of Eric Swarts, an emerging farmer, who grows organic vegetables on a 10-hectare farm in the Cape Winelands region of South Africa. Prior, Eric worked on a number of the large-scale, commercial farms that attribute to a large percentage of South Africa’s agricultural economy. Years working in a chemically intensive, high-input growing environment left Eric disillusioned with conventional agriculture and guided him towards organic growing. Historically, challenges with land acquisition, financial insecurity, lack of expertise and access to markets have restricted young black farmers from entering the organic sector but in 1999, Eric joined an independently sponsored initiative aimed at introducing emerging farmers to organic agriculture. Opportunities like this set an optimistic tone for the future of South African agriculture, the global food system and the environment at large.

    We are currently in the midst of two global crisis’, hunger and climate change. These two are inextricably linked; our rapidly deteriorating global environment is and will continue to present challenges to food production. With the FAO recently stating that global food production must increase by 70% by 2050 to meet the demands of the growing population and avert a future food crisis, it’s clear that as our ability to produce food becomes compromised by our changing climate, we need to put an end to the status quo.

    High-input, intensive commercial agriculture systems are notorious for their destruction of ecosystems, biodiversity and abundant misuse of natural resources. With this in mind, governments globally are recognizing that in order to meet increased food production levels, while working with the consideration of climate change threats, we must actively build and support sustainable, climate conscious, smallholder agricultural systems.

    In Africa, smallholder farmers are the majority food producers – they are responsible for growing about 80% of food products generated on the continent. Their input to the global food supply is crucial, and thus, investment in and support of these farmers is absolutely vital.

    South Africa, one of the more financially stable countries of the continent has a dual agricultural economy, of both well-developed commercial farming and subsistence production. South Africa covers 1.2 million square kilometres of the continent, making it roughly one eighth the size of the U.S and hosts seven climatic regions, from Mediterranean, to subtropical and semi-desert. 12% of land can be used for agricultural production, yet, due to limited water availability, only 22% of that 12% is high potential arable land.

    In recent years the South African agricultural sector has faced a number of challenges. Increasing centralization, unstable weather and unpredictable food prices have led to a gradual decline in agricultural employment. A low number of new entrants into the industry has resulted in a largely ageing population of farmers – which does little to secure the strength of smallholder farmers.

    In 2011, the South African government made public its intentions to support and grow sustainable, climate conscious agriculture. They have, alongside a number of private stakeholders, enterprises and NGOs, developed a number of programs to support climate-friendly agricultural systems that will provide crucial ecosystem services and help mitigate climate change and aid in alleviating hunger and poverty.

    Soil containing wormsIt was an early program, Go Organic at Spier that supported Eric in changing his role from farm hand in the high-input, mono-crop, commercial agriculture sector to farm manager of his own organic, vegetable farm in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

    Prior to joining the Spier program, Eric had extensive experience with farming. He grew up on the farm that his father managed and upon finishing school, he pursued a diploma in agriculture, which led to employment on various commercial food farms in the Western Cape.

    In 1999, at the height of Eric’s disillusion with the commercial agriculture industry, Spier (a Stellenbosch based business with an emphasis on sustainability and triple bottom line reporting) and the Sustainability Institute joined forces to launch the program, Go Organic at Spier, that supported young, emerging farmers from ‘historically disadvantaged communities’ on a 14-month training program in organic food farming. Eric took this as his moment to exit the commercial food sector and joined the program in an attempt to gain knowledge and experience in a supportive environment.

    At the end of the Go Organic project, four out of five of the other trainee farmers decided to return to the commercial agriculture sphere finding organic too financially precarious, labour intensive and unstable when working with the area’s dry, phosphate rich soil and arid climate.

    However, the program only intensified Eric’s enthusiasm for organic farming. In 2002, he seized the opportunity to continue farming on 10 hectares of Spier’s privately leased land through a sponsored land-reform initiative. The land-reform initiative recognized that it was easier for small, emerging farmers to lease or rent land rather than purchase it. Owing to this, Eric was given the opportunity to try his hand at organic farming without suffering set-up costs for land purchase or the management difficulties of loan repayment, he was also supported by Spier through subsidized water and infrastructure costs.

    SeedplotsHis first growing season was a difficult one as he learned that it’s not always feasible to directly apply large-scale methods to a small-scale project. He poured all of his available funds into the farm – and found a supportive customer base for his certified organic produce with Dew Crisp, wholesalers to South Africa’s most prominent supermarkets and a few smaller restaurants and retailers.

    After a few tough growing seasons, Eric found there was still a lot to learn about overcoming the challenges of organic farming and if he wasn’t going to turn back to chemicals, he had to seek out knowledge and techniques from seasoned organic growers. In 2004, Spier and The Sustainability Institute facilitated a skill-exchange trip to India, where Eric visited and worked with a number of small-scale organic farms in the southern farming region. The experience offered an opportunity to view the challenges of organic farming in a new context and learn the true meaning of ‘working with what you have available’ – a philosophy, or farming ethos that he has since integrated into all aspects of his farm.

    Cows on farmEric continues to utilize a number of the practices he picked up from Indian farmers, a favorite and most efficient practice is the art of mixing cow dung and urine with molasses to create a liquid manure for the soil. He places measured amounts of dung, urine, water and molasses in containers, where it is left to ferment for 10 – 14 days. The resulting liquid is then applied to crops once a week. The soil on Eric’s farm has been a continuous obstacle in achieving a profitable yield, “ten years ago, when we started, it was just white sand.” The soil is very high in phosphates and so other popular procedures, like utilizing chicken manure, are of little help, the wealth of micro-organisms in the Indian cow dung and molasses mix aid in boosting the soil nutrition. It’s techniques like these, that work within nature’s boundaries, that have helped Eric to coax his land back to health and vitality.

    Labour is another challenge facing the productivity of Eric’s farm, “you can have everything needed for the land, but if you can’t afford labour you can’t do anything.” During the summer season Eric employs four casual workers and uses his six Nguni oxen for seedbed preparation and ploughing the fields.

    Over the past ten years, Eric has endured a great deal of trial and error and his processes have undergone much evaluation and change. Initially, he paid for organic certification as part of his agreement with his clients – however, as the increase in the cost of certification over the years was not matched by an increase in the price of vegetables, he was forced to forego organic certification – although he’s determined to stay with organic processes.

    His seed is sourced partly from his own plants and partly from commercial seed retailers (the seed is washed prior to sowing) – “the big companies are not interested in selling organic seed and if they do, it’s 3 to 5 times the price of their standard. Availability of organic seed is also hugely limited in terms of variety and not all varieties work in our soil.”

    As part of his involvement with The Green Road, (a local initiative that ensures continued production of good quality natural and organic food by committed farmers who are both joint owners of the supply chain and committed consumers) Eric has been involved in a new volunteer-led certification process – the Participatory Guarantee System of organic certification/guarantee for small growers/farmers. The PGS system requires that consumers and producers participate in the guarantee process of each farm – offering emerging farmers an alternative to costly organic certification.

    Through a new supportive sales partnership, Eric’s farm now supplies one of Cape Town’s most prestigious hotels, The Mount Nelson, with his produce and contributes weekly to a Cape Town based community supported agriculture scheme, Harvest of Hope.

    Eric’s perseverance and consequent success act as a great force of inspiration for organic farming and emerging farmers in South Africa. We need to arouse greater opportunity and support for small-scale, climate conscious food growers globally. Increased financial support, market access, the facilitation of knowledge exchange and infrastructural subsidies are crucial. There is no longer anytime to dodge the question of feeding the world’s growing population nor how we can protect our planet’s dwindling natural resources and biodiversity. The time is now and the answers do not lie in the continued dominion of international food corporations whom exercise depletive growing methods and export the majority of their goods, it lies within the proliferation of story’s like Eric’s.


    “Food Wastage Footprint.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. FAO. Web. 28 Jan 2013.

    Joemat-Pettersson, Tina. “Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries 2012.” AgriSA Congress 2012 . Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. South Africa, 11 Oct 2012. Address.

    Lewis, Kim. “Smallholder Farmers Conference Focuses on Value Chain.” Voices of America. Voices of America, 05 Nov 2012. Web. 20 Jan 2013.

    Lovejoy, Thomas. “The Climate Change Endgame.” New York Times [New York] 21 January 2013, n. pag. Web. 3 Feb. 2013.

    MAHLINZA, SIBONGILE . “South Africa: Not Chicken to Try – Black Farmers Need Support.” All Africa[Cape Town] 27 August 2012, n. pag. Web. 3 Feb. 2013.

    van Niekert, Louise, ed. South African Government Information. Government Communication and Information System, 14 Sep 2012. Web. 24 Jan 2013.

  • October2nd

    by Ryan Sitler

    Mike Hands in front of a plot“Making serious change is a very time consuming and costly business.”
    – Mike Hands, founder of the Inga Foundation.

    The village of Gaviotas, situated in the llanos region of Colombia, is cited as one of the premier examples of the development and implementation of place-based, appropriate technology. The term appropriate technology is often used to describe technological innovation or devices that are affordable enough to be considered for widespread use in the developing world. What we often forget when discussing such advances is that technology doesn’t always mean gadgets, especially when talking about ways to improve the bottom line of life in the most impoverished places on the planet. Agriculture is one of the oldest sciences in the human experience, and technological advances in this field are one of the major influences that have allowed us to build, grow, and thrive in all other aspects of life over the last 10,000 years .

    Some estimates show that upwards of 300 million farmers practice slash and burn agriculture in the world today. This occurs primarily in the equatorial regions that harbor the rainforests and has been taking place just as long as humans have been farming. Steif asserts, “When used properly, slash and burn agriculture provides communities with a source of food and income. Slash and burn allows for people to farm in places where it usually is not possible because of dense vegetation, soil infertility, low soil nutrient content, uncontrollable pests, or other reasons.” However, this mentality doesn’t take into account the world’s rapidly declining natural resources alongside of our rapidly increasing world population. The results of continuing on this path of slash and burn are massive deforestation, erosion, decreased biodiversity, nutrient loss, and possibly most significant is the huge net increase in global carbon emissions that result from slash and burn practices.

    Estimates show that, depending on location, between 4800 and 6200 square miles of rainforest are cut down and burned every year to make way for agriculture in each region where slash and burn is practiced. A different study states that, “The loss of forests has a great effect on the global carbon cycle. From 1850 to 1990, deforestation worldwide released 122 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere, with the current rate being between 1.6 billion metric tons per year (Skole et al. 1998). In comparison, all of the fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) burnt during a year release about 6 billion tons per year.”

    Mike Hands, of The Inga Foundation, has committed decades of his life to researching and implementing a viable alternative to slash and burn agriculture. His approach doesn’t only combat the ecological ills of slash and burn.. The techniques developed during more than 15 years of scientific study can also contribute to both the short and long term prosperity of the human communities that implement Inga Alley Cropping. These innovations, pioneered by The Inga Foundation and the Cambridge University Alley Cropping Project, represent one of the greatest examples of agricultural appropriate technology in the world today .

    What is Inga Alley Cropping?

    According to Mike Hands, “The only truly sustainable system to emerge from our years of scientific research into slash and burn is alley cropping using nitrogen-fixing tree species from the genus Inga. In essence this system has the ability to recreate a version of the conditions found on the rainforest floor, or, in other words, the conditions supporting plant growth in one of the world’s most productive natural systems. In this system, the trees are planted as seedlings in a series of hedgerows forming alleys which run along the contours of the terrain. The Inga leaves quickly create a thick layer of tough mulch on the soil surface. Initially the Inga is allowed to completely dominate the site in order to recapture it by shading out the weeds and grasses – a process usually requiring 1½ to 2 years. Over this time the Inga also restores and rebuilds the soil, fixing nitrogen and recycling phosphorus.”

    Once these alleyways of nitrogen fixing trees have had the opportunity to establish, they can be intensively pruned on a yearly basis. The trimmings and leaves are then used as mulch for the annual crops planted between the rows of Inga. Also during pruning, firewood can be obtained from the larger branches of the Inga trees. Families can obtain all the firewood they need from the Inga plots, possibly eliminating another cause of deforestation in these regions. Then, as the annual crop matures between the rows, the Inga itself is recovering from pruning, providing some shade to the cash crop as it grows in this region of intense sunlight. After harvest of the annual crop the Inga is left to grow until the next planting season arrives, by which time the trees have fully recovered and the whole cycle is ready to be repeated. This system allows for a consistent harvest from the same land year after year by recreating the conditions found on the floor of the rainforest. An additional benefit of mimicking the patterns of the rainforest is that the Inga helps to out-compete the quickly growing grasses that will establish in these regions in lieu of a mature forested system. This biological weed control is important because without it, as Mike stated, “Securing a harvest can require a huge amount of labor in terms of weeding per hectare per year. In fact, it is often the combination of this takeover by grasses, as well as the loss of fertility, that forces farmers to abandon their plots after a few years and clear new areas of forest.”

    Inga Alleys Time Lapse

    The Path Towards Something Great

    Growing up in Gloucestershire, England, Mike Hands spent his childhood immersed in the beauty of the natural world – constantly playing in the woods and streams. The love Mike has for the outdoors is a part of him, and he attests that being brought up in this environment is what has driven his interests in ecology organic gardening. Always an adventurous spirit, he spent many years in Africa and Central America working as a cartographer and then later with various development projects in these regions. It was during his work and travels in the tropics that Mike was exposed first hand to slash and burn agriculture. “Particularly when I was in some parts of Africa, walking through miles and miles of burnt Guinea savannah forests, it was just devastating seeing the effects.” He would never forget the scale of deforestation that he’d witnessed, and it would later provide inspiration for a major change in his life.

    It came to a time when Mike Hands began to feel a little restless. He refers to it as a mid-life crisis that he sensed before it hit him. “So, I went back to school, Cambridge, where I enrolled in a two year masters specifically to get my teeth into this.” Fully immersed in the science of slash and burn agriculture, he tried to read everything that had previously been published on the subject. What came of this was the discovery that the information available on the ecology of slash and burn was incomplete and sometimes contradictory. This is when he realized that he would have to do things differently than they’d been done before. “I began to focus on the availability of nutrients being the major factor in slash and burn. It’s the reason that the systems fail that was the real question to me.” It is when the land becomes unfertile that the farmers turn towards slashing and burning new land. Mike knew that if he was able to figure out how to keep the nutrients in the system he would be well on his way to creating a new technique that would provide an alternative to continuous slash and burn agriculture.

    What is different about the Inga approach that sets it apart?

    During years of dedicated research looking at soil samples, crop productivity, and overall system health, Mike and his colleagues came across many important findings that would lead to the development of the Inga Alley Cropping system. He makes clear that they initially started looking at alley cropping as a viable alternative to slash and burn because others were already making claims that alley cropping was the sustainable solution to the problem. “It was the reason these (agricultural) systems fail that was the real question to me,” said Mike. The original prevailing mentality in creating alley cropping systems was to use small leaved, perennial legumes to establish the alleys. The small leaves take little time to decompose allowing them to breakdown in time for the nutrients to become available to the food crops growing in the alleys. In theory this is sensible, but many factors are involved that precede, and go beyond nutrient availability, to promote a healthy and successful alley cropping system.

    Mike’s team discovered, early on, that the species suggested for intercropping in these tropical regions – Gliricidia sepium and Erythrina fusca – weren’t providing adequate weed suppression, enough food for the soil food web, or enough cover on the soil to prevent evaporation. When setting up the field trials, there was an idea to try some varieties of Inga, a perennial legume tree species that grows in the tropics. Although it came against the advice of some regional advocates, Mike decided to include Inga along with the other trial species. Unlike the plots containing Gliricidia and Erythrina, the alley cropping experiments in involving Inga had some very impressive results. Inga was already being used as a shade tree on coffee plantations in the region, but it’s effectiveness in annual cropping systems was initially surprising. In addition to finding a suitable perennial plant species for use in the alleyways, one other aspect of the experiment proved to be the link to understanding why the Inga was so much more effective than its counterparts in experimentation. Different nutrients were the other variable (beyond different legume species) that was experimented with in these trials. The second discovery about growing crops on this land, that had just been slashed and burnt, came in the crop’s overwhelming positive response to phosphorus compared to other nutrients. While speaking with Mike it was clear that one element was key to establishing and maintaining the productivity of these agricultural systems – phosphorus.


    The approach developed at this point was based on years of soil tests combined with physical successes witnessed in the years of field trials. All of the initial soil testing revealed a massive deficit and loss of phosphorus over time in these soils following the initial slashing and burning. It is often assumed that the soils supporting a rainforest are the most productive in the world. This is true to a certain extent, but only when the forest is a fully operating ecosystem. When the vegetation is removed and the ground exposed to the vast amounts of rain and sun that occur in the tropics, the area is quickly reduced to an acidified, lifeless parent material. All that once supported an incredible biodiversity is soon gone, including the massive amount of nutrients that were packed into the vegetative material that was recently incinerated. As Mike mentioned, figuring out why the systems fail was of most interest, and this is because it’s allowed him to critique the positive results in a way that has led to the establishment of his valuable technique – Inga Alley Cropping. The Inga has leaves that are a lot more substantial than those of the Gliricidia or Erythrina. They can take a several months as opposed to weeks to decompose, but at the same time it is a very vigorously growing plant that can handle the heavy yearly pruning, thus adding more organic material to the forest floor. This large quantity of leaves and small branches are the fuel that feeds the vast colonies of microbes that live  just below the soil surface. As was previously mentioned, this thick mulch controls difficult weeds and protects the soil from heavy evaporation, but the most important factor is the increase in soil microbial activity.

    The hypothesis behind establishing Inga Alley Cropping is that the phosphorus in this system, required for long term crop productivity, is maintained by the healthy, thriving diversity in the soil microbial population. The soils themselves won’t readily hold phosphorus in a manner that is available to crops. In turn, the soil microbes have adapted to become the primary vehicles for phosphorus cycling in these tropical ecosystems. It is important to note that Inga may not be a prevalent species in all tropical regions, but the tenants of establishing alley cropping using a hardy perennial legume (with similar growth characteristics to Inga) to recreate the conditions of the rainforest floor remain the same throughout congruent regions in the rest of the world. Without the soil microbes, which require rainforest floor-like conditions to thrive, the self-reinforcing cycle of slash and burn annual agriculture will continue unbroken.

    The Inga Foundation has been able to set up pilot projects and Inga nurseries in a few of the countries where slash and burn is most prevalent, and adaptation of these techniques is slowly coming. While it is understandably difficult to convince rural people, often in subsistence farming situations, to adopt a new experimental approach as their food production system, with time the value and application of Inga Alley Cropping will potentially be realized by thousands, if not millions of farmers worldwide. Envisioning the vast impact that this technique could have on our planet, both socially and environmentally, is staggering yet empowering to consider .

    Check out the Inga Foundation website – ingafoundation.org

    Also, click here to read our full conversation with Mike Hands.

    Works Cited

    Hands, M. R. 1998. Invited chapter: The uses of Inga in the acid soils of the Rainforest zone: Alley-cropping Sustainability and Soil-regeneration. In: Pennington, T.D. and Fernandes, E.C.M. (eds.) The Genus Inga: Utilization. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. England.

    Hands, M. R., Harrison, A.F. and Bayliss-Smith, T. P. 1995. Invited chapter: Phosphorus Dynamics in Slash-and-Burn and Alley-cropping Systems of the Humid Tropics. In: Tiessen, H. (ed) Phosphorus in the Global Environment. SCOPE; UNEP sp. Publication. John Wiley.

    Skole, D. L., W. A. Salas, and C. Silapathong. 1998. Interannual variation in the terrestrial carbon cycle: significance of Asian tropical forest conversion to imbalances in the global carbon budget. Pp. 162-186 in J. N. Galloway and J. M. Melillo (Eds) Asian Change in the Context of Global Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

    Steif, Colin. “Slash and Burn Agriculture.” About.com – Geography. About.com, 2013. Web. 29 May 2013.

    Weisman, Alan. Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 1998. Print. “Deforestation of Tropical Rain Forests.” The Rain Forest Report Card. Tropical Rain Forest Information Center, 19 Nov. 1998. Web. 29 May 2013.

    “The History of Agriculture.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation, 22 May 2013. Web. 29 May 2013.

    The Inga Foundation. The Innocent Foundation, 2010. Web. 29 May 2013.

    U.S. And World Population Clock. United States Census Bureau, 29 May 2013. Web. 29 May 2013.

  • September29th

    by Dan Hughes

    The Moringa tree (Moringa oleifera) has many names throughout the world, likely due to its profligate uses. It is called the ‘drumstick tree’ due to the shape of its seed pods, the ‘horseradish tree’ because of the faint scent and flavor of horseradish that the tree’s roots give off, and the ‘ben oil tree’ drawn from the oil that is pressed from the seeds. The most explicit of all its names, though, is the ‘miracle tree’ which is inspired by this unassuming tree’s seemingly endless benefits. Ayurvedic medicine (the millenia-old tradition of herbal and dietary medicinal practices from India) has long made use of the Moringa, but now, having been inspected through the lens of modern science it has increasingly come of interest to people all over the world as a solution to several disparate problems. Having value as a food item, a medicinal stock, a source of food oil and biofuel, and a water purifier, there is little wonder why it came to be known as the ‘miracle tree’.

    Nearly every part of the tree is in some way edible. The roots, with their horseradish flavor, are stripped of their bark because of its high alkaloid content, mixed with vinegar and used as a condiment (Parrotta, 2009). According to Ted Radovich, young green seed pods which are high in ascorbic acid are boiled, steamed or pickled like string beans or asparagus and are a common addition to soups and stews in the tree’s native areas (2009). The seeds contain 30-35% oil  that is high in palmetic, stearic, behmic, and oleic acids and has similar flavor and properties to olive oil making it a highly nutritive alternative to other vegetable oils (Garcia-Fayos et al, 2010). The flowers are also sometimes eaten, though this practice will prevent seed pod growth. The real nutritional value of the Moringa tree, however, is in the leaves. Small, tripinnate and tender, they are similar in appearance to the leaves of North America’s native Black Locust tree. They are typically eaten or cooked fresh, though powders, extracts and teas do manage to retain much of the nutritional value of the leaves. The Moringa leaves’ nutritional contents are eye-popping to say the least.

    Moringa Value Food Item Value
    7 times the vitamin C of Oranges 220 mg Oranges: 30 mg
    4 times the vitamin A of Carrots 678 µg Carrots: 1890 µg
    4 times the calcium of Cow’s Milk 440 mg Cow’s Milk: 120 mg
    3 times the potassium of Bananas 259 mg Bananas: 88 mg
    2 times the protein of Cow’s Milk yogurt 6.7 g Cow’s Milk yogurt: 3.2 g

    All values based on common food values per 100 g/weight; from Nutritive Value of Indian Foods, Gopalan, et al., 1989.


    As if this were not enough, the leaves also have considerable contents of trace minerals, beta-carotene, thiamin and riboflavin while the protein present has “…significant quantities of all the essential amino acids,” making it a complete protein (Parrotta, 2009). It is then immediately apparent that this plant represents a nutritional goldmine. Because it is grown almost exclusively in the parts of the world that are most malnourished its value as a food item becomes all that much more clear. These are areas where reliable and sustainable sources of protein and vitamins are scarce. Protein and calcium  are typically sourced from the meat and milk of livestock, an expensive and labor-intensive practice that requires space, infrastructure and fodder. Therefore, a family who might not have all the necessary requirements for a goat or cow can instead plant a couple Moringa trees and have all their protein needs fulfilled with the high vitamin, mineral and potassium contents to boot. Additionally, there is substantial literature promoting its use as fodder. Radovich cites studies wherein up to 50% of traditional feed was replaced with Moringa leaves resulting in high rates of weight gain (2009). This simple tree could therefore pose at least part of the solution to the nutritional famine present in much of the developing world.

    Moringa’s useful properties are not limited to the edible, however. There are considerable medicinal attributes that began as folk medicine but have since been corroborated by scientific study. Poultices made from leaves and bark act as antimicrobial agents when applied directly to wounds while leaf extracts are well known to be antifungal and antibacterial in nature (Radovich, 2009). Radovich goes on to state that because the Moringa is in the Brassicales order it contains isothiocyanates which have been shown to have antitumor and anti-carcinogenic properties, a claim that is backed up by studies at Johns Hopkins University (2009).

    Ben oil, the name given to the oil pressed from Moringa seeds due to the presence of the unique behenic acid, is likewise useful beyond the kitchen. Long lauded for its ability to act as a lubricant for fine machinery such as watches and clocks, it is also being considered by various groups as a source of fuel oil as the seeds contain 30-35% oil (Garcia-Fayos et al., 2010). Further studies have demonstrated that the oilcake, or the organic material left over from the oil pressing, has some remarkable properties as well. Parrotta cites one wherein this oilcake was proven to be an effective fertilizer (2009). The National Research Council of the National Academies, in their second volume of The Lost Crops of Africa, espouse the work of various groups operating in Africa that have sponsored the use of Moringa oilcakes as a flocculant (coagulant) in turbid water while simultaneously assisting in the removal of bacterial and viral populations at the (2006).

    Extracts taken from leaves “…have been found to increase Rhizobium root nodulation, nodule weight, and nitrogenase activity in mung bean (Vigna mungo) when applied to seeds or as a root dressing” according to Parrotta (2009). The hardy fibers that can be extracted from the tree’s roots have traditionally been used in making paper, mats, and cordage throughout its realm, while the mucilaginous gum present in the stems are used in animal skin tanning (Radovich, 2009).

    The Moringa tree originated from a broad swath of northern India and southern Nepal stretching from western border of Pakistan to the eastern border of Bangladesh. Its range of distribution has increased greatly; according to Parrotta:


    It is cultivated and has become naturalized in other parts of Pakistan, India, and Nepal, as well as in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, West Asia, the Arabian peninsula, East and West Africa, throughout the West Indies and southern Florida, in Central and South America from Mexico to Peru, as well as in Brazil and Paraguay  (2009).


    It prefers recently alluviated soils (soil that has had major deposits of sediment and nutrients made by inundation of a river or stream, creating a fertile soil composure), especially well drained sandy loam types (Parrotta, 2009). It grows in areas reaching from sea level to about 1400 meters (4,500 feet) above sea level with full sun exposure. Because it is native to subtropical climes with  low rainfall, Moringa is considered drought tolerant. Indeed, it has been reported to grow well in arid regions averaging less than 300 millimeters (11.8 inches) of annual rainfall (Radovich, 2009), making it a prime candidate for cultivation in drought prone areas.

    The Moringa tree takes very well to domesticated cultivation and proves to be a fairly easy and straightforward crop to grow. In favorable conditions growth is rapid: 1-2 meters in the first 3 years and reaching an average height of 10-12 meters in maturity (Parrotta, 2009). Fruit production is similarly high, ranging from 600-1600 pods annually after the first three years with harvests occurring twice a year (Radovich, 2009). It can be propagated either from seed or cutting, though the latter is generally considered preferable as resultant fruit production is more plentiful and of a higher quality than from seed (National Research Council, 2006). Propagation from seed appears to be superior in semiarid regions as root development is more vigorous (Parrotta, 2009). Seed viability is something of a concern for rural and resource-deprived areas however as it decays at an exponential rate reaching 0% viability after three months if not held in cold storage or hermetically sealed containers (Radovich, 2009). When grown in block or row patterns the tree prefers a minimal spacing of 3×3 meters with best results at a spacing of 5×5 meters. Due to its rapidity of growth after cutting, it is well suited to coppicing and use as a living fence. In fact, it is typical for growers to pollard their trees much like other orchard crops as it reduces crown spread, making for easier harvesting of leaves and pods while promoting new branch growth (Radovich, 2009).

    Clearly, there is a lot to consider in regards to the Moringa tree. As it has already been exported for cultivation throughout the developing world and beyond, there is reason to believe that it could be further exploited for use in supplementing the diets of some of the world’s most malnourished areas. There are, however, other considerations to be made about the spread of Moringa cultivation, namely rising Western interest in superfoods. As this market grows there is no reason to believe that Moringa products will not ultimately become as popular as the acai berry or quinoa. Considering that there are limited places where Moringa can be grown in North America it is conceivable that as occidental demand rises it will be increasingly met with supply from the developing world, potentially making it unaffordable to the people who most need it. That being said, Moringa is a crop that holds great promise for resolving some of the world’s most pressing agricultural issues and deserves further investigation as such.


    For more information about Moringa, its benefits, and how it is cultivated, please refer to the bibliography listed below.




    Radovich, T. (2009). Farm and forestry production and marketing profile for moringa (Moringa oleifera). Specialty Crops for Pacific Island Agroforestry. Retrieved from agroforestry.net


    Parrotta, J. A. (2009). Morina oleifera. In Enzyklopädie der holzgewächse, handbuch und atlas der dendrologie.Germany: Wiley VCH. Retrieved from http://content.schweitzer-online.de/static/content/catalog/newbooks/978/352/732/9783527321414/9783527321414_TOC_001.pdf


    Garcia-Fayos, B., Arnal, J. M., Verdu, G., & Sauri, A. (2010, October 29). Study of moringa oleifera oil extraction and its influence in primary coagulant activity for drinking water treatment. website: www.foodinnova.com


    National Research Council Of The National Academies. (2006). Moringa. In Lost crops of africa: Volume ii (pp. 246-276). Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. Retrieved from http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11763&page=247


    Gopalan, C., Rama Sastri, B. V., & Balasubramanian, S. C. (1971). Nutritive value of indian foods. Hyderabad, India: National Institute Of Nutrition, Indian Council Of Medical Research.


    Miracle Trees Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved from Moringa: A Supermarket on a Tree website: www.miracletrees.org

  • September10th

    Written by Caleb Omolo and Steve Wheat

    Not many truly American stories begin in a place like Kosodo village. Every once in a while though, we come across a story that matches the humble ideals etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty. Caleb Omolo’s story starts with four older siblings and six younger. The fifth child in a family of eleven, Caleb grew up in extreme poverty. That was before his father succumbed to lung cancer, and Caleb’s mother was left to support eleven children alone in rural Kenya. Despite the dire circumstance of his upbringing, luck fell on Caleb when he was accepted at SUNY New Paltz, a medium-sized state school ninety minutes north of New York City.

    Caleb went on to major in Geography, and after graduating from New Paltz would stay in America for thirty years, sending money home to support his family. In the back of his mind, though, Caleb always dreamed of returning home, taking the lessons he’d learned in the US and applying them there. He wanted not only to send his money back to help his family survive, but to return with knowledge that would help generations of Kenyans reverse the trends that were destroying the livelihoods of farmers nationwide.

    Five years ago Caleb finally made the reverse migration back to his home, but not before stumbling upon the growing sustainable farming and permaculture movement on the web. For thirty years Caleb had been thinking of the living conditions in rural Kenya, where most families were struggling to keep their land fertile after years of intensive, chemical-dependent agricultural production. The soil quality and fertility dropped precipitously and Kenyan farmers were trapped in the cycle of adding increasing amounts of fertilizers to achieve the same crop yields. Like addicts chasing the dragon, every year required more inputs to get the same output. These industrial agricultural inputs also destroy native microorganisms and earthworms, making the soil less productive. In the long run, as the soil degrades, many farms are deserted as farmers search for more fertile land.

    Monoculture practices (monoculture is the description of a farm that grows a huge amount of a single or very few crops to sell or export – such as the massive wheat and corn industrial farms in the American heartland) had also made the land much more susceptible to soil runoff, which not only damaged the fecundity of the soil, but led to massive pollution going into Lake Victoria, the largest body of fresh water in Africa. When Caleb left Kenya, his family and others were struggling to get by. When Caleb returned to Kenya, even the land was struggling to get by. Many in the region he grew up in were slipping from poverty into hunger despite adopting the techniques and materials from the United States, the biggest producer of food in the world.

    Caleb had trouble understanding what had gone so wrong when people did everything they thought they were supposed to do. They followed a model of success and achieved greater and greater failure. Permaculture seemed to offer Caleb the answer he was looking for. He saw that the principles of permaculture could be incorporated into all levels of agriculture and even architecture, community development and improving social interactions and cooperation between farmers.

    With these ideas in mind he started his farm in Kosodo Village. Within the district of Rhongo, southeast of beautiful lake Victoria, Caleb’s one-man permaculture movement began. The farm now grows a variety of fruits and crops as well as raising animals and fish. The type of farm Caleb runs is designated as a “shareholder” farm in Kenya. It provides all the nutritional needs of the farmer and family but manages to sell some of what it grows and raises as well. It is a kind of subsistence plus profit model that is diametrically opposed to the monoculture farming that has swept aside the subsistence farming methodologies of a few generations ago.

    As the farm grows almost all of that Caleb eats, it also focuses on larger staple crops such as corn and groundnuts (peanuts). This is typical of many smallholder farms in Kenya, but Caleb manages without any industrial fertilizers. The animals Caleb raises are housed within the “compound,” a group of small buildings in the center of the farm. The compound is also where a permaculture “food forest” is housed, providing many of the fruits and other small crops. The larger staple crops and fish are grown outside of the central compound further afield.

    Five years of putting his research into practice has taught Caleb a great deal. He realized that there is a strong need to farm with nature rather than against it and when a farm learns to use natures’ powers the bounty can be large. Caleb’s increased production has allowed him to not only feed his family, but to bring ample food to market and improve his personal livelihood. The three principals of permaculture that Caleb lives by are: care for the earth, care for the people, and share the surplus.

    Contrary to what some believe, permaculture and sustainable agriculture movements that “turn back the clock” on many of the fertilizers and chemicals scientists have developed since the 1950’s, are not a movement “against science.” On the contrary, Caleb’s methods require a greater understanding of biology, hydrology, and paleontology than ever before. Sustainable agriculture requires constant hypotheses, tests, and experimentation. The movement strives to take the traditional knowledge of thousands of years of farming and modern science to harness the innate abilities the biosphere has provided for farmers to increase their crop yields in the most natural, safest, and least toxic way.

    Using an abundance of locally available resources, Caleb’s farm has transformed into a 100% organic farm. Caleb’s farm strives to improve the relationships that are the foundation to any agricultural production system:; plants, soil, water, animals and the community at large. It is a system where humans are integrated into nature and the environment.

    One of the most unique and important aspects of Caleb’s sustainable techniques are the application of Vetiver grass. Like an iceberg, the depth and mass of Vetiver grass is completely hidden from view. While appearing relatively normal from the surface, beneath the soil Vetiver grass plunges meters down and meters wide. The roots of the grass grow so fast, and far, and abundantly that a few rows can significantly reduce soil erosion.

    In 1980, while Caleb was still living and working in the United States, the World Bank quietly introduced the grass to Africa. The goal was not only to fix soil erosion but also to purify agricultural waste from upland streams and rivers. It was an experiment on soil and water conservation, that research has proven very successful.

    The Vetiver Grass when planted in single rows, about 15cms apart, forms natural hedges, which are very effective in controlling and slowing water movement. This technique stimulates the soils ability to absorb water and to retain it for longer periods of time. The hedgerow also helps divert runoff water. The roots also aid in improving the soils populations of microorganisms and nutrients. This is crucially important in areas that have been divested of their populations of microorganisms from years of using industrial fertilizers.

    The Vetiver technique is very valuable to farmers around Kenya, whether farming in dry or wet environments, flat or sloped, fertile or poor soils.  Vetiver grass is helping save Africa’s dwindling top soils, and the deep and fast growing root system also makes Vetiver very drought resistant and highly suitable for steep slope rehabilitation and stabilization.

    Many of the permaculture techniques Caleb learned in the United States, and the Vetiver grass technique that greeted Caleb on his return, have not only enhanced Caleb’s small farm, but become the cornerstone of his efforts to spread his knowledge to neighbors and small farmers throughout Kenya. He works with several farmer groups and is always seeking collaboration from the international agriculture community.

    Caleb is dedicated to bringing permaculture principles to a wider audience throughout rural Kenya. His mission is to work with local farmers to help promote permaculture and sustainable agriculture. Part of Caleb’s success has been tied to the hands-on methodology with which he has strived to change one farm at a time, getting in the fields as a fellow farmer and not a traditional instructor. The farmers share traditional knowledge and Caleb new innovations so together they can learn to improve their farming techniques.  This grassroots approach helps both the farmers and Caleb achieve a productive and environmentally friendly method of agriculture.

    For information on volunteering or visiting Caleb’s farm in Kenya please visit www.kosodopermaculture.com

  • September10th

    by Laura Jean

    Sutton Community Farm in London, England is the city’s largest arable community farm. From the seven-acre plot, London’s skyline can be seen shining through the distant haze, a constant reminder of the city this farm is attempting to feed.

    The Sutton Community farm was set up in 2010 as an experimental food solution to compliment a nearby sustainable housing project. BioRegional, the charity responsible for the housing development, wanted to create an efficient and effective way of providing the residents with fresh, locally grown, organic produce (i.e., sustainable food). However, once the farm took flight, it soon set its sights on a wider audience.

    Plants in outdoor gardenWith 29 percent of the area’s primary school children overweight, a quarter of its adults obese, and increasing levels of numerous preventable illnesses, it is not hard to imagine why Sutton Community Farm wanted to do more. Today, the farm prides itself on being more than a farm, and its mission is to inspire and educate young people and adults to simply make food matter.

    As a community farm, the doors are always open and over one thousand volunteers have lent a helping hand since its inception. Whether it is the annual harvest festival or a corporate away day, the farm makes sure it is an accessible place to every cross-section of the community to join with and learn from.

    Planting seedlingsJoris Gunawardena, 28, the farms Production Manager and one of three Directors, elaborates, “as a farm we hope that people will come face to face with many of the issues that surround food production in our society.” Joris wants to achieve a lot with his seven acres: grow vegetables, improve soil quality, and create a space that sets an example to other farms by demonstrating the potential of a peri-urban plot. It is a tall order.

    Plants in greenhouse“Even such a simple thing as growing vegetables can be continually contentious and compromises are constantly being made. For example, do we rotavate or leave the soil alone, use drip irrigation or overhead sprinklers, mypex or straw mulch, it’s endless.” When trying to achieve so much it is no wonder that these decisions seem like heavy ones, but it is counteracted by his upbeat attitude and a well-placed confidence in what he can achieve. “Like a lot of decisions on the farm, it’s about getting the balance right.”

    Since the farm exists for the community, it introduced a not-for-profit vegetable box scheme providing Londoner’s with easy access to purchasing locally grown, organic food- not always easy in a city littered with express versions of conglomerate supermarket chains offering ‘British Grown’ produce year round.

    Tomato plantThe scheme buys what it does not grow from other local farms to make up the weekly vegetable box, but it has inevitably found itself losing out on seasonal produce as farmers are tied up in supermarket contracts. When customers ask “how come I can get British carrots in Tesco, but you don’t have any?” there is no quick answer. So the farm takes it as an opportunity to open a dialogue and get people engaged with the issues openly and honestly.

    This is reflected whole-heartedly on their website, where they reveal their network of suppliers and invite viewers to follow their own growing calendar to see what to expect as the year progresses. There is even a breakdown of every ingredient in their locally sourced bread, from seeds to yeast.

    GreenhouseWhile the farm needs to become financially self-sufficient by running a successful vegetable box scheme, they also have the support of local restaurants who have agreed to purchase excess produce when the season is rife. For example, their salad has recently found its way into some of London’s top establishments with restaurateur Mark Hix creating his own ‘Hix Mix’ of leaves including the unusual Minutina, a salty flavored member of the plantain family. Hix is a fan of the farm, stating “This is an important project for London… a local urban food growing initiative and a farm that teaches and inspires its community and surrounding areas to create a real, life long relationship with the food they eat.”

    PlantHaving been set up with funding from The National Lottery and Esmee Fairbairn, the Sutton County Farm has some way to go before becoming financially self-sufficient, with the vegetable box scheme needing to at least double its customer base. To help move the farm forward at this pivotal stage of its development, they aim to engage the community on a new level and are set to launch a crowd-funding campaign later this month. A cash injection now could help the farm increase its exposure and its customer base to continue providing vegetables, as well as so much more to London’s residents for the foreseeable future.

    Ultimately, Joris says, […] what comes out of our farm is better skilled, better educated, and better informed people that are happier and healthier. We want people to think about food, to take a mindful approach to their purchasing for the good of themselves, their community, and their planet.”



  • August28th

    by Vanessa Ventola

    Faidherbia albida

    Faidherbia albida is a unique tree species native to Africa, the Middle East, and India1. Faidherbia albida is a member of the family Fabaceae, subfamily Mimosoideae, and tribe Acaciaea2. It is a thorny tree that produces yellow flowers and orange to brown colored seed pods, which fall about three months after the flowers bloom. The pod often curls and thus the tree is commonly known as the Apple-Ring Acacia2Apple Ring. It is also known as African Winter Thorn3. What distinguishes Faidherbia albida from the other Acaciaea genera is its interesting phenology, or timing of natural events4. Faidherbia albida‘s phenology is the reverse of other trees. It is deciduous in the rainy season and foliated in the dry, meaning it has leaves throughout the dry season and sheds them in the rainy season2. Faidherbia albida has a number of the benefits that are expected from other genera of trees; however, because of its phenology, Faidherbia albida has an additional value for the people who grow and use the plant. In semi-arid and arid areas of Africa, particularly in the Sahel, Faidherbia albida is a well-known tool for improving soil quality and is an important source of food for livestock.


    Faidherbia albida in the Rainy Season

    Soil is a resource that must be managed and maintained. In dry climates, soil is susceptible to erosion and soil fertility is low. Restoring organic matter to the soil is one method to mitigate these concerns. Soil organic matter is plant or animal residues that are in various stages of decomposition. The addition of soil organic matter adds plant nutrients to the soil. Soil organic matter also allows soil particles to aggregate. In turn, proper soil aggregation improves soil aeration and water holding capacity while reducing surface crusting and erosion5.

    In semi-arid and arid regions, trees with a traditional phenology will shed their leaves in the dry season. Without moisture the leaves decompose slowly on the soil surface. The organic matter is permanently lost from the system, and the nutrients are taken from the soil as the plant produces leaves are removed. However, Faidherbia albida sheds its leaves in the rainy season. The moisture encourages microbial growth and supports the decomposition of the leaves. The decomposed leaf matter becomes incorporated into the soil in the form of soil organic matter. In this way, Faidherbia albida improves nutrient cycling in drier climates6.

    In a 1992 study performed in Niger, soil samples were taken in areas planted with Faidherbia albida and compared to soil samples from areas without the tree. Samples taken near the tree had a higher nutrient composition with more vital plant macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The soils influenced by Faidherbia albida also appeared to have increased water-holdingand cation-exchange capacity, a measure of how well soil particles can retain positively charged ions (ex. calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, aluminum, etc.)7,8. Because of the better soil quality in the vicinity of Faidherbia albida, maize yields have been reported at 200-400% above the national averages in Malawi and Zambia9. Synthetic fertilizers containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are not used or available in many areas of the Sahel. Farmers have come to rely on Faidherbia albida as a technique in conservation agriculture.


    Faidherbia albida in the Dry Season

    During the dry season Faidherbia albida is fully foliated. It provides shade for people, livestock, plants, and the soil. The shade helps soil retain moisture, a precious resource during the dry season. In fact, soil water retention can increase by 40% under the foliage of Faidherbia albida than in an open field6. In the Sahel, soil surface temperatures can climb as high as 140˚F. .These extreme temperatures will stunt crop growth and may cause crop failure. The shade provided by Faidherbia albida controls the soil surface temperature and allows the farmer to grow a wider range of crops, as the farmer is no longer limited to only the most heat tolerant of species7.

    Another advantage of having foliated trees during the dry season is that the leaves and seed pods can be used to feed ruminants. Feeding livestock can be difficult when resources are so limited by the minimal rainfall. Faidherbia albida is a leguminous tree, meaning it has the capability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Nitrogen is a necessary component in proteins, and therefore legumes and leguminous trees are an important source of protein for ruminants in general. During the dry season their role is even more significant, as most trees are defoliated and grasses lose nutrient quality. The grasses alone cannot provide enough protein to keep livestock healthy10. The foliage of Faidherbia albida is used for fodder, and the seed pods are a palatable supplement to the animals’ diets. The pods can be used for dairy cows and goats. Goats especially enjoy Faidherbia albida and have been found to prefer it over other forage species11. A final additional benefit of foliage in the dry season is that animals will tend to congregate in the shade of the tree where they can eat fallen seed pods. The animals’ excrement in turn fertilizes the Faidherbia albida tree and any crops planted beneath its limbs, completing a complex nutrient cycle involving the soil, Faidherbia albida, crops, animals, and people.



    1. “Faidherbia Albida.” International Legume Database And Information Service (ILDIS). N.p., Nov. 2005. Web. 4 July 2013. <http://www.ildis.org/LegumeWeb?sciname=Faidherbia+albida>.
    2. Wood, P. J. “The Botany and Distribution of Faidherbia albida.” Faidherbia albida in the West African semi-arid tropics: proceedings of a workshop, 22-26 Apr 1991, Niamey, Niger. Vol. 502. 1992.
    3. “Acacia Albida Del.” Horticulture And Lanscape Architecture. Purdue University, 1997. Web. 4 July 2013. <http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/acacia_albida.html>.
    4. Fewless, Gary. “Phenology.” Cofrin Center For Biodiversity. University Of Wisconsin – Green Bay, 2004. Web. 4 July 2013. <http://www.uwgb.edu/biodiversity/phenology/>.
    5. “Soil Organic Matter.” Cornell University Nutrient Management Spear Program. Cornell University Cooperative Extension, 2008. Web. 4 July 2013. <http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/publications/factsheets/factsheet41.pdf>.
    6. Dangasuk, O. G., S. Gudu, and J. R. Okalebo. “Early growth performance of sixteen populations of Faidherbia albida in semi arid Baringo district of Kenya.” 10th international soil conservation organization conference on sustaining the global farm, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA. 1999.
    7. Williams, J. H. “The Agroecological Significance ofFaidherbia albida.” Faidherbia albida in the West African semi-arid tropics: proceedings of a workshop, 22-26 Apr 1991, Niamey, Niger. Vol. 502. 1992.
    8. “Cation Exchange Capacity.” Cornell University Nutrient Management Spear Program. Cornell University, 2007. Web. 4 July 2013. <http://nmsp.cals.cornell.edu/publications/factsheets/factsheet22.pdf>.
    9. “Faidherbia – Africa’s Fertiliser Factory.” New Agriculturist. N.p., Jan. 2010. Web. 4 July 2013. <http://www.new-ag.info/en/developments/devItem.php?a=1036>.
    10. Bonkoungou, E. G. “Sociocultural and economic functions of Acacia albida in West Africa.” Faidherbia albida in the West African Semi Arid Tropics. Proceedings.. ICRAF, 1992.
    11. Heuze, V., and G. Tran. “Apple-ring Acacia (Faidherbia Albida).” Feedipedia. Animal Feed Resources Information System, 2013. Web. 4 July 2013. <http://www.feedipedia.org/node/357>.

  • August26th

    Bostans: Istanbul’s Urban Gardens

    By Andrea Quinn

    “As you pass through one of the gates entering into the ancient city, you might catch a glimpse of a thin strip of emerald-green vegetable orchards along these monumental walls.”

    Istanbul, which is one of the largest cities in the world, has undergone substantial development over the past several decades. Istanbul grew dramatically beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, with its population expanding from a few million to more than 13 million today, due in large part to an influx of migrants to the city. As Istanbul has evolved into a major city, one reason that its character has undergone dramatic changes is that the Turkish government has made Istanbul’s physical, environmental, and social “urban destruction and reconstruction” one of its priorities. One result of both Istanbul’s population growth and urban development has been a transformation of the city’s landscape.

    More specifically, Istanbul has become increasingly developed over the past several decades, with the result that urban gardens that have long existed throughout the city have become increasingly scarce. In Turkey, these vegetable gardens, or traditional market gardens, are referred to as bostans. Oktay, who defines bostans as “vegetable gardens and patches,” notes that bostans traditionally acted as boundaries and contributed to “self-sufficiency” within urban areas, including Istanbul. Tuğba notes that bostans are typically small gardens or orchards limited to about four to five acres in size, and a few individuals – typically members of the same family – tend each bostan. According to Başer and Tunçay, both peri-urban and intra-urban agriculture have enjoyed a long history in Istanbul, and bostans have long been a common feature throughout the city. Even in pre-Ottoman times, gardens were grown alongside Istanbul’s Theodosian city walls, because the walls provided storage for harvested crops. In addition, wells near the city walls offered regular and reliable sources of water necessary to maintain the bostans. As Istanbul subsequently expanded in size, and grew in terms of its population during Ottoman times, orchards, crop fields, and vegetable gardens became a commonplace feature in the city. The number of gardens throughout Istanbul also likely grew, due, in part, to the arrival of migrants who brought their traditions and knowledge of gardening along with them when they settled in the city.

    By 1900, Thackara estimates that there were more than 1,200 bostans covering 12 square kilometers on both sides of the Bosporus. As a result, until “well into the twentieth century,” most of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Istanbul came from local gardens and orchards that were close enough to the urban population where sellers could easily transport produce to city customers. Urban gardens were part of the fabric of city life in Istanbul. Kaldjian notes that bostancis or master bostan gardeners were seen “as experts, organized in guilds, and held in high esteem,” and their vegetables were “sold in wholesale and retail markets” as an integrated part of Istanbul’s food and commercial networks. Tuğba emphasizes that bostancis grew fruits and vegetables in order to sell them, as the crops were not used purely for home consumption. Overall, according to Oktay, Istanbul “possessed various attributes that generated an ecologically sustainable environment,” including small-scale gardens throughout the city.

    The number of bostans in Istanbul remained largely stable until the 1950s, when bostans began disappearing partly as a result of the rapid growth of the city. At present, Kaldjian writes that bostans’ “verdant contribution to Istanbul life” has largely been “paved under for public and private uses,” in part because bostancis are largely powerless in the face of “intense competition for metropolitan space.” Another reason for the decrease in bostans is that the gardens are maintained only by “back-breaking, risk-laden, and politically insignificant work of producing and selling vegetables,” and, further, such work “pales in comparison to revenues from a multi-story apartment block.” By one estimate, there are currently some 1,000 bostans remaining in the greater metropolitan region on the Asian side of Istanbul, but this may be an optimistic guess, and the size of individual bostans has likely decreased since the early part of the twentieth century. Many of Istanbul’s bostans are also “still to be found in the southern part of the [Theodosian] wall,” where the land is municipally-owned and rented to families who grow beets, carrots, salads, and other vegetables, and herbs. In sum, bostans still exist throughout Istanbul and its periphery; however, these gardens have been “all but eliminated by urban growth” and they have been “pushed to the margins of urban space.”

    In light of the changes that have marginalized bostans, it is unclear at present whether urban gardening in Istanbul will undergo a revival. Along with the pressures of population growth and urban development in Istanbul, it is also the case that urban gardeners’ experience and knowledge are not very likely to be passed on to future generations. Based on interviews he conducted nearly two decades ago, Tuğba writes that the bostancis that he spoke with expressed concern that they would be “expelled from their plots in the near future,” and many bostancis had, at that time, already sold their plots to parties uninterested in maintaining urban gardens.

    At the same time, Thackara suggests that there are signs of interest in reviving the bostan tradition in Istanbul. For example, members of Yeryuzu Dernegi (Earth Association) aim to promote the spread of urban gardens in Istanbul, and the organization offers classes on permaculture and information on how to transform unused spaces into gardens. In addition, a number of different entities, including urban planners, historians, and representatives of non-profit organizations, have an interest in preserving and revitalizing bostans, and they are actively pursuing those goals. Bostans have garnered attention for many reasons: they provide food and greenery in an urban setting, they preserve Istanbul’s rich history, and they offer focal points for families, neighbors, and communities. These urban gardens also “generate high value crops” in a location where fresh vegetables are a “culturally and nutritiously important component of the diet” and they “represent valuable jobs and important food sources.” At a time when leaders of cities around the world consider how best to address problems like food deserts and urban heat islands, bostans represent one small-scale solution that takes advantage of Istanbul’s past in order to secure its future.

    To learn more about current threats to Bostans, you can read more at:


  • July1st

    By Dan Kiprop Kibet

    Indigenous Chicken“Small scale farming is a way of life in Africa full of challenges and equally full of huge opportunities” (Xinhua).

    The unprecedented population surge in Kenya has left the country with near 43 million people and continues to steadily increase. This has led to competition and depletion of land and natural resources. In many parts of the country, available land is shrinking, either due to urbanization or cultural land dividing traditions. For many families struggling to make ends meet, the sale of their land is viewed as the only option. Most households in urban areas nowadays must depend on ¼ acre plots to meet their daily needs in times when unpredictable climactic conditions are making it even harder to farm. The depletion of farm land has caused harsh economic times that result in a rise in food prices, farm inputs, and animal feeds. These factors have made the production of enough food unattainable, aggravating hungry and poverty-stricken households. However, small-scale farmers in urban areas can better utilize their land through sustainable agricultural methods.  These methods are often low cost, practical, and can contribute to their daily food needs. One of the best opportunities for small-scale farmers can be through indigenous poultry production.

     The four main benefits of raising indigenous chickens are:

    • They are easy to establish for low-income families.
    • They are more prolific and unproblematic to rear on small plots of land.
    • They are more genetically diverse, well adapted, and more resistant to local pests and diseases.
    • They are vital for future food security, leading towards self-employment and self-reliance.

    The chicken (Gallus domesticus) is a fowl that is said to be one of the most widely domesticated animals in recorded history. Charles Darwin considered chickens descendants of a single wild species, the red jungle fowl, which is found in the wild from India through Southeast Asia to the Philippines. Genetic analyses have shown that every breed of domestic chicken can be traced to the red jungle fowl. Scientists estimate that they were domesticated roughly 8,000 years ago in what is now Thailand and Vietnam (Encarta DVD, 2008).

    The indigenous chicken forms a very heterogeneous population; they exhibit wide variations in size, plumage, color, comb type, and skin color (Ndegwa et al.1991).  Encarta describes them as diurnal in habit (more active during daytime), highly gregarious, meaning they are able to live together as a flock, and roosters are polygamous and able to guard a large number of hens. The fecundity, or ability to reproduce, of the species is an important characteristic, especially because their eggs and meat are prized as food. They are better adapted to living on the ground, where they find most of their natural diet, consisting of worms, insects, seeds, and plants, while their four toed-feet are designed for scratching.

    In Kenya, indigenous poultry are the most popular and common farm species. According to recently released census results by The Kenya Poultry Farmers Association (KEPOFA), the poultry population stands at 32 million, of which 6 million are commercial hybrids and the rest are indigenous birds. They contribute significantly to the socio-economic and nutritional needs of an estimated 21 million people, many living in rural areas of Kenya.

    In these rural villages, indigenous chickens are kept under free-range systems where they are allowed to scavenge during the day and are housed at night. They are provided with little or no supplementary feeds and thus suffer from nutrient deficiencies. These chickens suffer from a high rate of mortality due to predators such as eagles. Disease attacks and loss of eggs are also a challenge. Rural farmers hardly sell or slaughter their chicken except during festival seasons or when an important guest visits.

    Though some challenges exist, raising indigenous chicken is preferable to the commercial breeds for small-scale chicken production. For example, the broilers are more expensive to buy, susceptible to diseases, and require high maintenance for their development. Thus, they can be extremely difficult for a small-scale farmer to manage. Broilers are best raised in confined conditions where disease can be managed through sterilization, but the indigenous birds can be raised free-range as they are less susceptible to the harsh weather and environmental conditions of Kenya. This forces the farmer raising broilers to purchase expensive feeds rather than relying on nature’s abundant feeds, like worms and insects.  Although the commercial chicken grows faster and can be finished within six weeks, there is a high initial start-up cost and a greater risk.

    Over the years, the indigenous poultry industry in Kenya has seen tremendous growth due to the high demand for their products, especially in townships throughout Kenya. The increase in demand has been attributed to an increase in prices of red meat as well as health consciousness among meat lovers. Meat and eggs are considered complete proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids needed for humans as well as important fats, minerals and vitamins our bodies need.

    Furthermore, the indigenous poultry industry has a recognized potential to generate higher income and transform living standards if appropriate interventions are developed and implemented. The Kenya Economic Report (KPPRA) identifies poultry as one of the leading livestock enterprises that can contribute the most towards the attainment of the UN’s Millennium Development Goal 1 (MDG1). The indigenous poultry industry in Kenya, therefore, is posed to play a strategic role in on-going socio-economic development under Vision 2030, which is a long-term national development plan to transform Kenya into a rapidly industrializing middle-income by the year 2030.

    Chicken houseTo find out more about the indigenous chicken, I recently visited one small-scale farmer near Nakuru Town, Ngata. Nakuru town is located 160km Northwest of Nairobi. Peter lives on the outskirts of Nakuru Town in a rapidly expanding area. Most small-scale farmers in the area grow maize or keep livestock, but not Peter. He has decided to diverge from the norm and invest in an indigenous chicken operation. He says that it is a more rewarding venture than growing maize or keeping livestock in ¼ acre plots, citing the prevailing hardships experienced by agricultural production today.

    Peter feeding chickensWith a starting capital of 500 Kenyan Shillings (roughly five dollars and 81 cents) two years ago, Peter bought two hens, a cock, and some eggs. Today, Peter owns a flock of chickens worth 75,000 Ksh. (roughly 872 dollars). Peter says he has been selling chickens since he started keeping them. “It is much more efficient because of my proximity to town and the high demand of my products by  local consumers,” he says. Given that most indigenous chicken sold in the town is sourced from rural farmers, Peter has found an opportunity to fill the gap.

    He sells a live chicken at 500 Ksh. while an egg fetches 15-20 Ksh. During the holiday season in December, his chickens can fetch an even greater profit; therefore he makes sure he has ample supply for December.  His immediate customers are hotels and nearby neighbours. On a good business day, he sells 3-5 chickens and a tray of eggs.  About 98% of his income comes from this investment, he says as he receives a phone call from a customer who needs to buy some eggs. With a flowing income, Peter is able to buy other basic needs for his family. He notes, “The more I sell my chickens; the more they multiply.”

    Having grown up in a rural village where keeping indigenous chickens and farming was common, Peter says that he saw the economic and nutritional importance of investing in indigenous chicken as a source of food and income. He believes that because he supplies chicken products to neighbours and hotel businesses, he contributes to the employment opportunities in town in addition to providing nutritional value to the community. These sentiments are echoed by Mr. Chemjor Wendot, an expert in animal nutrition and a leading proponent of indigenous chickens in Kenya. Wendot asserts that indigenous chickens in Kenya play a key role in community development and sustaining livelihoods. He emphasizes that there is need for the industry to be enhanced further through improved feeding and proper management skills disseminated to poultry keepers.

    Peter raises his chickens in a semi-intensive system with an area measuring eight meters by ten meters inside a wire mesh enclosure eight feet high. He says that the birds spend most of the day within the restricted area and are only allowed to move outside for an hour a day to scavenge, an inborn trait. He calls the scavenging “chicken exercise.” This system, Peter says, makes it easy to manage the chickens, requires a low level of labor, and enables him to control any loss of eggs as well as mortality rates and pests and diseases. Peter also gets ample time to do other chores.

    Peter’s poultry house is constructed using locally available materials and considers factors such as ventilation and the direction of the wind. As we take a tour inside of the house, Peter provides the birds with perches and bedding raised two feet high and treated with old, used oil as a repellent against ecto-parasites. The floor is neat, as Peter cleans it on a daily basis. He applies the chicken manure to the garden to boost the soil fertility and grows kale to sell for human consumption and as a supplementary feed for the chickens. Growing the kale and vegetables together is an example of the perfect symbiosis between animals and plants that far too often is avoided in today’s agricultural practices.

    To achieve optimum production, Peter feeds his birds high-nutrition feeds including kale, milling waste, green grass, kitchen waste, sunflowers, cereals, and omena-fish meal and kienyeji mash, a local home-made feed. While scavenging in the evening, the birds go for insects, wild seeds, and maggots, as well as ticks from around the cows’ pen, acting as a biological pest control. Water is provided ad libitum (at one’s pleasure), but Peter observes that the birds drink less than 20 liters a day.  Peter says he has found a way to decrease his dependence on the rain-fed agriculture that is associated with many large and small-scale farmers in Kenya.

    Peter has managed to group his chickens into a few groups; laying hens, brooding hens, chicks, and the rest of the flock. The laying and brooding hens are provided with laying boxes comprised of old basins, used car rims, and sacks filled with soft materials for increasing comfort. Peter says that he observes his chickens and monitors each one’s progress and feeding habits. Peter says this as he spreads maize to a group of chicken outside. I could hear the hens clucking and soon chicks hurriedly ran in for a meal. Peter tells me that he assigns many chicks to a mother with good mothering abilities in order to control their habits. Indigenous chickens are known to spend half of their lifetime caring for their chicks. With Peter’s system, he is able to get many hens laying again after weaning them from their chicks. He is planning to acquire a locally-made incubator for the rising number of chicks.

    Chicken eggsAccording to his observations, Peter says that many of his hens lay 12-15 eggs, but it depends on the breed and if they sit on the eggs for a period of 21 days. Peter sorts eggs by desired quality and allows hens with good hatchability and mothering ability to sit on them. With Peter’s creativity, he can manipulate the chickens’ laying habits by placing eggs in advance on their laying nests or particular spots they like most, encouraging many hens to lay and brood. It is a method used to get more eggs and increase the flock, therefore making more sales all year-round. This practice sheds light on the concern that the poor performance of indigenous chicken is not due to genetics, but a lack of good management (Mengecha et al., 2008).

    Studies carried out at National Animal husbandry research centre (NAHRC) Naivasha indicate that, at the traditional farm level, average egg production of indigenous chickens is about 40 eggs per year (Ndegwa et al., 1998). A similar report by the ministry of Agriculture, Livestock Development, and Marketing (1994), gives a range of 40-60 eggs.  Under improved conditions, this number can be raised to as high as 150 eggs (Ndegwa et al., 1998).

    Indigenous chickens are associated with broodiness—a maternal instinct that affects egg production. Mr. Chemjor Wendot says that broodiness may be important to small-scale farmers to increase their flock, but needs to be controlled. Peter controls broodiness by separating hens in different cages for 3 to 4 days. He says broodiness then disappears. In rural villages, based on traditional understanding, farmers stop broodiness by immersing the hen in cold water or by plucking out their vent feathers. These measures, however, seem to be harsh and may actually cause stress and stop egg production completely. Monitoring the breeding system of chickens is essential, so Peter follows a strict programme whereby inbreeding is avoided. Inbreeding causes underperformance. Peter assigns a rooster to eight hens and always uses cocks with different genetic traits, mostly cross-bred ones. He says he looks for cocks of fast maturity, disease resistance, and body weight as optimal factors for selection. For example, to get more eggs, Peter goes for a lighter breed, while for meat, he uses a heavier breed. Peter has plans to have each group in its own area for improved feeding, organized breeding, and proper record keeping.

    Peter has implemented control measures in advance to combat pests and disease outbreaks. He prioritizes the health of the chickens. He says that upon hatching (or whenever a new chicken is joining the flock) vaccination must be done. The vaccines are made from a concoction of local herbs such as the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), aloe vera, sisal (Agave sisalana), and hot pepper. Peter says he prefers these herbs because they are easily available and good in terms of disease prevention with no side effects to his chickens.

    Peter finely crushes the vaccine plants and soaks them in water for 2 to 3 days. Then, he mixes them with drinking water to administer the vaccines to the chickens. Because it is important for each chicken to drink the vaccine, he withdraws water troughs for some time before introducing the vaccines. According to him, this is to make the chickens thirsty and drink the vaccines. “The earlier the control, the better,” he says. Some of the diseases to watch out for include fowl typhoid, coccidiocis, and Newcastle.  Peter sometimes combines the traditional methods with modern medicine to deal with cases of disease. Other control measures he finds useful are proper sanitation, fumigation of the house, culling the flock, and burying the carcasses. But with proper housing, good husbandry practices, and feeding a balanced diet, Peter says he is able to reduce occurrences of poor health, pests, and diseases while reaping a gain from his investment.

    Hens sitting on eggsThe success of Peter’s indigenous chickens can act as a model for many small-scale farmers in both urban and rural areas. He offers hope for the opportunity to utilize land, however small, in order to sustain livelihoods. Peter’s investment no doubt provides a picture of a bright food future. It is a move towards the eradication of hunger and poverty levels of many households in a time when human population and the demand for food rises as agricultural land diminishes. Training farmers on the many improved management and marketing opportunities available can harness the promise of indigenous chicken production.



    1. Chambers, R., 1987. Sustainable livelihoods, environment and development: putting poor rural people first. IDS Discussion paper No.240. Brighton: IDS
    2. Ibe, S.N., 1990. Increasing rural poultry production by improving the genetic endowment of rural poultry in Africa.
    3. Mbugua, P. N., 1990. Rural smallholder poultry production in Kenya. In: proceedings of a seminar on small holder rural poultry production 9-10th October 1990, pg 113-115. Thessaloniki, Greece, FAO, ROME.
    4. MolD, 1994. Ministry of Livestock Development, Kenya. Animal Production Division, Annual Report, 1990. Nairobi.
    5. Ndegwa, J, M, and Kimani, C. W., 1997. Rural poultry production in Kenya: Research and development strategies in: proceedings of 5th Kenya Agricultural Research Institute. (KARI) Scientific conference October, 1996. KARI, Nairobi.
    6. Ndegwa J. M., Kimani, C. W., Siamba, D. N., Mburu, B. M  and Waweru, O. M., 1998. Evaluation of the state of the art in poultry industry in Rift Valley Province in Kenya.  Proceedings of rural poultry production workshop. August 1998. Kakamega: Kenya Agricultural Research Institute.
    7. Povertynet, 2000. Understanding and Responding to poverty, July. The World Bank Group. http://www.worldbank.org/poverty/mission/up1.htm
    8. Tuitoek, J. K., Chemjor, W., Ndegwa, J. M., and Ottaro J. M., 1990. Morphological characteristics and protein requirements of indigenous Kenyan Chicken. In: proceedings of the 6th biannual Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) Scientific Conference 9-13 November 1998, pp 1-9. Nairobi, KARI.




  • May10th

    By Ross Mittelman

    pipes for greywaterOver the past five years, droughts have caused many Americans throughout the Midwest and western United States (U.S.) to reevaluate the importance of water in their lives. This commodity and resource is taken for granted in this country. It often seems that the presence of water is either over-abundant or insufficient. Though both constitute unwelcome challenges from an agricultural perspective, a surplus of water is likely more manageable than a scarcity. A severe, or even moderate, drought probably tops the list of a farmer’s greatest fears (perhaps along with an untimely freeze) as a threat that exists out of his or her control. The amount of precipitation that falls over the course of a year is certainly beyond our control, but what we do with the water we have can compound or alleviate pressures felt by farmers, municipalities, companies, and individuals alike. As the population swells, people are clamoring for more water, when they should be asking, “how can I use less, and how can I target my consumption to more useful areas?”

    It is estimated that the average American uses 40 gallons of water during the course of a day, rarely questioning its source or final destination. Much of that water is used as part of daily chores and activities, such as washing dishes, clothes, or ourselves. It comes from reservoirs, rivers, and aquifers that are part of a larger system generally intended for multiple uses. When this water gets flushed along it usually heads to a septic tank or treatment facility. Both require huge amounts of time, energy, and space to safely address a potentially toxic and hazardous by-product. The toxicity levels of these effluents often become higher when they are combined or concentrated, thus resulting in more challenging efforts to purify with less favorable results. What we can do as consumers is limit our inputs into an overburdened system by implementing individual changes. Obviously, a conscious effort to use less is something we all could benefit from, but other more progressive and aggressive measures might be in order as the situation grows more contested in the upcoming years. One approach that continues to gain acceptance is the use of grey water.

    pipes for grey waterOf the 40 gallons used daily, a large percentage of that water passes on with minimal contaminants before arriving at its final destination. Certainly toilet water that is considered raw sewage, or black water, presents a public safety concern in our current system. But water from washing machines, dishwashers, sinks, and even bathtubs should be considered relatively clean and usable as long as it remains free of chemical detergents. These are the most common sources for residential grey water. To harness the potential of this “waste” one can make some basic plumbing alterations so that machines or drains discharge into a yard, landscaped area, or garden. The main idea is to tie into an outflow pipe and install a three-way valve that allows you to direct water outside for irrigation as desired (the most common appliance that people associate with grey water is the washing machine because the risk is fairly minimal and the reward substantial, with traditional top-loading machines averaging 30 gallons per cycle in the U.S.).

    During the planning process, a variety of other site-specific conditions are worthy of consideration prior to installation. Topography and slope of the land can greatly affect gravity flow in a positive or negative manner. Soil type will determine absorption rates and appropriate volume. The type of plants or crops one opts to grow will also affect volume or rate of flow. Acceptable edible plants to introduce into a grey water system are the subject of much debate within the field. Those that err on the side of caution will say that grey water should only be applied to ornamental landscaping and fruit trees because of the threat of bacteria and pathogens coming into direct contact with produce. Others will say that only root crops should be avoided while everything from tomatoes and peppers to blackberries and hops are acceptable candidates. Each individual is capable of determining their threshold for risk, but systems that incorporate dishwater or bathwater should include additional filtration or bio-remediation methods in the form of planter boxes, mulch, or composting worms that break down bacteria harboring residues prior to dispersal on vegetation. Once the type and location of plants has been determined and the source and volume of water set, one can commence outlining the plan for irrigation pipe. Digging trenches and finding the proper level are the bulk of the installation. Sub-surface irrigation, by way of drip or soaker hose, is recommended to reduce saline deposits and loss due to evaporation.

    An elephant in the room that has escaped mention up to this point is regulation. Before even considering a grey-water system for a home, one should check with local and state authorities for restrictions, permitting, and approval. Thorough investigation is required into plumbing and building codes, as well as state and local environmental and board of health regulations. This daunting prospect is enough to deter even the most committed enthusiasts, but the process creates engagement in community issues and encourages active participation in important dialogue. The variance is huge throughout the country. Take the case of two neighboring states where water rights in the past have caused disputes resulting in death: Colorado and Arizona. In Colorado, the attempts to recognize grey water systems as a viable alternative to current methods have been met with strong opposition due to many archaic laws and beliefs. A recent House Bill (HB 12-1003) introduced last year intended to merely distinguish the difference between black water and grey water failed to pass, leaving many hopeful supporters of practical change demoralized (including Colorado State University, considered one of the leading research institutions within the field that had built a $230,000 grey water system for a green dorm that was deemed illegal by current state law). Now consider Arizona, which has embraced the use of grey water since 2003 when it passed comprehensive legislation aimed at simplifying, streamlining, and validating the practice. They developed a three-tier system set by volume targeting different uses: residential, commercial, and municipal. The language is clear and concise and information regarding how to go about setting up a grey water system suited to your specific situation is readily available on a governmental outreach program through the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (information available below). They have set the gold standard for grey water law in the United States (not so much the case for their immigration laws).

    The fact of the matter remains that water issues throughout the country, particularly the West, forever have been, and continue to be, enormously complicated. As Wayne Aspinall, Colorado Congressman from 1949 to 1973, said, “In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything.” However, years of convoluted rationale should not obstruct pragmatic and sensible progression. Resistance to change is often the result of a failure to understand the recently exposed facts at hand. Grey water may seem like a small matter, but it represents a greater principal tied to a necessary shift in perception regarding prudent stewardship of our waterways. Though it is best applied for homeowners looking to reduce waste and produce home grown food (a noble cause in itself) it also represents something bigger. It stands as a declaration that we as citizens prefer our water to be used for important purposes, such as drinking and irrigating our crops, not moving sewage through a pipe. Greater efforts need to be made by people across the board, including hay farmers who use pivot irrigation to blast jets of water twenty feet into the air at one o’clock in the afternoon on a hundred degree day, or fruit growers that use flood irrigation in orchards as opposed to drip or micro-sprinklers. They are just as much at fault for reckless endangerment of a limited resource as the city planners and governmental officials that fail to see the benefits of safely using reclaimed water. Grey water systems, however, embody an era of more conscious thought about utilizing crucial resources in the best way possible.

    Information about setting up home-scale grey water systems:



    Arizona’s outreach program:


    Additional references:



  • April26th

    by Vanessa Venotola

    Cuban Farm Landscape

    Cuban Farm Landscape (taken by author)


    Commercial pesticides and herbicides were introduced to Cuban agriculture in the 1940’s. After World War II, the effects of DDT, aldrin, chlordane, 2, 4-D, and other, new chemicals were recognized. Internationally, DDT became popular as a wide range insecticide, and 2, 4-D as an herbicide for use in grass crops, including corn (Delaplane 1996). Over time, new varieties of agrochemicals were developed and put into commercial use. Cuba relied heavily on these external inputs to guarantee higher production, as many agricultural areas throughout the world did, and continue to do so. However, by the 1970’s Cuba began exploring Integrated Pest Management as an initiative of the newly created National System of Plant Protection (Nicholls 2002). The National System of Plant Protection, referred to in other academic sources as the Cuban plant health system, was not so much a formal policy, as an overarching agenda which included the eventual construction of plant health laboratories, plant protection stations, and reproduction centers for entomophagous (organisms that feed on insects) and entomopathogenous organisms (organisms that parasitize insects) (Roettger 2003). Integrated Pest Management became the national policy in 1982 (Funes 2002), although other researchers have noted that prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union the IPM technologies were rarely utilized (Rosset 1995). Since then, while much of the world still relies on agrochemicals for food production, Cuba has become recognized as a model in transitioning to a more sustainable, low input style of agriculture.

    After the revolution in 1959, the face of agriculture in Cuba changed rapidly and continuously. The Agrarian Reform Law of 1959 nationalized all large private farms over the size of 402 hectares, including those owned or run by the United States (Mears 1962). The United States had a significant interest in Cuban sugar, and many of the largest, redistributed farms were sugarcane plantations, funded and controlled by U.S. investors. The United States embargo against Cuba was enacted in 1960 by President Eisenhower, halting all sugar purchases from Cuba by the U.S., discontinuing any oil trade with Cuba, and beginning a partial economic embargo. The embargo was further tightened by President Kennedy in 1962, and in 1963 it was declared illegal for any U.S. citizen to have financial or commercial transactions with Cuba. Among the vast number of other bans, all agricultural commodities, including farm machinery, seeds, plants, livestock, and agrochemicals, were no longer accessible for Cuba from one of its closest trade partners, the United States. The Agrarian Reform Law of 1963 nationalized the land of any farm over 67 hectares, bringing the total percentage of land owned by the Cuban government to 70% (University of Florida 2004).

    After the revolution, Cuba established a strong relationship with the USSR. From 1959 until the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1989, 85% of Cuba’s trade was with the Soviets. The USSR bought sugar from Cuba at a preferential price, up to five times the world market price. Cuba bought 90% of its fuel and 80% of its fertilizer and pesticide imports from the USSR (Warwick 1999). As the Soviet Union fell, Cuba plunged into an economic depression known as the Special Period. To keep the country from starvation, Cuba needed to find new trading partners or find a way to feed itself. In 1992, President Bush passed the Torricelli Act, also called the Cuban Democracy Act, which prevented foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from engaging in trade with Cuba, and stipulated that any ship that used a Cuban port in the previous 180 days could not enter a U.S. port (U.S. Department of State 1992). Establishing new trade was made difficult, and in the Special Period, Cuba launched forward with alternative agriculture, learning to use local resources and disband reliance on other countries for fertilizers and pesticides.

    Many of the alternative farming practices adopted in the Special Period involved returning to a more comprehensive, holistic approach to management. Integrated Pest Management is just one example of this. The EPA classifies IPM as “the coordinated use of pest and environmental information with available pest control methods to prevent unacceptable levels of pest damage by the most economical means and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.” Integrated Pest Management is based on the principle that careful observation, planning, and action can reduce or eliminate pest problems in a safer and more efficient way than the spraying of a multipurpose pesticide. It also focuses on prevention through a number of smart farming techniques (EPA 2012). In Cuba, farms use Integrated Pest Management to varying degrees, picking and choosing from IPM techniques to find which are most viable and effective for a specific crop, land, and location. In 2008 the Cuban government started allowing for the redistribution of underused or unused state land to local farmers (León 2012). Many of these farmers have embraced the farming skills adapted during the Special Period, and have further extrapolated upon them to suit their own farming needs.

    IPM and Biological Control in Cuba:

    One widespread practice is the use of entomophagous and entomopathogenous organisms. Reproduction centers for entomophagous and entomopathogenous organisms (CREEs) were created rapidly once the depression hit Cuba. By 1992, 227 centers had been built on the island, and by 1997, 280 existed. CREEs provide services not only to state farms, but also to cooperatives and private farms. Their main objective is to provide a low priced product for local farmers, and in fact most CREEs operating on a cooperative’s space offer the cooperative the product for free (Nicholls 2002).

    wasp laying egg

    (from UC IPM Online)

    One of projects of the CREEs is the rearing and distribution of the entomophagous Trichogramma. Trichogramma is a genera of wasp which parasitizes the eggs of hundreds of species of insects, including moths, butterflies, sawflies, fruitworms, beetles, and flies (UC Davis 2012). The CREEs breed the wasp by collecting colony stocks from local crops that the reared wasps will later be released onto. The centers keep eggs of Corcyra cephalonica or Sitotroga cerealla, a rice moth or grain moth, respectively, to allow the wasps to infect them. Once they have hatched from the initial batch of parasitized eggs. Cuban farmers use Trichogramma to kill the cassava hornworm, the tobacco budworm, and the sugarcane borer. In total the CREEs produce almost 10 billion wasps each year (Nicholls 2002). The use of Trichogramma as a predator for harmful plant pests is an example of biological control. “Biological control is a component of an IPM strategy. It is defined as the reduction of pest populations by natural enemies and typically involves an active human role” (Hoffman 1993). This ideology summarizes well the agenda of IPM in Cuba: using nature inspired methods to foster plant health and productivity.

    Entomopathogenic fungi and bacteria are also produced by CREEs. CREEs are particularly instrumental in making biopesticides from Bacillus thuringienis (Bt). The centers multiply the bacteria and ship vials of Bt to any of the three Biopesticide Product Plants located in Cuba. Biopesticides from Bt are currently the most used biopesticide, making up 90% of biopesticide used worldwide. The biopesticide is in a liquid form and is sprayed on plants. Bt can provide mosquito and lepidopteran (moth and butterfly) larvae control. Moths and butterflies can otherwise cause significant loss in corn crops and cruciferous vegetables. Additionally, the biopesticide is used to combat the tobacco budworm, cassava hornworm, potato and citrus leafminers, and mites (Fernández-Larrea Vega 1999). Bacillus thuringienis is also used in aiding soil health. Because some soils in Cuba can be high in aluminum and iron oxides, phosphorus can become unavailable for uptake by plants if it complexes with either. Bt is a phosphosolubilizing bacteria. This means that when the bacteria consume the complex, phosphorus is detached from the other chemicals and made available for plant use again (Oppenheim 2001).

    Potato Beetle

    Potato Beetle infected with Beauveria bassiana

    Bighead Ant

    Bighead Ant – Pheidole megacephala (from alexanderwild.com)

    An entomopathogenic fungus is used by Cuban farmers to combat the sweet potato weevil. The sweet potato weevil is a pest worldwide, but particularly in subtropical and tropical areas. The fungus Beauveria bassiana can be dispersed by spraying a topical solution on the leaves of the sweet potato plant, or can be used in combination with a pheromone trap to infect the sweet potato weevil. Cuba is noted for its success in producing significant amounts of the fungus, although production is decentralized in a number of small scale facilities (Korada 2010). A second technique used to control the sweet potato weevil is the use of predatory ants. The bighead ant, Pheidole megacephala, is found in banana plantations. Cuban farmers use a technique of rolling them up in banana leaves to transport the ants to sweet potato fields where the ants are let loose to enjoy a feast of sweet potato weevil (Korada 2010).

    tobacco drying house

    Neem based biopesticides and Bt biopesticides are both used on Cuban tobacco crops. This is a tobacco drying house. The tobacco here is used to make Cuban cigars. (taken by author)

    Another plant based method for preventing pest problems is intercropping with maize in vegetable and row crops. This is used to lessen the effects of Thrips palmi, commonly known as melon thrips, an insect which harms plants by eating the leaves, stems, and flowers (Nicholls 2002; Martin 2007). The melon thrip feeds on many plants, including eggplant, pepper, potato, cucumber, various beans, cotton, tobacco, soybean, and other vegetables, tubers, and grains (Martin 2007). The maize plants produce pollen which attracts natural predators of Thrips palmi, especially the Orius species, which are collectively called minute pirate bugs. Intercropping is inherently beneficial for reducing pest damage as it distributes the insects over a larger number of plants in the same area (Nicholls 2002).


    Organoponico (taken by author)

    Urban farms are popular in Cuba, notably in the capital city of Havana. Organoponicos are the most common type of urban agriculture, and are characterized by raised or cement encased plant beds (Taboulchanas 2000). These organoponicos benefit from many of the aforementioned IPM techniques, but some are simply not feasible in a city setting. For instance, releasing thousands of wasps would not please the surrounding community. Intercropping is an example of IPM that is well suited to both rural and urban settings.


    Marigolds as a pest repellent (taken by author)

    Unlike a traditional farm, plants in organoponicos are not grown in extensive rows, therefore intercropping occurs on a much smaller scale. Intercropping is the practice of growing plants close together for the purpose of increasing yield per unit of area. A closely related term is companion planting, which is the practice of growing plants close together to benefit the development of one or both of the plants (Penn State University 2012). So although intercropping can be used in an urban farm, often the term companion planting is more applicable. A common example of companion planting is that marigolds and tomatoes are planted together, since marigolds repel insects, including aphids, which are a frequent pest for tomato plants. The combination of marigolds and tomato plants is used by backyard farmers everywhere and by most farmers in Cuba. Many organoponicos plant garlic, onions, and certain herbs around and within plant beds to prevent insects from invading the bed. Garlic is an ideal companion plant for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, kale, and carrots. Garlic repels aphids as well, and the plant is capable of amassing sulfur, which is a natural fungicide (Vanderlinden 2012). In the extensive network of urban farms in Cuba, employing plants for biological control is necessitated and well substituted for entomophagous insects.

    The progress Cuba has made in agriculture since the collapse of the Soviet Union has proven to the world that sustainable agriculture in not unattainable. Through implementation of comprehensive farming practices, such as those encompassed in Integrated Pest Management and biological control, the country has been able to keep farms once founded on the principles of conventional agriculture operating. The country does receive criticism, as 80% of its food needs are still imported (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada 2012). Some observers believe that if given the resources, Cuba would quickly return to a pesticide, herbicide, and synthetic fertilizer based system of production. In recent years Cuba has created political and financial alliances with Venezuela and China (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada 2012). Cuba’s relationship with Venezuela has opened up trade for oil once again, one of the most important inputs needed for making pesticides and fertilizers. While Cuba continues its path to recovery after the Special Period, many are watching to see how Cuba’s policies on sustainable, low input agriculture will develop.


    Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 2012. Agri-Food Past, Present and Future Report: Cuba [Internet]. Available from: http://www.ats-sea.agr.gc.ca/lat/4678-eng.htm

    Alvarez J. 2004. Transformations in Cuban Agriculture After 1959 [Internet]. Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida IFAS Extension; [cited 10 June 2012]. Available from: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fe481

    Delaplane KS. 2002. Pesticide Usage in the United States: History, Benefits, Risks, and Trends. Athens, GA: Cooperative Extension Service, The University of Georgia College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.

    Diáz JO. 2003. Biopesticides in Cuban Agriculture. In: Roettger U, Muschler R, editors. International Symposium on Biopesticides for Developing Countries. Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigavion y Ensenanza, Turrialba, Costa Rica. p 29-36

    Fernández-Larrea Vega O. 1999. A review of Bacillus thuringienis (Bt) production and use in Cuba. Biocontrol News and Information 20:47-48.

    Funes F, Garcia L, Bourque M, Perez N, Rosset P, eds. 2002. Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba. Food First Books p. 110-111.

    Hoffmann MP, Frodsham AC. 1993. Natural Enemies of Vegetable Insect Pests. Cooperative Extension, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. p 63.

    Korada RR, Naskar SK, Palaniswami MS, Ray RC. 2010. Management of sweetpotato weevil [Cylas formicarius (Fab.)]: an overview. Journal of Root Crops 36:14–26.

    León JJ. 2012. [Lecturer] A Briefing on Cuban Agriculture.

    Presented on May 2, 2012.

    Martin JL, Mau RFL. 2007. Thrips Palmi [Internet]. University of Hawaii; [cited 10 June 2012]. Available from: http://www.extento.hawaii.edu/Kbase/Crop/Type/t_palmi.htm

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    Penn State Community Garden. 2012. Intercropping, Companion Planting, and Intensive Gardening [Internet]. Penn State University; [cited 2012 June 10]. Available from: https://sites.google.com/a/psu.edu/community-garden/intercropping-and-companion-planting

    Rosset P, Cunningham S. 1995. The Greening of Cuba. Earth Island Journal 10:23.

    Taboulchanas K. 2000. Case Study in Urban Agriculture: Organiponicos in Cienfuegos, Cuba [Internet]. [cited 2012 June 10]. Available from: http://dp.biology.dal.ca/reports/ztaboulchanas/taboulchanasst.html#toc

    US Department of State. 1992. TITLE XVII – Cuban Democracy Act of 1992. Retrieved from: http://www.state.gov/www/regions/wha/cuba/democ_act_1992.html

    US Environmental Protection Agency. [Internet]. Pesticides: Health and Safety. [updated 2012 May 9 / cited 2012 June 10]. Available from: http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/food/ipm.htm

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    Warwick H. 1999. Cuba’s Organic Revolution. The Ecologist 29:457-460.

  • April24th

    Jessica Babcock, Farm Manager at Greenbank Farmby Erica Romkema

    Greenbank Farm’s collection of red buildings springs up from the slim green stretch that is Whidbey Island. North and a leap over the Puget Sound from Seattle, Washington, the farm brings together wild nature and agriculture, hikers and farmers, herons and hens. It hosts artists and eaters and learners of all kinds. Jessica Babcock, farm manager and instructor at the Agriculture Training Center, took some time out of the busyness of spring to share some thoughts and snapshots from this multi-faceted, dynamic place.

     ER: Tell us a little about Greenbank Farm and your role there.

    JB: Greenbank Farm is a fantastic example of different groups coming together to save a cherished community resource. The Greenbank Farm property, once the largest loganberry farm in the U.S., was slated to be sold to developers in 1995. The community worked for the next two years to find a solution. In 1997 a consortium of the Port of Coupeville, Island County, and The Nature Conservancy bought the property.

    The Ag Training Center was established in 2008 in order to teach sustainable agriculture methods at different scales.  The Ag Training Center encompasses several different programs, all of which are included under our organic certification: the Organic Farm School, Organic Seed Project, Market Gardens (plots leased to commercial growers), P-Patch (community garden spaces), and livestock pasture.

    ER: Can you share more about the Organic Farm School in particular?

    JB: The Organic Farm School is a key component of the Ag Training Center. It is a 7.5-month residential program in which students learn to be organic farmers by being organic farmers. We like to say we have a triple bottom line–growing farmers, food, and community. The students cooperatively manage the 8-acre farm with an emphasis is on small-scale, diversified vegetable production.  We also delve into broilers, bees, goats/sheep, and organic seed production.

    The students manage a 75-member CSA, run a booth at the Coupeville Farmers Market, and sell to two local grocery stores.

    ER: What are key skills and subjects taught at the farm school? What’s the curriculum, timeline, etc.? 

    JB: Students arrive in early March and stay through the end of October.  We spend about 30 hours each week out in the field learning by doing.  There are two classroom lectures each week, one on an organic farming skill (soil fertility, crop rotations, etc.) and the other on direct marketing and small farm viability (CSA administration, business planning, etc.).  We also go on field trips to other area farms to learn about the amazing array of farming methods being implemented on farms in our area.

    ER: Why should someone attend the school?

    JB: The statistics are scary. Daunting. Terrifying even. So many small farms fail. During the first week of class I teach about the history of agriculture in the U.S. (consolidation, concentration, industrialization) and the challenges facing small farmers today (limited access to land, capital, know-how). I watch their eyes widen in alarm. I imagine them thinking, “Wait a minute, do I really want to be a farmer?! But THAT is why they come to the program. To learn if they really want to be a farmer. And if the answer is yes–and it usually is–to learn how to farm wisely. To develop the skills and knowledge and decision-making tools necessary for their farm to not just survive but thrive.

    The confidence to make sound decisions regarding a farm business is quite possibly the most important tool the Organic Farm School can impart to students. There are many ways to learn hands-on farming skills. There are classes that teach about direct marketing. There are business planning courses. But to have all of these things in one program while simultaneously cultivating the thought processes that are the foundation of every smart farming decision–this is the single most important gift the students leave the program with. They finish the program with the confidence to say, “I know farming is difficult, but I have the tools to meet each challenge as it comes my way.”

    The Organic Farm School also invests in its students past their first growing season. We encourage students to stay on the farm for another year to participate in our incubator program. They lease plots at the farm under our organic certification; they have access to our tools, equipment, and knowledge; and they start their own farm business without so much of the risk of going off on their own.

    ER: What do you hope students will gain / what are things that seem especially needed skills/knowledge in our changing agricultural environment?

    JB: In addition to the confidence and decision-making tools that I hope to impart to the students, I also want to help them learn how to think outside the box. There are so many diverse marketing opportunities, crops, and value-added options for farms of this scale. I want to get students thinking about what their farm/life goals actually are and then help them work toward those goals.

    In this same vein, organic seed production is especially close to my heart. There is a crippling shortage of organic seed; demand far outreaches supply. This has the potential to be an important component of small-scale organic farm income. As part of the Ag Training Center’s Organic Seed Project, students learn the ins and outs of organic seed production, including navigating contracts with organic seed companies.

    ER: I noticed that in addition to practicing agriculture, Greenbank Farm puts emphasis on local commerce, recreation, and natural resource stewardship. Could you talk about how these things work together?

    JB: Greenbank Farm is a mecca of community involvement. Every day you can see many people out using the hiking trails, shopping at the art galleries, eating at the Pie Cafe, and birding in the wetland. The farm itself is a diverse place (wetland, forest, open space, agriculture), and we seek to enrich the diversity of the human activities that go on there. We believe that all of these things–local commerce, recreation, natural resource stewardship, and agriculture can work together to create a stronger whole.  For example, we farm in such a way that enhances the local ecosystem, which draws in recreationists and tourists, which in turn helps the local businesses at the farm.  Our goal is for all of the pieces to work in concert to create a stronger whole.

    ER: What advice would you have for someone considering attending farm school and/or going into farming in general?

    JB: My advice for someone considering farming as a profession (or for anyone considering any profession) is to do your homework. What are your goals (life, business, family)? What knowledge/experience do you already have? Where are the gaps in your knowledge? How can you go about filling those gaps?

    If you think a farm school might be the ticket, visit the farm and talk to the farmers! Every farm school program has differences–program emphasis, size, climate, etc.–get a feel for what works for you. The Organic Farm School at Greenbank Farm is small and focuses on one-on-one personal attention as well as very hands-on farm management. We invest in our students beyond the first farm season. We have a long, cool growing season that presents unique opportunities and challenges. And last, but definitely not least, we’re located in one of the most beautiful spots in the world!

     To learn more about Greenbank Farm and the Organic Farm School, visit their website. <www.greenbankfarm.biz.>

  • April11th

    Raised Bedsby Dan Hughes

    Hügelkultur, translated literally from german, means ‘mound culture.’ More specifically, it is the use of rotted wood and other organic materials to create low-input raised beds that are highly water retentive and self-feeding. It is a method that is based on the simple principles of decomposition that, when done properly, provides nutrients to the plants without the need to add externally acquired fertilizers for years while at the same time holding what water they receive for extended periods. They are therefore well suited to dry climates and production in areas where fertilizers are not desired, aren’t accessible or are prohibitively expensive. In the following pages, I will demonstrate just how this method can be used in virtually any area to create permaculture beds that are essentially self sustaining indefinitely with the proper care and cultivation.

    Hugelkultur beds are little different from other raised beds in composition apart from one key difference: the beds are built on top of a stockpile of rotted wood and other composting biomass, be it duff, leaves, wood chips or whatever else may be on hand. Because of the large mass of all this, the beds will necessarily be built high and so are most often the site for the bed is dug out a few feet. The depth to which the troughs are dug is determined by preference, the amount of time and effort one is willing to spend in building the bed (though this part is obviously greatly facilitated by the aid of heavy digging equipment), how hard the soil is and so on. For example, were you to want to make a hugelkultur bed in a neighborhood where there are restrictions regarding the appearance of a yard, it is possible to make the bed rise only a foot off the ground when in reality it may reach as far down as six feet. Most sources recommend a total height of at least four feet and ideally around six feet when the beds are completed, especially since much of this height will be lost in the first couple of years as the organic materials break down and thus compact slightly. If appearance is not an issue or there is only a limited amount of wood and organic materials available, it is perfectly suitable to simply build your beds on top of the existing ground level although you will then have to import soil from elsewhere. Typically the troughs are dug to a depth of about two to three feet with the soil and sod set aside separately, filled in with the rotted wood and other biomass, covered with the turf inverted so the soil side is up and then covered again with the remaining soil. After this, the beds are ready to be planted; indeed, as we will see later, there is good cause to plant the beds immediately.

    paul wheaton rich soilThe process that makes hugelkultur work is no mystery. The key is the stockpile of organic material created underneath the bed. According to Sepp Holzer, the preeminent authority on all matters permaculture, the wood acts as a sponge, holding in what water falls on the bed as well as drawing moisture up from the ground. As the wood decomposes its nutrients are fed directly into the soil of the bed while simultaneously providing food for microbes and nematodes (2011). Paul Wheaton of Richsoil.com states that the shrinking that occurs as the wood breaks down will, over time, create air pockets that promote strong root growth and loosen the soil which makes tillage all but unnecessary (Wheaton, n.d.).

    One of the best attributes of hugelkultur is its versatility. It is possible to use a huge variety of materials, locations, soil types and so on when making a hugelkutlur bed. There are, however, a few considerations that should always be made before building one. Location is the first and foremost of these. One should take several factors into account when choosing a site for the bed. Sunlight, as always, is the foremost of these, and as such the beds should be oriented to maximize sunlight throughout the day. A bed that runs north to south would create an optimal conditions for most plants, but if you wished to grow plants that needed indirect light, an east-west orientation would give you one side that received less light through the course of the day. Holzer also recommends that the prevailing wind direction be determined and a tall bed planted in tall, hardy plants such as berry bushes, jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), or even fruit trees to create a windbreak, thus preventing soil compaction in other beds from constant wind (2011). Slope is another important consideration, and if the beds are to be built on a sloping surface it is perhaps the most crucial. This is because the beds are so absorptive that if they are not oriented properly with the flow of water, they will become over saturated. According to Holzer, beds should be neither parallel nor perpendicular to the slope of the hill but rather “…determined by the course the rainwater takes down the slope”  (2011). Were your beds to run perpendicular to the slope then those at the top would catch all the water, leaving those at the bottom deprived and dry. If the opposite orientation is employed, the water would simply sheet down the hill which could lead to massive soil sloughing and even landslides. Therefore, what Holzer is suggesting is that you take note of which way the water flows and then position the beds on a slight bias to the slope with offset breaks between them. This way the water will flow down along the sides of the bed allowing them to absorb some but all until it reaches the end of the bed and then passes through the break, down to the next row of beds, thus evenly distributing the water between all beds while slowing its roll down the hill. Accessibility is another factor worth going into. The placement of your beds should be in an area that is easily reached and that can accommodate the desired length and height of your beds with plenty of room between them and on the ends to facilitate plantings and harvests.

    Once you’ve chosen the appropriate location for your beds, it’s time to start digging. It should be noted here that it is not entirely necessary to dig out trenches for your beds, but it is highly recommended for a couple of reasons. Firstly, digging will create a stockpile of soil that would otherwise have to be brought in from elsewhere. Secondly, digging troughs will create beds that are of a shorter final height. Due to the nature of hugelkultur, the more organic material that is buried in the bed, the better it will perform over a longer period of time. Wheaton suggests beds that are at least six feet (2m) in total height (Wheaton, n.d.), but the above ground height will ultimately be determined by the depth to which your trenches are dug. For example, if you wanted to create beds that are a total of six foot (2m) but only rose above the ground three feet (1m), then you would want to dig down 3 feet (1m). It is in this way that huglekultur can be made to conform to neighborhood restrictions or personal preference. The beds can, of course, be shorter, as any amount of buried organic material and wood will aid in the growth of the bed. However, the greater the percentage of the bed that is buried the less arable surface area present in the bed. That is why Holzer, Wheaton and others suggest that you dig 1 1/2 – 2 feet out and build up to a height of 4 1/2 – 4 foot above ground, totaling 6 feet (2011, n,d.). Using heavy machinery for digging and moving the rotted wood, soil and other organic material will obviously speed up the process but it is not necessary, especially for smaller beds.

    After the troughs have been dug, you can start filling them in with the rotted wood. Wheaton posits that it is important to use wood that has been rotting for at least a year primarily because if freshly cut wood is used, it will rob much needed from the soil as it decomposes. Therefore, the more rotted the wood, the better as this will not only prevent nitrogen robbing but will also essentially inoculate your bed with microbes, fungus and bacteria needed for the decomposition process that makes the whole thing work so well (n.d.) One must also put thought into the types of wood that are used, as certain species are well suited to the task while others must be avoided due to their negative (for this application at least) attributes. Cedar, ailanthus black walnut are no good because they are allelopathic (meaning that they produce biochemicals that can negatively effect the growth of other plants). Locust is far too rot-resistant to be effective. The best woods for hugelkultur, according to Wheaton, include but are not limited to: alders, applewood, cottonwood, poplar, maple and birch (n.d.). Conventional wisdom would have it that the harder/denser the wood, the worse it is for this purpose as it would be slow to break down, and indeed there is a good deal of debate on this matter on the internet with some purporting that the slower the wood breaks down, the longer the bed lasts and others saying that this slower breakdown will negate the reason for using the wood in the first place. For the purposes of this article, I will advise that you should use what is most readily available to you without using species like the ones listed above that will retard the growth of your plants. There are myriad considerations to be made here (acidity levels in the soil and wood, allelopathic properties, whether or not the pieces of wood will create new growth, etc.) and each region is different in an equally large amount of ways, namely in species diversity. So ask around, do a little research and find out which woods will be best suited to your climate, soil type, what species of trees are abundant in your area, the types of plants you want to grow in the beds and so on. The beauty of hugelkultur is its adaptability. You don’t actually have to use wood at all, though your beds will be substantially more effective if you do.

    wheaton permiesIt is advisable to lay some of your rotted wood in vertically, as this will aid in wicking moisture upward to your plants. Additionally, I never think that it’s a bad idea to inoculate any type of bed with effective microorganisms, mycorrhizae, or some of the various beneficial worm species. The wood should be mounded neatly and tightly but not without gaps and spaces for dirt to fill in. Holzer maintains that beds should be tall and angled at least 45 degrees as flatter beds will over time become compacted and “…the process of decomposition is interrupted and … an anaerobic sludge can build up, which has a negative effect on plants.” He further suggests that you can slightly terrace the sides of such steeply angled beds to ease planting and harvesting (2011). Once this is done, you can cover your wood with any excess organic material you may have on hand such as leaves, wood chips, straw, manure or compost. After the innards of the beds are built, you are ready to apply the final layers. If the area that was dug out had grass or turf, most people advise that you put it on with the grass side down to create structure and add to the organic material available for decomposition. On top of this you make a final layer with the dirt that came from digging the troughs. Wheaton suggests that the best soil be separated from the rest to be used on the outermost layer, or you can apply whatever amendments you may have on hand to improve the quality of the soil (n.d.). As you pile the dirt on that you water it so that it will hold its shape better. Once all this is done, you are ready to start planting.

    Holzer, among others, stress the importance of being ready to plant as soon as you are finished building the beds. This is because the soil will still be loose, aiding in quick root growth and helping to prevent seeds from blowing away in the wind or washing out with rain, and as such, you should not overly smooth the surface of the beds in order to preserve these optimal conditions (2011). When choosing what plants to put in your beds, there are again many things to take into account. The first of these of course is the climactic restrictions of your region. For the most part, you will grow the same plants in a hugelkultur bed as you might in any other bed. It will be possible, however, to grow plants that require more water than if they were to be planted in the ground. This is because of the incredible absorptive powers of the wood and organic materials in hugelkutlur beds. Not only will they hold water for longer periods of time than other beds, but they will actually hold more, thus enabling you to grow plants that might not otherwise be feasible in your region without massive irrigation (Holzer, 2011). Wheaton also claims that the warming of the beds glen kasinger permiesin the initial few years actually enable you to extend your growing season as the soil will be warmed from within (n.d.). Though the choice in plants ultimately comes down to what you wish to grow, as with any permaculture scenario it is always to have a well thought out and diverse array of species that will complement one another in their growth. It is also important to think about planting deep rooted perennials for two reasons: one because they will add to the overall structural soundness of the bed but also because their long roots will draw moisture up to the benefit of other, shallower rooted plants. Another important factor to bear in mind is decomposition level of the organic material used in the bed previous to building. If your materials are small and only slightly composted, then you can expect high levels of nutrient release in the first few seasons and so you should plant accordingly with high demand plants such as cucurbits, night shades, and apiaceae (Holzer, 2011). You can then move on to less demanding plants like legumes (even better as they will fix nitrogen and add to the fertility of the bed) in later years. Mulch crops are also recommendable, and these again will be determined by all of the factors stated above. Strawberries are a good example, as they spread easily, are good for shading out the ground beneath, are hardy enough to be cut back to make room for planting and have the added value of producing an edible fruit. It will also be to your advantage to plant a resilient cover in the aisles between your beds; something that can withstand foot traffic but at the same time keep the soil in place.

    Again, the best part of hugelkultur is how open-ended it is at every turn. As long as the basic principles are in place, then chances are your beds will flourish. Hugelkultur may afford those who have little water a viable option for growing much more than they could without the massive water storage capacity of the wood. It also creates an excellent use for wood and other biomass that might simply go to waste otherwise. If nothing else, it provides an interesting experiment that is a great alternative to normal raised bed gardening. This article really only scratches the surface of possibilities regarding hugelkultur. Its applications and variations are seemingly endless, they need only be implemented and, of course, shared with the world.

     For more information, refer to the cited materials as well as the many on-farm trials and blogs that abound on the internet. 


    Wheaton, P. (n.d.). Hugelkultur: The ultimate raised garden beds. website: http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/

    Holzer, S. (2011). Sepp holzer’s permaculture: A practical guide to small-scale, integrative farming and gardening.Retrieved from http://www.krameterhof.at/pdf/presse/permaculture-pm68.pdf


    1. http://www.permies.com/t/17/hugelkultur/hugelkultur
    2. http://permaculture.org.au/2012/01/04/hugelkultur-composting-whole-trees-with-ease/#more-6825
    3. http://communities.ic.org/articles/1507/Hugelkultur_on_the_Prairie_or_Learning_from_Our_Mistakes



  • April7th

    Lead in Urban Cultureby Vanessa Ventola

    Hand in hand with the growth of public interest in local and organic produce is the increase in urban farms, community gardens, and backyard vegetable plots. Unfortunately, plants grown for consumption in the urban environment may contain a unique set of potential health hazards. Soil contamination by lead and other heavy metals can be present depending on exposure to air pollution, water pollution, and prior use of the land (Houlihan Turner 2009).

    I became interested in the subject of potential contamination of urban soils after a visit to the Brooklyn Grange by Professor Tom Whitlow. He is a member of Cornell University’s Department of Horticulture, and has been conducting a research project at the Grange. His current project involves testing rain water samples for heavy metal particulates, as a way of measuring the safety of growing vegetables in an urban environment. To complete this project  he hopes to compare his findings to the results of samplings in rural areas. Since I have been interning at an urban farm, and supporting the urban agriculture movement whole heartedly, I wanted to inform myself about the possibility of lead making its way into the fruits and vegetables grown in cities.

    The heavy metal worrying most consumers and growers of city grown produce is lead. While high doses of lead can cause vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, and even a coma or death, it is unlikely that this sort of exposure would be relevant to urban agriculture. Ingesting small amounts of lead that has been taken up or deposited on the fruit or vegetable is a possibility. Low doses of lead is know to result in anemia, nervous system damage, headaches, constipation and fatigue. When lead enters the human body it travels in the bloodstream and may deposit in tissues and, more likely, in bone. It does not readily degrade (the chemical’s half life is 25 years), and so it stays in the body for an extensive period of time (Health Canada 2007). Lead is especially dangerous for small children and babies as it can effect mental development.

    Lead was once used in paints and in gasoline. In Canada and the United States, lead paints are no longer used because of the serious health risks. Dust containing traces of the paint can be inhaled, and small children sometimes eat lead paint chips do to their sweet taste. Lead paint has been banned since 1978 in the U.S. (EPA 2011). Yet, any older buildings still contain lead paint, and plots where buildings once were may have remains of lead paint chips or lead plumbing.

    Prior to the early 1970s gasoline contained lead additives as a lubricant for engine valves, so car exhaust was a major source of lead particulates in the air and environment. With new engine developments in the 1970s, lead additives were no longer necessary and unleaded gasoline became more commonly used. In 1990 Canada banned leaded gasoline in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (Health Canada 2009). In 1996 the U.S. banned leaded gasoline as a stipulation of the Clean Air Acts Amendment of 1990 (EPA 1995). Airborne lead particulates have dropped dramatically in the U.S. and Canada. Other countries, especially those using older models of cars, still use leaded gas.

    Lead particulates do not just disappear over time. Some will have dispersed, but some accumulate in soils. Lead from car exhaust remains mostly contained to 100 meters from the road. Soils near high traffic areas, or older construction sites should always be checked for lead content. Rooftop farms are generally an exception to this. Most rooftop farms have new soil purchased from a farm supply store. While the soil will not have elevated lead levels from sitting in urban pollution, these new soils may still be exposed to lead and heavy metal contamination as rain drops collect lead particulates in the air and carries them into the soil. This is what the research of Professor Whitlow is examining. Interestingly, he found that there were ten times less heavy metal particulates in the air at the Brooklyn Grange, six stories above ground level, than at the busy street level of Northern Boulevard in Queens, New York (Whitlow 2012). Us rooftop farmers were breathing easy with this news.

    Uncontaminated soils in an untouched environment have a naturally occurring lead concentration of 20-50 parts per million. Typical urban soils fall in the elevated range of 50-200 parts per million. The United State’s EPA has published Ecological Soil Screening Levels (Eco-SSLs), which are “concentrations of contaminants in soil that are protective of ecological receptors that commonly come into contact with and/or consume biota that live in or on soil” (EPA 2005). The EPA’s researcher collected hundreds of papers about Eco-SSLs for different conditions, such a species type, soil pH, and type of soil contamination. Papers which represented extraneous situations were dismissed (such as those where the organism was exposed to contaminants in a manner other than normal ingestion or uptake, or if the study was conducted on a known toxic area), and an average of the applicable paper’s proposed Eco-SSLs is what the EPA reported. These values exist for plants, bugs, birds, and mammals. The Eco-SSL for terrestrial plants was found to be 120 ppm for lead (EPA 2005). However, Eco-SSLs are a guideline and not a regulation. To open a community garden or urban farm there is currently no requirement that soils be tested and approved by a government or private regulatory company beforehand.

    Urban AgricultureJust because a soil is contaminated with lead, or other heavy metals, it does not mean the land cannot be used for urban farming and gardening. Soil amendments can be used to decrease the bioavailability of lead. Lead is more soluble at lower, acidic pH levels. Adding phosphate to soil will raise the pH and make lead (and mercury, cadmium, nickel, copper, zinc, chromium, and manganese) less available to plants. Arsenic, molybdenum, selenium, and boron are metals which are more soluble at a high pH, so it is really important to know what metals are in soil before treating it to avoid accidently creating another potential plant contaminant (Muckel 2004). Liming is another method to raise the pH of soil. Using calcite limestone will add calcium to the soil, and dolomite limestone will add both calcium and magnesium. An organic method of liming is to use ground oyster shells (Mitchell 2012). The Brooklyn Grange uses oyster shells from swanky dinner parties on the roof to add calcium to their soil and keep pH levels elevated.

    An alternate approach to dealing with lead contaminated soils is to grow produce which is less susceptible to lead uptake or deposition. Leafy vegetables and those with a long growing period are most likely to accumulate lead (Armar-Klemesu 2000). Leafy vegetables become contaminated through deposition from the air, or from rain. Washing your greens before cooking or consuming can lower the risk of ingesting lead by up to 73%. This shows that the minority of lead contamination is through uptake by the roots (Nabulo 2012).  Root vegetables may also have elevated lead concentrations, but this is do to direct contact with the soil, as opposed to the roots having absorbed the lead (Rosen 2012). According to Armar-Klemesu “Celery, parsley, leek, lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets and radishes are not advisable to cultivate on heavily polluted soils, on account of their high uptake of heavy metals and nitrate. Gourds, onions, garlic and fruit trees and shrubs offer lower risks.” As a general rule of thumb, the order of highest lead levels to lowest lead levels is leaves, roots, fruits, and seeds (Massadeh 2011).

    For those involved in community gardening or urban farming, assessing the risk of lead exposure can be difficult. Many urban growing areas are within 100 meters of high traffic areas, putting them at serious risk for lead heavy soils, yet it is not common for these soils to be tested or treated accordingly. As a consumer of local, city produce this research has not deterred me from continuing to support urban agriculture. Only limited amounts of lead particulates actually accumulate within the plant, with most lead contamination being on the leaves and roots from direct exposure to lead in the air, rain, and soil. It is comforting to know that with proper testing, soil treatment, and plant planning lead should be of little concern for urban produce. However, I believe that washing local, organic produce is not stressed, and that many people believe that since it is pesticide and herbicide free it is not necessary to do so. City farmers, and especially gardeners, are not strategizing to reduce the risk of their plants taking up lead, but hopefully in the future these practices will become more widespread.



    Armar-Klemesu M. 2000. Thematic Paper 4: Urban Agriculture and Food Security, Nutrition and Health. In: N. Bakker, M. Dubbeling, S. Guendel, U. Sabel Koschella, H. de Zeeuw (eds.) (2000) Growing Cities, Growing Food, Urban Agriculture on the Policy Agenda, pp. 99-117, DSE, Feldafing. Available from: http://www.ruaf.org/node/58

    Health Canada [internet]. 2007. Lead and Health. [cited 2012 August 24]. Available from: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/pubs/contaminants/lead-plomb-eng.php#a4

    Health Canada [internet]. 2009. Lead Information Package – Some Commonly Asked Questions About Lead and Human Health. [cited 2012 August 24]. Available from: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/contaminants/lead-plomb/asked_questions-questions_posees-eng.php#sources

    Houlihan Turner A. 2009. Urban Agriculture and Soil Contamination: An Introduction to Urban Gardening. Kentucky: University of Louisville; [cited 24 August 2012]. Available from:  http://louisville.edu/cepm/publications/practice-guides-1/PG25%20-%20Urban%20Agriculture%20-%20Soil%20Contamination.pdf/at_download/file

    Kloot JVD. 2010. Brownfields and Urban Agriculture Reuse Webinar #1: The State of Scientific Knowledge and Research Needs [internet]. United States Environmental Protection Agency; [cited 2012 August 24]. Available from: http://www.epa.gov/swerosps/bf/urbanag/webinar1_transcript.htm

    Massadeh AM, Baker HM, Obeidat MM, Shakatreh SK, Obeidat BA, Abu-Nameh ES. 2011. Analysis of Lead and Cadmium in Selected Leafy and Non-Leafy Edible Vegetables Using Atomic Absorption Spectrometry. Soil and Sediment Contamination: An International Journal 20(3):306-314.

    Mitchell CC. Soil Acidity and Liming (Overview) [internet]. South Carolina: Clemson University; [cited 2012 August 24]. Available from: http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~blpprt/acidity2_review.html

    Muckel GB (editor). 2004. Understanding Soil Risks and Hazards: Using Soil Survey to Identify Risks and Hazards to Human Life and Property. A report by the United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service and National Soil Survey Center, Lincoln Nebraska. Available from: http://nature.nps.gov/geology/soils/Understanding%20Soil%20Risks%20and%20Hazards.pdf

    Nabulo G, Black CR, Craigon J, Young SD. 2012. Does consumption of leafy vegetables grown in peri-urban agriculture pose a risk to human health?. Environmental Pollution, Volume 162, Pages 389-398, ISSN 0269-7491, 10.1016/j.envpol.2011.11.040. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749111006580

    Rosen CJ. 2010. Lead in the Home Garden and Urban Soil Environment. [internet]. University of Minnesota: Department of Soil, Water, and Climate; [cited 2012 August 24]. Available from: http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/DG2543.html

    United States Environmental Protection Agency [internet]. 1995. Leaded Gas Phaseout. [cited 2012 August 24]. Available from: http://yosemite.epa.gov/R10/airpage.nsf/webpage/Leaded+Gas+Phaseout

    United States Environmental Protection Agency [internet]. 2005. Ecological Soil Screening Levels for Lead. Washington D.C.; [cited 2012 August 24]. Available from: http://www.epa.gov/ecotox/ecossl/pdf/eco-ssl_lead.pdf

    United States Environmental Protection Agency [internet]. 2011. EPA Region 4 Lead Based Paint Priogram. [cited 2012 August 24]. Available from: http://www.epa.gov/region4/air/lead/

    Additional References

    Whitlow TH. Personal Communications. August 2012.



  • April7th

    Natural Beekeepingby Lady Spirit Moon, CB, CN, MH

    Commercial beekeepers keep from 100 to over several thousand beehives for pollinating and creating nucs (a small colony of bees with a queen), usually treating Varroa mites with harsh chemicals, such as fluvalinate and coumaphos. These affect the queens (http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1603/0022-0493-95.1.28). Both build up in the wax, and both cause problems for the bees and contaminate the hive. Some commercial beekeepers may use essential oils, such as Thymol. Synthetic chemicals of any kind upset the bacterial balance bees need in the hive. There are hobbyist beekeepers keeping anywhere from one to twenty or more hives; and some of those may use harsh chemicals or essential oils. Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) defines natural beekeeping as using organic chemicals in the hive, i.e.: oxalic acid and formic acid, essential oils, powder sugar, etc. What sets me apart is my being in a growing group of Natural Beekeepers. I don’t treat my bees with anything. If the bees don’t take it through the front door, I don’t put it into the hive. Watching my bees over the years I have learned they can take care of themselves as long as I assist in keeping them healthy. A healthy hive will take care of itself, including pests and diseases. I now have about 17 hives in my two yards, where my bees are resistant to pests and diseases.

    They are not, however, resistant to chemicals. Studies have shown bees don’t fatten up in farming communities growing commercial GMO crops where they are using three classes of neonicotinoid pesticides: clothianidin (http://grist.org/article/food-2010-12-10-leaked-documents-show-epa-allowed-bee-toxic-pesticide/), thiametoxam (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thiamethoxam), and imidacloprid (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120405224653.htm). All three of these chemicals are sprayed on GMO crops: corn, soybean, cotton, rape, sugar beets, etc. Clothianidin is used in the coating of corn seeds, especially GMO. These and more studies indicate how neonicotinoids are killing the honeybees and other pollinators, worldwide. The chemicals rise up through the plants into the nectar and pollen for bees to harvest. The bees gather and store the nectar and pollen to feed the young in the next spring. Some are saying these chemicals are one of the leading causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which can be defined as a hive full of bees disappearing without cause or evidence.

    Neonicotinoids affect the bees’ nervous systems and learning abilities. The forager will go out to collect pollen and nectar, but will forget how to come back, causing the colony to dwindle down to nothing. The chemicals also affect the queen. A queen lays on the average of 2,000 eggs a day; but I watched one march across the honeycomb for three months, acting drunk, without laying one egg. I never had problems until a farmer increased his GMO crop of corn. Apiary 2 is located within 2000 feet of his corn crops and suffered a 3-hive loss in the spring of 2012. At the same time Apiary 1 suffered a 2-hive loss. There are other illnesses causing hive loses, but there are usually evidences indicating the cause or the bees can be tested in a lab.

    Natural BeekeepingThe honeybees, and many other pollinators around the world, are in a global crisis because of major losses each year. I feel the honeybee is trying to evolve and man is not letting them by over managing the bees; constantly moving them for pollinating purposes; using chemicals which upsets the bacterial balance in the hive; etc. If bees are not happy they will leave/swarm. When keeping bees I always keep a visual image of a tree, which is where honeybees usually (I used ‘usually’ because they will reside wherever the scout bee figures there is enough room, which could be inside a house, barn, eaves, swarm boxes, etc. Anywhere they can reside is natural to them.) reside. They are alone, where no animals can reach them other than those living in the trees. The animals know to leave the bees alone because bees sting anything wearing fur or something dark. The leaves protect the hive from the elements and intense sun. And bees don’t move their kitchen of stores around or swap out their brood frames, or anything else humans do to the hive. They will create queens so the old one can swarm with part of the hive. This is their natural way of making sure their race continues in the grand scheme of things. They will requeen if the old one is no longer laying eggs as she should, or if the queen dies for some reason or another. Part of their mystique is sometimes that they get notional and kill their queen for reasons we may not always understand.

    I plan to expand to about 30 hives and into a 3rd apiary by the spring of 2013. I use diverse genetics by placing my nucs where there are feral hives, trading a nuc from another apiary, or getting nucs from another source within a 100-mile radius, if I know their genetics and the breeder. There are a few of us giving a hive to another on the condition they get the mated daughter back. There are only a few breeders selling queens all over the country. This only weakens the stock strain for future generations. Another thing weakening bees is feeding them sugar water. As an Apitherapist and Nutrition Consultant, I can tell you sugar has no value in the way of vitamins or minerals. After the honey harvest in late summer, some beekeepers feed sugar syrup to their bees. That sugar water is stored as honey for feeding when the queen starts laying eggs after the winter solstice. Honey is the bees’ prebiotic. A prebiotic is a nondigestible food ingredient that promotes the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the intestines.  For humans they are fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The bees collect pollen and crush it if they can. They then add lactic acid to the honey placed on top of the pollen. As the honey sinks down through the pollen, the combination becomes beebread as it ferments over time and becomes their probiotic. A probiotic is a preparation (as a dietary supplement) containing live bacteria (as lactobacilli) that is taken orally to restore beneficial bacteria to the body; also: a bacterium of such a preparation. Much like a yogurt product is our probiotic, having lactobacillus. Bees have lactobicillicus in their gut. And just like humans, the lack of probiotics compromises their digestive tract. In honeybees, it causes Nosema (a bee’s diarrhea), which in turn lowers their autoimmune system. Bees and humans both have lactobacillus in their guts and if the bad bacterium feeds first, the gut suffers. Both humans and bees need pre-& pro-probiotics for the same reasons.

    Calming bees with smoke is a myth. When a bee smells smoke they think their surrounding area is on fire. They suck up a lot of honey and wait for the fire to get closer to their hive before they swarm. Bees can communicate. I don’t smoke my hives because the smoke stops that communication. My girls tell me when I should be in the hive or out of it. I listen to my girls and always ask, “What can I do for you?” Each hive has a special song in the spring when they are busy increasing the brood and prepping for the first honey flow. I sell nucs with four frames of brood and one frame of honey, with beebread if possible. Each bee has a duty in the hive based on their ages. Young nurse bees taking care of their brood don’t fly out to forage until they are older. The honey and beebread helps the nurse bees feed the young. By the time the young have hatched, the nurse bees have become foragers and there is a mated queen in the hive laying eggs in all five frames. My nucs are expensive at $275 and I don’t sell to anyone who treats their bees. I also don’t ship. My girls create their own queens when needed, so I don’t sell queens.

    Natural BeekeepingThe honeybee is responsible for 85% of our food because it is the only pollinator in the world maintaining the integrity of our fruits and vegetables by carefully pollinating each plant species. Unlike the bumble bee going from flower to flower with no regard to species, the honeybee stays with each species until pollination is done. Because the honeybee pollinates different kinds of plants, I harvest my honey at the end of the season to be sure I have all the honey and its pollen from a full year’s cycle of plants. This annual harvest is then sold with each jar having the pollen properties to help with allergies the following season. Even then the honey is not sold until after I’m sure my girls have enough to get them through the winter. – I have a large extractor, but there hasn’t been enough honey to warrant using it, so I use the poor man’s method. I crush the wax and let it strain over a tiny-meshed cloth to filter out dead bees and debris. I don’t even use a hot knife to cut off the honey cappings because heat just above body temperature kills enzymes in the honey. The honey I harvest and sell is pure, unadulterated, contains a year’s worth of pollen, and is chemical free.

    After harvest and in the winter, I research bees and write about bees. This past winter I started creating a mini-lab in the honey house. A monitoring system will be set up to watch a nuc 24/7. The goal is to learn what goes on in the nuc during all the stages of its development, from creating a colony, making a queen, and cleaning out and prepping cells for new eggs, to honey capping, etc. There are things going on in the hive we still don’t understand. The Center has several professionals hooking a few hives to a monitoring system keeping track of weight, coming/going of bees, hive temperature, stationary viewing the inside of a hive, etc. This will eventually be put on the Center’s website. All research data we collect is free to the public. All funds we get go to research and projects. No one gets paid. We have 50+ volunteers of beekeepers and professionals. As Ambassador for the Center for Honeybee Research I have traveled to Europe and have visited other beekeepers, scientists and professionals in bee labs, and organizations working with beekeepers. I listen to everyone and glean what I can for my bees. But in the end, I listen to my girls. This year I traveled to Senegal, Africa, to teach beekeeping in a partnership program between BEe Healing Org, my business, and the Center. I plan to go back in May, 2013. I have been asked to teach in Haiti when a bee project comes up. I teach and educate through my articles, my website, and other beekeepers in my apiaries. I do mentor other like-minded beekeepers. I write articles for magazines, organizations, and am the editor and writer for the Center’s newsletter. One can sign up for it at www.chbr.org.


    BEe loved,
    Lady Spirit Moon, CB, CN, MH
    Ambassador for the Center
    for Honeybee Research



  • March29th

    By Stephen Briggs, Farm Manager

    Planting at Camphill Village FarmCamphill Village Minnesota (CVM) is part of a worldwide movement of more than 100 intentional communities which strives to initiate social change through living and working with people with special needs. An intentional community is a planned residential community designed from the start to have a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork. Most Camphill communities have some form of Biodynamic farm or garden in their midst, and CVM embodies this. CVM was founded over 30 years ago, and CVM has grown to include over 50 people living family style in seven houses on 510 acres of land. The farm includes three acres of intensive vegetable production, 110 acres of cultivated fields in rotation, 100 acres of marginal permanent pasture, and 300 acres of swamps, ponds, streams, rivers and forests.

    The farm and garden function under the associative economic CSA model where the members of the community (consumers) meet annually with farmers and gardeners (producers) to decide what should be produced, how much should be produced, and what the financial limitations are to meeting these production goals. Excess production is processed in our licensed processing kitchen for future use or sold through local co-ops, wholesale and direct market channels. Currently, the CVM farm and garden supply between 50% – 60% of the food consumed by the community.

    Collecting hayThe main goals of the community farm are fourfold: to provide meaningful, therapeutic work for the people of the community, to heal the land, to grow farmers and gardeners for the future, and to strive for financial viability. The farm and garden provide the opportunity for the people of the community to co-create with their environment in producing healthy, nutrient dense food. The nature of the work and the consumption of the healthy food are part of the greater therapeutic environment in Camphill. The CVM community strives to operate according to the fundamental social law put forth by Rudolf Steiner where, “the healthy social life is found when in the mirror of each human being the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the community the virtue of each one is living”.

    The farm and garden crews provide meaningful work for about ~25 people with a wide range of skills and abilities throughout the year. Animal husbandry, tractor work, milking, weeding, mucking, reeling polywire, and fence repair are just a few of the many things we do on any given day. Rhythm, pace, and social dynamics between crew members are kept in mind to help maintain a positive nature to the land work.relationship between the people, the land, and the work.

    ChickensOver the past 30+ years many different farm enterprises have come and gone depending on the needs of the community and the interests and/ or skills the people working the land. Currently, we have a cow-calf forage fed beef herd, three dairy cows, 120 laying hens, two sows and one boar for farrow to finishing, turkeys, geese, a horse, and a goat. The farm also grows eight different types of grain for feed, all the hay for the ruminants, and the garden produces over 40 different types of fruits and vegetables.

    Biodynamics provides the framework for the CVM farm organism., The method includes bringing in the often times overlooked rhythms of the cosmos that have their subtle effects on living elements of the farm. The zodiac, the sun, the moon, and the outer and inner planets all play a role. Planting and harvesting are done according to the Stella Natura Calendar as much as possible, weather permitting. The Calendar is a detailed schedule for growing Biodynamically and more information can be found at their website. The Biodynamic method also provides us with a series of homeopathic remedies to help improve our soil and produce quality. The 500 and 501 preps are sprayed over all pastures and cultivated land at least twice per year and the compost piles are infused with the homeopathic remedies. Rudolf Steiner provided the Biodynamic method as a set of suggestions to seasoned farmers almost 100 years ago. Though his teachings have become the basis of our methodology, we also try to incorporate newly evolving and old, sturdy biological farming techniques. We view Biodynamics as an amplifier for these new techniques.

    The fertility of the farm is the end-all-be-all for the productivity today and determines what the future will inherit, not as simple as just Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (NPK). This is a multi-prong approach. The soils have been more or less Ph balanced out according to the cation Albrecht-cation method for more than 30over the past 30+ years, using non-synthetically derived amendments approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). Because of the light, sandy soils that we are on with low organic matter levels (∆~1.5%), it didn’t take much compared to what it might take to achieve theis same cation (Ca, Mg, K, Na) balance on a heavier soil. Trace elements and/ micronutrients, especially the essential boron and sulfur, are depleted. This is typical in sandy soils where those elements tend to leach without a large grounding clay or humus to help hold them. These elements are being brought in through the animal’s free choice mineral rations and also with trace mineral packs bound with humates broadcast out onto the fields and gardens.

    Compost, the true fertility driver, is the farmer’s gold of the operation that is worth its weight in gold to the farmers, and we are constantly trying to improve ours here. During our long winters (sometimes over 6 months) the livestock are housed in deep- bedded, loose housing with outdoor access. We constantly layer in straw from the small grains and sawdust from a local Amish sawmill. These, provide bedding, heat, carbon and nitrogen capture during these cold months. Pigs were brought into the system this year to help with the compost aeration process. This will hopefully produce superior compost, and reduce the fossil fuel bill needed for compost management. Compost wind rows (long rows of compost piled up) and bedding packs are prepped with the Biodynamic preparations in the spring, let to compost over the summer and spread in the late summer and/ early fall as part of the crop rotation. This helps to bring the nutrient cycle full circle. We also currently build small heaps by hand to experiment with different ratios of materials, moisture, and oxygen levels.

    Nitrogen is the paradox of our time. Four tons naturally exists above every acre and yet a typical, conventional farm in our area, buys costly synthetic Nitrogen and applies it at an average rate 140 lbs / acre / year. Much of this leeches into groundwater or volatilizes back into the atmosphere. We strive with our legumes and nutrient cycling to help us bring some of this nitrogen sink down to earth and keep it cycling in a living form, but it needs much improvement though. Quicker legume plow-down cycles before they die, additional carbon in the bedding packs, and intermediate catch crops in the crop rotation are methodsways in which we try to grab more nitrogenN from leaching into the groundwater or from volatizing back into the atmosphere. No synthetic nitrogenN is ever brought onto the farm as it is seen as damaging to soil, plant, animal, and human health.

    Hay BalesThe carbon that the plants and nutrient cycles put into the soil is the fuel for the microbial processes of the soil life and the antithesis of climate change. They make everything available and are the lynchpin for life on the farm. Holistic management, intensive grazing, and biomass plow or graze downs are the chief tools we utilize to return carbon to the soil when it comes to making this happen. Bale grazing on depleted pastures, tall grazing (mob stocking), and mobbing cover crops are ways in which we are trying to bring large amounts of carbon and other nutrients down to the microbes, which in tuern build it into the humus, the nectar for future generations. Cereal winter rye planted in fall and mob grazed down in spring has proved to be a boon for keeping the soil covered over the winter and also in providing the cattle and microbes with an early spring treat. This coming season we will be experimenting with a 20+ species warm season cover crop as a buffet for the cattle and soil microbial life.

    Drought is by far our biggest challenge. Over the past 15 years about 10 have been some sort of drought. In ten of the last fifteen years, we have encountered some form of drought. We are trying to focus on the things that we can control with this. Since we can not control the weather, we are trying to focus on the parts of the farm we can control. The farm’s proper stocking rate is constantly being looked at in contrast to the variable of drought. We are trying to focus on building carbon up in the soils, keeping litter and thatch on the ground with the understanding that for every 1% increase in organic matter in the soil there is a two-fold increase in water holding capacity. Yeoman keylines were put in this year to help catch rain on some of the more erodible slopes in the permanent pastures. Through the implementation of as many water conservation strategies as possible and on planning on drought every year, we will be able to be more resilient when confronted with the in evitable forces of drought into the future.

    Camphill Village Minnesota is a landscape made by glaciers where the tall grass prairie from the west meets the coniferous forests from the north and the deciduous forest from the south. We are a place that strives for agricultural and social renewal through living and farming in community with people with special needs. We are always looking for short and long term volunteers and farm and garden apprentices. Give us a Call!

  • March23rd

    Janet S. PettyQuestions by Ryan Sitler

    Q: Give the readers a little introduction to you, where you’re from, and what it is you do these days?

    Luane: I’m a native born Texan; specifically I grew up on the high plains known as the Panhandle of Texas, in Lubbock, which is about 100 miles east of New Mexico, about 200 miles south of the Panhandle of Oklahoma and a little over 125 miles north of the southern end of the Ogallala aquifer. It is also called the Caprock and it was irrigated cotton country when I was a kid in the 40’s and 50’s. The aquifer was the source of the irrigation water which turned what used to be tall grass prairie country—the grass was so high you couldn’t see over it even on horseback. The Spaniards passing through called it the Llano Estacada—the Staked Plains. I called it Big Sky country because you almost felt like you were under a dome out there and you could see almost 100 miles if the sand wasn’t blowing! It is a low rainfall, low humidity part of the United States. There isn’t much ‘greenery’ in the accepted definition of the word although there is, or can be, abundant growth for the area if you know how to look at it.

    After I married in 1963 and started a family we moved to Houston where we lived until 1975 when we moved to Northwest Arkansas, to establish a cattle operation in the Ozarks. I lived on that farm for 25 years until I retired from active farming and moved into the nearest mid sized town in 1998. After a few years of doing not much of anything I decided to get involved in agriculture again as an advocate for those who are working to build a food system different from the industrial model. It seemed to me that there was a need for some of us who support the non industrial, local based food supply concept to be involved in developing a more sustainable way of feeding ourselves and rebuilding the economies of our rural communities.

    Q: Describe to me your beginning farming experiences and how they influenced your interest in ecological agriculture.

    Luane: It is with humility and respect that I shamelessly borrow the title of Fred Kirschenmann’s latest book – Cultivating an Ecological Conscience – and tweak it to tell my story. Interesting side note: long before I knew him, Fred told a class of graduating high school seniors that, “Education is like a baseball mitt, it extends your reach so you can catch balls you would otherwise miss.” That is a beautiful way to describe how I feel about my life although I would not have thought to use that analogy.

    Education, specifically educating myself, has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Lucky for me my parents and my local schools did an excellent job of teaching me how to learn. This has served me well over the years…how to ask the right questions to get useful answers. That skill has opened more doors into worlds to explore than I could have imagined.

    About the same time Fred made his baseball mitt analogy I was embarking on a totally new life path, which continues to occupy me today. I had been a typical stay-at-home wife and mother in suburbia. I didn’t even flower garden let alone food garden. I was 35 years old when my husband decided we needed to flee Houston for somewhere less congested and hopefully safer for our two young children. Eventually we wound up on a rundown farm in the Ozarks of Arkansas in 1975. This city bred girl was in a whole new world with a lot to learn in order to live this new life. In some ways I think I am a throwback to the pioneers who left the more or less comfortable life on the Eastern seaboard and headed West into an unknown life in unsettled and somewhat hostile territory. It wasn’t exactly my idea to leave the big city but I said, “Why not!”

    I knew nothing about cattle or plants but I am a quick study, which is good because I had to learn on the fly. There was no time for going back to school, but every day was a class in its own way. I used to say it was a good day when I didn’t make many mistakes, I learned more about what worked or didn’t, and nothing died. It is a good thing that I am curious and observant since that was important in the long run.

    For the first ten years or so we operated the farm more or less the way the ‘experts’ recommended. The stock got quite a few veterinary type procedures. The land was tilled to establish ‘good’ forages. A lot of fertility and feed was brought in to keep things going. Fortunately my husband had an off-farm income to pay for all this because the operation was negative cash flow. Then in the mid 1980’s the partnership dissolved and the outside cash flow stopped. If I wanted to continue to farm I had to do several things differently.

    Let’s be clear about something. I did not start out as a poster child for what you call ecological agriculture…that term was not in use when I started farming, and I didn’t have enough knowledge in the beginning to think about farming in those terms. Like a good number of other people I came to the ecological concept as a way to continue to farm a place I loved but could not afford to maintain the way the traditional experts recommended. I had to find ways to cut my costs while still using the land to provide a cash flow.

    In fact, I think we will make more progress attracting new practioners of ‘Nature-mimicking’ agriculture (which is really the way I think about what I was doing; a form of Biomimicry if you will) if we also show that this can make us less dependent on inputs whose price cannot be predicted. In some ways this idea fits into my other attitude. I am a card-carrying member of the Dumpster Divers Club which is another way of saying that I have practiced salvaging things and finding new uses for things most of my life. I think it is fun and it saves money while creating something unique and personal. It is another form of art, and that is also the way I found myself thinking about the end results of my work on my farm. It was a gigantic canvas that Nature painted while I held the brushes and carried the palette.

    Q: So how did you learn to do this style of farming and why? Did you have mentors or teachers?

    Luane: In a way I had the beginnings of the solution to my problem already available. My stock were Beefmaster cattle, a breed developed by Tom Lasater in South Texas during the hard times of the 1930’s. It was a time when land had almost no resale value, and cattle had very little more. Tom faced a similar situation to the one I found myself in. Necessity forced him to create a herd of cattle selected specifically to live off the land without outside inputs and multiply anyway.

    Tom was also one of the first people I actually knew and had talked to about what would come to be known as sustainable, regenerative – essentially organic – food production while developing a land ethic much like what Fred talks about in his book. I still remember Tom saying, “Nature is smarter than all of us. She’ll do all your thinking and most of your work if you’ll just get out of the way”. It is also the least expensive way to run a business based on the fruits of the land. Of course, as Benjamin Franklin might say, “If you can keep it functioning well.” And that is the challenge: you can’t destroy your resource base if you expect to stay in business. In this case the resource base for a livestock operation is the forage on the land. If that base is eroded you can’t keep going.

    The Beefmaster people, as an organization, also provided one of the first platforms for Allan Savory in the late 1970’s when he came to the United States after being exiled from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Charles Probandt, a Beefmaster breeder in San Angelo, TX, introduced Savory to our convention one year as, “That crazy Rhodesian with a hell of a scheme to sell wire.” This was a reference to Savory’s approach to forage management which involved, among other things, tightly controlling where and for how long the stock will be on any given piece of land in order to maintain plant growth and keep the soil covered.

    As soon as I started studying Savory’s concept I realized it could be the answer to my need to have the land provide what I needed to continue producing cattle. I believed in Lasater’s hands-off ideas about stock selection, i.e. the stock have to be able to thrive without a lot of veterinary intervention. I also shared his conviction that everything on the land was there for a reason and therefore should not be eliminated without real cause. This means not killing coyotes or prairie dogs or other so-called pests. It also applies to the various ‘weeds’ that so many people try to eliminate. Observation taught me that the cattle took advantage of these unconventional food sources often enough to suggest there was a reason for those plants to be there. A quick search of available literature tells me that many of these weeds contain high amounts of necessary trace minerals not available in the grasses. It would appear the stock know this even if we don’t. I often wondered why the stock didn’t eat as much purchased mineral/vitamin supplement as the salesman said they would. Now I knew. Before supplements the grazers seemed to do quite well eating what the land provided so long as these natural supplements were available. With Savory’s monitored forage management system I believed I had found the only economically sound way to feed the cattle.

    It made sense. Both men were letting the ‘nature of your place’ dictate how you managed it. Wendell Berry talks a lot about ‘becoming rooted in your place’, and I think this is how you learn what the nature of your place is — through the power of observation, attention to the details. You were now cooperating with instead of trying to dictate to Nature. More quickly than I could have expected the land and the animals responded to this approach. Almost immediately I was able to feed the stock year round from what grew on the farm. When I stopped trying to create a so called ‘ideal’ environment for the stock and let Nature dictate which ones could live well in spite of the conditions, not because of them, my life got a lot simpler, and the quality of the stock improved noticeably. In the process my life got a whole lot easier. The diversity of plant life over the seasons was amazing. There was always something green and growing no matter the season or weather conditions. And each year things got better.

    I remember asking Walt Davis, one of the first producers I had the pleasure of learning from in the early years of my education, if he thought there was a limit on how far you could carry this concept. He said he didn’t think so because you were adding back fertility every season and the land was responding with increased plant growth which meant you needed to increase your harvesting to keep the quality where you wanted it. I can remember thinking, and sometimes saying, that although I knew there was not supposed to be a perpetual motion machine I wasn’t so sure after working with thoughtful, managed forage management using the stock as the tool to harvest and fertilize the plants.

    Q: When did you commit yourself to producing agricultural products contrary to the influences of modern chemical agriculture?

    Luane: I had used various cattle oriented meetings such as the Arkansas Cattleman’s Association state conventions and a very popular yearly event for cattlemen in a town near me to promote my breeding stock. As I started to get such remarkable results with the land management techniques, I incorporated that information into my displays as well. Once in a while I would also be a presenter at some local cattleman’s meeting. I developed a way of talking about my concepts and results that many producers enjoyed and appreciated. Temple Grandin talks about ‘thinking in pictures’, and I ‘talk in pictures’. It engages the listeners in a way they can remember and relate to. This would be useful later, although I didn’t know it at the time. Always I was promoting the idea of using the resources at hand and reducing input costs in that way. I had come to realize that the only way to stand a chance of making a living on a small scale was to do what Fred calls ‘develop a differentiated product’. I wasn’t big enough to compete in the volume markets. I also knew that my only real control over my business, the same one that exists in almost any other business, was to minimize the input costs. Quit writing checks for things you can do for yourself. By relying on the land to provide the needed soil amendments I could predict what my operating expenses would be from one year to the next without worrying about price increases for input costs, which are very difficult to plan for.

    In the early 1990’s I added goats and hair sheep to my livestock inventory. They are compliments to the cattle when it comes to using all the bounty Nature was offering. In many respects this was a way to cooperate with Nature’s plan in that all the animals were grazers but they harvested different plants at different times. It is a substitution of cattle for bison and goats and sheep for deer, antelope, elk, or moose. They work well together. This allowed me to mimic on a small scale what Nature does on a larger scale.

    We talk a lot about resistance to implementing this kind of careful management and who is interested or not in what we are doing. Over the years I was surprised that some of the old timers understood exactly what I was suggesting and agreed that it was sound. They would say they wished they had had the ability to do this when they were younger, but the tool that made it economically feasible was the high quality and dependable electric fence which is a relatively new technology. Some of them implemented the ideas. Most did not as they were in the process of retiring.

    I don’t remember ever consciously deciding to operate my farm ‘contrary to the influence of modern chemicals’ as a philosophical statement. What I did do was determine what it was costing me out of pocket to use the chemicals and determining that this was something I could change; I could set up a system that didn’t need those costs. Of course over time, as I studied the whole thing in depth, I also realized the adverse effects of the chemicals. But that was later; it was not the initial motivator. Of course one of the more insidious side effects of using chemicals, whether it is in a farming operation or in your own body, is that these interventions reduce the ability of an organism to maintain its own defense system. Sir Albert Howard talked about this back in the 1940’s, but I hadn’t read his book when I first started my farm. I don’t know if Tom Lasater had read Howard when he developed his philosophy of raising cattle but the two men agree about the end result of overriding the built in defense mechanisms of plants and animals. I have to concur. In the end we have to have plants and animals and people that can live in the world as it is, not a world we construct for them.

    Q: What were some of the defining characteristics of your farm?

    Luane: In the late 1980’s I started writing a monthly column for Stockman/Grass Farmer magazine which was actually a diary of what I had done the previous month as I set up the grazing system. I also included the lessons I thought I had learned. Sometimes I would have to admit that something I tried didn’t work quite as I planned. One of the other writers coming on board for Stockman/Grass Farmer at the same time was Joel Salatin. Another regular contributor was R. L. Dalrymple, the head of the forage program at the Noble Foundation in Oklahoma. While I was implementing Savory’s suggestions and using Lasater’s stock selection criteria, Joel was doing his early work with the chicken tractor and R. L. was working with grass-finished beef from birth to slaughter. We were all working on optimizing the use of Nature’s feed sources while maintaining and enhancing soil health and productivity with minimum to no outside inputs. We were taking advantage of the nutrient cycle that exists when stock harvest then digest and deposit the processed plant materials back where they came from.During those years all of us writing for and reading Stockman/Grass Farmer were also talking about people like Andre Voisin, Sir Albert Howard, even Jan Bonsma, the stockman from South Africa who had influenced Tom Lasater and Allan Savory, plus the work being done in New Zealand on strictly forage production systems. At our conferences in Jackson, MS, there was a lot of learning going on.

    In the early 1990’s I put together three other producers here in Arkansas, and we did a research project for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to validate the results we were getting using managed grazing. I was conducting regular tours of my farm, which were well attended by people in this area but also from other areas, people who were following my columns in Stockman. I went to Joel’s farm in Virginia one year, and I attended the monthly ‘Talk and Tours” that R. L. conducted at the Noble Foundation in Ardmore as often as I could. As interest in this management technique spread there were quite a few gatherings in Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma as well, some conducted by the traditional information sources such as various extension personnel as well as some NRCS people. Some state agencies were more receptive than others but we learned to take advantage of as much interest as we could.

    Several things happened on the farm over the 11 years that I operated it as a grass farm maintained by the stock. Attention to harvesting the grasses at peak quality meant that I was moving them to new forage at least every day. Sometimes, when the cool season grasses were growing very rapidly in the spring, I was moving the stock 2 or 3 times a day because the grasses were trying to make seed and I wanted to slow down reproduction to maintain top quality.

    In order to take advantage of this spring flush of growth the cows were also calving at this time and getting in shape to rebreed quickly. A side benefit of all this moving was that the calves got used to the program from the day they were born and they learned to pay attention to their mothers; to go when mother did. This is quite similar to what happens in any wild grazing herd…stragglers are fair game for predators; there is safety in numbers. There must be a latent memory of this, even in domesticated stock. The calves were also very comfortable with humans. Since the calves were the cash crop it was worthwhile to have them calm in the presence of humans as this reduced stress to them from handling. Years ago I read a piece Temple Grandin wrote about her evaluation of the value of a calm disposition in the performance of weaned calves in finishing situations. I know disposition had an economic value that the buyers noticed any time I took calves to market; it added value as a side effect of the management program.

    Moving the stock that often made it easier to notice any problems that might develop before they got out of hand; although I had almost no health problems in my herd. Having all the cattle in the same phase of production made feeding them based on nutritional needs much easier as well. In other words, it is difficult to do a really good job of caring for the stock and the land if the whole cycle is not coordinated and matched to need.

    Another thing I learned on my own; at least I don’t ever remember anyone talking about this. In Nature the females of the herds are always together no matter what age they are. Using Lasater’s philosophy I expected my heifers to get bred as yearlings and be mothers at or about age two. In the early years I would hold the heifers away from their mothers from weaning until they calved at two which was approximately 18 months. There is a distinct difference in the type of forage available in the growing seasons and the dormant seasons. I finally realized that if I put the heifers back with their mothers a month or so after they were weaned they would learn what a cow was supposed to eat in the winter which would be very helpful as they approached their first calving the next spring. What I didn’t think about until I watched it happen was that the heifers would stay close to their mothers that yearling spring and they would also get to observe a calving season in action before they had to do it themselves. It was an education for me to watch the learning process in action. The following spring it seemed to me that there were almost no bonding problems with the first time calvers. I had not had much of that problem anyway, but now I had none. I was always open to anything that makes things easier for me and the stock. It also made grass management easier and better if all the animals were together, ideally one herd only. You can do a better job of taking care of the grass because your recovery periods are easier to manage and that is the real key to keeping the forages in top shape.

    Q: What would you say were the strongest aspects of your operation?

    Luane: The change in the land was remarkable. Without any seed applications on my part there was a range of plants that I would not have imagined possible. I estimated that there were somewhere between 15 and 25 different desirable forage plants growing on all 155 acres. Each acre had warm and cool season grasses, several different legume-type plants and a range of forbs (what we call weeds) that the stock ate at different times. Effectively that meant all acres could feed the stock any given season. The most remarkable thing was how many native plants re-emerged once they had a chance to grow without being ‘nipped in the bud’. They had to have been there always but the stock kept them pruned to the point that I had no idea they were there. Every time the stock went into a new area I watched them and they ate the natives first. No wonder I didn’t know I had them!

    The native that surprised me the most was Eastern Gamagrass. I looked it up and found that at one time, before we took over management of the grasslands, this was the dominant grass from Canada to the Florida keys and from the Atlantic to about 250 miles west of the Mississippi River. That is a very broad range of soil and weather adaptation. Gamagrass is a grass with the ability to grow 15 to 30 feet tall and put down a root system of equal depth. That makes it very drought resistant. Because it is so deeply rooted it can access nutrients unavailable to shallow rooted tame grasses, much like the forbs. Technically it is a warm season grass but in my latitude it was the first grass to start growing in the spring, usually in late February, and it was still growing in late November and many times into December. For a grass based system this is invaluable because you get 10 to 11 months of very good quality feed on a regular basis. The stock love it, and I didn’t plant it, Nature did. If I had not been tightly controlling the time and frequency that the stock could harvest this grass I would never have known it was on the farm. Over time it became even more widespread on the farm partly because gamagrass could take full advantage of the other technique I used regularly. If I had a grass I wanted to ‘transplant or spread’ to a different piece of ground I would let it make seed, then turn the stock into the area where the grass was. The stock would eat the grass and seeds then 24 hours later I’d move them to where I wanted it planted. It came out in this nice little fertility packet, and the stock didn’t graze it until it no longer tasted like dung which meant it was also nicely established. That is no-till planting simplified!

    I let about 30 acres grow up with sometimes only one grazing during the growing season then used the strip grazing technique to have winter feed for the cows that I didn’t have to bale and haul back into the field for them. Underneath the frosted stockpile there was always some green forage for the protein supplement a dry pregnant cow needs in the winter. You don’t get that with baled hay. This technique is also a way to put down even more fertility than I did with the normal grazing schedule since the cows are crossing the strip they grazed yesterday to eat today and they are dunging and urinating on yesterday’s ‘hay’ line which is behind them today. It is a lovely tool for rapidly improving the fertility of a particular piece of land. Each 1000 pound cow deposits about 12 tons of fertilizer a year. That is literally worth its weight in gold, or actually, dollars, when fertilizer is selling for about $1300 per ton these days. It will probably get even more expensive in the not-too-distant future.

    By the time I left the farm it was fully capable of taking care of the stock all year with only management of the harvesting routine by me. As a fellow said one time,”Trust your grass,” and that’s exactly what I did. It never let me down.

    One last point – this farm was a typical Ozark hill farm. It was very rocky and steep but it could grow grass once it was allowed to.

    At the time I was doing this it really never crossed my mind that there was something else I could do to capitalize on the amazing fecundity of the soil. I had put two different groups of 4 young bulls on forage-only grow out programs over the years. One was at the Noble Foundation in the early 90’s and the other was in central Arkansas in the mid 90’s. These tests were conducted using small grains – wheat and/or rye. Both times, but particularly the second time, my bulls grew very well, at the top of their classes. They were a proper slaughter weight at 12 to 14 months of age. This goes against the commonly voiced ‘problem’ of it taking too long to grow out calves on pasture. Most feedlot cattle are at least 18 months old before they are ready to process.

    There is a lesson to be learned from the feedlot people about feeding cattle. They are fed smaller amounts of feed 3 or 4 times a day to encourage them to eat more because it is fresh and I think they are bored so something new is interesting. Based on what Gabe Brown is doing in North Dakota – no-tilling grain into permanent pasture then feeding his cattle through the winter and spring on those forages – I could have done something similar on my own farm with my own meat calves in the very few bottomland pastures I had. Utilizing the strip grazing technique I could encourage more consumption by giving the ‘feeder’ calves fresh forage several times a day. That would have been a way to finish beef for the table even faster than the feedlots if I had wanted to do it. It would have allowed me to produce a value-added product to sell to the end user, the family in town buying food for themselves for instance. The only added expense would have been my time.

    Q: Also, what was the weakest point of your farm?

    Luane: When you are a one-person operation there is a limit on how many different businesses you can realistically operate at one time. I had wanted to expand into direct marketing much like what Joel Salatin was doing. I didn’t have the labor force necessary to do this. My farm was capable of generating more product to sell, but I had a logistics problem. I couldn’t bring in the large stock hauling trucks necessary to move as many animals as I could feed in a cost effective manner. When I (really my husband and I) chose this farm, it never occurred to us this would be a factor, which illustrates how productive the land had become. As I approached my 60th birthday, after 25 years on the farm, I decided it was time to close this chapter of my life. I could not take the next step which was to increase the cash crop (actually change the focus of the farm) due to the logistical problems. I had no one to pass it on to, and I also realized that I was in a rather dangerous business where the mechanical equipment might eventually get me. It is not smart to have no other human close just in case an accident happens. After two scary encounters I was ready to do something else while I still could.

    Q: Does anything stand out in your mind as being the biggest shortcoming to being a farmer?

    Luane: Some would find it difficult to stay motivated when you are your own boss and make your own schedule. Not everyone is suited to self-motivation and self discipline. To some extent, particularly if you are a single woman, there is the issue of not being taken seriously, but that happens to the men also, especially when dealing with the academics. There seems to be an institutional bias that says the man in the field doesn’t qualify as an expert because his input is not replicated research results; it is only observational. The problem with replicating results for validation purposes is that Nature never exactly replicates conditions from season to season and especially from year to year. So long as Nature is in charge of conditions there can be no absolute replication of conditions.

    Fred pointed out in a presentation in 1989 that “organic agriculture is derided by agriculture experts, frowned on by the United States Department of Agriculture and ridiculed by many farmers”. Twenty years later this is still true. As Rodney Dangerfield used to say, “I don’t get no respect.” Many times it feels that way, especially if you are doing something as contrary as what we grass farmers are doing. You are definitely going to get marginalized or ignored. That bothers a lot of people – not being accepted. It can be a downside of choosing to farm as a business. Most of the time I just considered the source and continued doing what I thought was right, but I admit this takes a lot of conviction on the part of the individual. Not everyone is comfortable with rejection or outright ridicule.

    When the Schools of Agriculture morphed into Schools of Agribusiness teaching high tech, modern, ‘best management practices’ they became the tool to legitimize the industrial agriculture paradigm. For that reason it will be difficult, but not impossible, to get good information to help you implement non-fossil fuel based agriculture. For the most part you have to find alternate information sources outside of the usual channels and that can be time consuming. Depending on what kind of farming you are active in, time to do this is limited. The vegetable and fruit growers are more time-limited, I think, than the livestock people.

    Q: Is there anything specific that you learned along the way that you think is important for people to know or understand that they may not already?

    Luane: Anyone planning to do an alternative agriculture system, what I would call conventional agriculture because it is what was practiced before the industrial model we have now, will have to give up the notion so strongly ingrained in the Western, specifically the American, psyche that humans can control Nature. Nature makes the rules – we don’t. We will not be successful with regenerative, lasting, realistic, place based agriculture systems so long as we think we can remake things to suit us. I like Fred’s statement that, “We cannot save the planet in terms of preserving things as they are. At best we can engage the biotic community in ways that enhance its capacity for renewal”.

    For a long time I have argued against the notion of saving the planet in part because I think the capacity for life on this planet will go on with or without humans, and it will be the humans who cause themselves to go extinct if they continue to try to override Nature. On the contrary, Fred nicely adds that, “Health is the capacity of the land for self renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.” This should be the real goal of all we try to do – make our decisions about what practices we use based on maintaining the health of the soils, the plants, the animals, and the people. My experience suggests that attention to these things allows Nature to do most if not all the work and do it well. An excellent source of inspiration for how to set up a self-renewing food production system is F. H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries. Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament is a must read is possibly the main source of inspiration for J. I. Rodale and The One Straw Revolution – also both great resources.

    I would also strongly suggest regular ‘community of interest’ fixes. Go where people are congregating to discuss what they are doing to implement these somewhat strange techniques. Spending time, in person, with others who share your attitudes is good for the health of your mind if nothing else. Everyone needs positive reinforcement once in a while and humans are herd animals who benefit from the companionship of likeminded others. Understand that we contrary farmers, to use Gene Logsdon’s definition of himself, are a strange breed, and we will often be lonely in a crowd of farmers. In general it is always a bit lonely when you are the scout because you are usually so far ahead of the herd. But that is what we are – scouts for a way to survive and thrive as things change.

    Q: Do you currently have any themes or specific focuses that are motivating factors for the work that you do?

    Luane: Because I don’t have the responsibility for a piece of land I can travel more frequently to the places where people are gathering to explore alternatives. I can revisit all the work done by so many pioneers of the ecological solutions for humans and their other-than-human compatriots. There is much to be learned from these pioneers and this knowledge should be part of our deliberations. I can add my voice and experiences to these discussions to show what can be done. Along the way I am meeting and learning from the people who are actively doing these things now. This is a positive, being able to cite current work. With luck I can be a motivator for those still in the ‘thinking about it’ mode.

    There is an even larger need as I see it. What I hope to accomplish is to help define the barriers to moving forward with building a complete food system that can be an economic benefit to more people in an area than just the farmers. People need meaningful, productive work and that is in short supply all over the United States. As things stand now, the agribusiness complex has defined the rules of engagement with the customers to exclude competition from smaller, locally based producers, processors and distributors. If you consider all the steps necessary to move food from the farm to whichever table you want to put it on there is quite a lot of work to be done – more than any one person can do alone. Agribusinesses understand that the real monetary reward attached to providing food for people is the retail business. That is the largest part of the cost of food – the processing and distribution segment. If we are to become true players in the provisioning of the public we have to establish a larger presence in this segment.

    Sometimes I think our alternative farmers are their own worst enemy in the sense that they resist cooperating with each other for the benefit of their whole production community. They have fallen into the trap laid for them by, “…global corporations who cooperate to force people to compete…” as David Korten said. Again using David’s words“… the willingness to destroy local capital for the sake of indivdual gain” is exactly what I’m talking about. In the case of local agriculture, the community of farmers producing food differently than the industrial model is often at unnecessary odds with each other in ways that allows them not to be a true threat to the agribusiness conglomerates. So long as these farmers see each other as competitors to be bested they will be easy targets for the highly organized, coordinated industrial farming corporations.

    In their book Food, Society, and Environment, Charles Harper and Bryan Le Beau ask readers to envision the food production system as an hourglass. On one end are millions of farmers, ranchers, and farm workers raising crops and livestock. In the middle are a small number of companies that carry out the packing, processing, and distribution of food, and on the other end, purchasing food from that small group of processors and distributors, are millions of consumers. That small neck in the middle of the hourglass—the packers and processors—may not be a part of the food chain that we often think about. But packers and processors have an immense amount of power over the shape of our food system. The power that they exercise can have harmful effects on both ends of the hourglass – closing markets to independent producers, affecting the price and safety of all food for consumers. Not to mention the safety and health of the workers these processors employ is often at risk.

    We are dealing with a food supply system designed by agribusiness for the benefit of agribusiness. That has become so normal to the average customer that it never occurs to her to question it even as she pays ever higher prices for the food she must have and for the compromised health caused in part by that food. We are outliers in the current system, and we will have to engage in a consumer education program if we want the public to demand what we produce. The customers will have to be the ones demanding change because there are not enough alternative farmers to create a changed policy environment otherwise. As Fred has pointed out about ecological farmers, “There is no one to champion their cause in this squeeze.” I see this statement as increasingly grave because it includes the very entities originally established to serve small scale farmers – the Land Grant Universities. Wendell Berry discussed this corporate capture of the Land Grant system at length in his The Unsettling of America, which was published in 1977. Even in the early 1900’s Sir Albert Howard was observing the beginnings of corporate capture which he viewed a looming problem, particularly as the agriculture information sources were complicit in promoting the industrial model.

    We have at least two generations of people who have accepted that the corporate industrial model is the only thing standing between them and starvation. Re-educating our customers about what smaller scale, place sensitive food systems can do for their overall well-being is a full time job that will need the attention of people committed to being spokespeople and advocates. It will also be imperative that many more producers come on board by changing their production practices, or the new system can’t fill the needs of the public. If the public were to refuse tomorrow to buy from the corporate suppliers they would have a hunger problem because there are not enough growers to provide the food that would be needed.

    To quote a new (to me) observer of the forces we need to confront, Anuradha Mittal, one of the founders of Food First, has said, “Hunger is a social disease linked to poverty…any discussion of hunger is incomplete without a discussion of economics,” “…people are hungry because there is no money to buy food, not because there is a shortage of food.” As an example she points out that the Punjab region of India, one of the prime agriculture areas in that part of the world, grows abundant food that is mostly converted to dog and cat food for Europe instead of for the people of India who are having to buy imported food as a result of this agribusiness mandate. There are numerous other examples of this kind of insanity in most of the Global South but also in the U.S. where a good portion of the grains produced wind up in gas tanks or confined animal feeding facilities. You can find similar statements in all the published works of people like Sir Albert Howard, Fred Kirschenmann, Wendell Berry and even the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank. The last two also direct our attention to the unbelievable amount of waste in the food supply chain. We must address the obstacles of access to food that we can afford and to paying attention to waste because this also speaks to water and fertility issues. Food wasted is also water, soil, and labor wasted. I feel we must confront these issues head on.

    As Ms. Mittal says, “I don’t think it’s too much to say that destroying local agriculture infrastructure is a central function of food aid. Once these local farmers have been driven out of business the people of the region are dependent on the West (more specifically agribusinesses) for survival.” Based on my study of American agriculture the same thing has been a feature of our food supply chain for over 100 years, starting in the late 1800’s. As Henry Kissinger said in the mid 1970’s, “…if I control the food I control the people,” and the food companies have put a great deal of effort to making our people dependent on them for survival. The powerful agribusinesses have built an entire economic and governmental structure to support themselves. It will take a concerted effort on our part to correct this situation. We have to rebuild a sense of purpose and respect for the business of growing food, but we also have to undo the regulatory issues that make it so difficult to do what we know how to do. As a Tupac rebel said about Peru, “We want to be able to grow and distribute our own food. We already know how to do that. We merely need to be allowed to do so.” This is the heart of the matter. It is probably worth remembering that the French Revolution wasn’t just about liberty and equality. There was not enough bread in Paris, and Paris has been able to feed herself for a very long time with extra to trade. Hunger is a powerful motivator of unrest.

    In order to get the number of producers, processors, and distributors required to serve the public need, several things will have to be changed. At this point most alternative producers have a rather narrow window when they supply fresh produce. That is good but it is insufficient to provide food all year. This is the segment of food supply where the processing and distribution system applies and it is where the agribusinesses have a definite advantage now. We must address the whole range of demand, not just the seasonal demand. It is not enough for alternative producers to opt out of a system they reject. They will have to become actively involved in changing and opening up the operating environment in order to make a place for themselves. This will hopefully allow them to make what they are doing the normal method of supply. I don’t think it matters very much in the long run if we are talking about producers in the U.S. or in the other countries, the ones usually called the Global South. Our methods of production require more people doing the work to promote global change. Even as our producers secure their place in the new normal they must also bring in more help and stop looking at new people in the business as threats to their place.

    In a way this is the strength of alternative, small scale, place sensitive food production. At its best it offers a way for many people to care for themselves and their neighbors at a time when industrial America is laying people off due to lack of demand for industrial products. This is an issue overseas as well – people being forced by circumstances beyond their control to grow products for export to satisfy creditors they never signed up to repay while they and their neighbors have malnutrition or outright starvation problems. What other industry do you know of that currently needs more people to step in to do the work? Alternative regional food production needs more farmers than ever. It is a system, by definition, designed to be implemented by many people in many places at the same time – especially more than are currently in the field.

    Sir Allbert Howard asserted that, “The real Arsenal of Democracy is a fertile soil, the fresh produce of which is the birthright of nations.” Howard viewed the, “whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject.” He further stated about his book The Soil and Health, “ One of the objects of this book is to show the man in the street how this England of ours can be born again. He can help in this task, which depends at least as much on the plain efforts of the plain man in his own farm, garden, or allotment as on all the expensive paraphernalia, apparatus, and elaboration of the modern scientist: more so in all probability, inasmuch as one small example always outweighs a ton of theory. If this sort of effort can be made and the main outline of the problems at stake are grasped, nothing can stop an immense advance in the well-being of this island.”

    Howard said, “The man in the street will have to do three things:

    1. He must create in his own farm, garden, or allotment examples without end of what a fertile soil can do.
    2. He must insist that the public meals in which he is directly interested, such as those served in boarding schools, in the canteens of day schools and of factories, in popular restaurants and tea shops, and at the seaside resorts at which he takes his holidays are composed of the fresh produce of fertile soil.
    3. He must use his vote to compel his various representatives — municipal, county, and parliamentary — to see to it:
      1. that the soil of this island is made fertile and maintained in this condition;
      2. that the public health system of the future is based on the fresh produce of land in good heart.

    A healthy population will be no mean achievement, for our greatest possession is ourselves.”

    Anuradha Mittal joins her voice to Sir Howard when she challenges us to “Get involved. If power is not taken back at the local level nothing will change nationally or internationally.”

    At first we will be the only ones pushing for this to happen, and we need to select people to speak for us who are us even if they are not active growers. The work of growing the food is a full time job and we will have to put aside our natural reluctance to seek outside help if we want to make the future better than the past. Ours is a powerful new story if we will tell it. Stories change minds, as the advertising industry knows very well.

    Q: I am interested to hear how you first got connected with A Growing Culture.

    Luane: I met Loren Cardelli at the Prairie Festival in Salinas, KS, in September, 2012. Then I met him and you in Albuquerque, NM, at the Quivira Coalition meeting later in that fall. After much back and forth discussion you both contacted me to see if I wanted to contribute to your publication. I am delighted and honored to be invited to help with your work.

    Q: Is there anyone or anything that we haven’t covered today that you would like to specifically mention?

    Luane: I’ll end with these thoughts:

    When making the decision to be a pioneer in this different way of doing agriculture “…there is no way to know if one is called or deluded. The only way to know is to jump in and find out”. Thank you Fred for that insight…

    `Fred also brings up an interesting compilation of thoughts from that paragon of capitalism, Adam Smith. Apart from community and a framework of justice, competition becomes destructive. The ideal market must have community – in our case many small farmers, artisans, buyers and sellers. Entrepreneurs function within a set of commercial rules, sanctioned and protected by the state, that prevent business monopolies. Capital is locally rooted, owners living and working where they do business. Free and open markets must be available, and trade is only “free” when people are free not to trade.

    This could be the start of a re-education initiative – discussing the different, democratic trade arrangements we envision.

    Below is suggested reading list for perspective – provided by Luane. All these books have a common theme and were written over the past 100+ years:

    1909- FARMERS OF 40 CENTURIES F.H. King
    1930’s Tom Lasater begins working on developing herd that would become Beefmasters
    1940- AN AGRICULTURAL TESTAMENT Sir Albert Howard
    1945- SOIL AND HEALTH Sir Albert Howard
    1949- SAND COUNTY ALMANAC Aldo Leopold
    1957- GRASS PRODUCTIVITY Andre Voisin
    1959- SOIL, GRASS, AND CANCER Andre Voisin
    1960’s Allan Savory starts the thinking process which leads to Holistic Management concept
    1962- SILENT SPRING Rachel Carson
    1972- THE LASATER PHILOSOPHY OF CATTLE RAISING Tom Lasater with Lawrence Lasater
    1973- MALL IS BEAUTIFUL E. F. Schmacher
    1973- THE TIME IT NEVER RAINED Elmer Kelton (fictional story of 7 year 1950’s TX drought, based in fact)
    1975- THE ONE-STRAW REVOLUTION Masanobu Fukuoka
    1975- (Luane Todd started farm in NW Arkansas)
    1976- Wes Jackson starts the Land Institute Salina,KS
    1977- THE UNSETTLING OF AMERICA Wendell Berry
    1970’s- VARIOUS TITLES Gene Logsdon
    1989- HOLISTIC MANAGEMENT Allan Savory

    Note: with the exception of The Lasater Philosophy of Cattle Raising, I didn’t read any of these books myself until the late 1990’s and beyond. Would things have gone faster if I had? Probably not. I knew about Savory’s work and talked to people who had studied with him, but his book came out long after I had committed to my way of doing things. I found little to disagree with when I did get the book. The same is true of all the other books.

  • March20th

    By Alan Wright

    Tractor spraying
    Books, magazines, and the internet provide diverse scientific and anecdotal information demonstrating how industrial agriculture is physically unhealthy and ecologically harmful (Horrigan, Lawrence, & Walker, 2002). So I will not belabor the negatives of industrial farming, nor will I preach a particular type of agriculture as the solution. I want to suggest methods for dealing with a foundational challenge we face as ecologically minded farmers. How do we develop and define our agricultural ethics? As we, the new generation of farmers, step into the fields, we must understand that our ethics will guide our practice. And that by developing strategies to further define our ethics we can move beyond theoretical dilemmas and transform our morals into balanced growing systems that provide plentiful crops with maximized social and ecological benefit.

    In general, our ethics are largely shaped by our culture. Society tells us what is good and bad, right and wrong by facilitating, rewarding, or punishing certain behavior. Although an individual ultimately has choice, the scope of that choice is limited by our cultural boundaries. In other words, the opportunities that are available to us define what we think is possible.

    Specifically, our recent agricultural ethics have been largely defined by consumer demand for inexpensive food and the drive to maximize economic profit. The resulting ethics encourage industrial farming practices. Practices that, among other things, eliminate a soil’s ability to produce food without massive chemical and oil inputs while simultaneously exacerbating issues of top soil loss (Cox, Hug, & Bruzelius, 2011), toxin coated food (Pesticide Action Network, 2013), climate change (Lin, 2011), water pollution (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1996), oceanic dead zones (Environmental Working Group, n.d.), and farm worker health and safety (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012).

    I believe our species’ health and existence hinges on whether or not we redefine our farming ethics. If we redefine our agricultural ethic to align with the imperatives of physical and ecological health we will have no choice but to transform our practices, creating agricultural systems that can provide enough food for our burgeoning population, indefinitely. It is up to us, the growers, those intimately involved with the land and most knowledgeable of production methods to continue and strengthen the effort started by those before us, namely Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and Wes Jackson.

    In the “old days” ethics and practice were passed down from our parents and grandparents. Their validity was proven, or disproven, by the health and existence of subsequent generations and necessary changes were discovered and made. Today, many of us are agricultural orphans, so we must develop new strategies to build our farms’ moral backbone. While much traditional knowledge may have been lost, this lack of established ethic affords us an open field on which to cultivate a new agriculture.

    gardenWe are also in a new, technology based era and agriculture has changed dramatically. When the majority of farm work was done by hand, irrigated by gravity systems, and planted with seeds saved from the previous year it was much more difficult to do damage that nature could not quickly mend. Now that we have surpassed those limitations with massive tractors, transgenic seeds, deep wells for irrigation, and a plethora of highly toxic chemical sprays, an ecological, agricultural ethic is even more imperative. We are capable of causing much greater detrimental effect, and our culture has not yet evolved the necessary accompanying ethics to manage these abilities responsibly. That’s where the new farming movement comes in.

    Whether or not we consciously develop our agricultural morals, we will inevitably practice agriculture based on some ethic. To develop an ethic that shapes an ecological farming practice I believe setting clear goals, being unafraid of failure, using observation and science to view our actions and their effects on a systems level, learning from others, continuously evaluating our practices, and not getting mired in the names and established systems of growing, are very helpful tools.

    Set Goals:

    Setting goals is the first step in nurturing our ideals into reality. We must take our dreams of a farm system and clearly identify the steps to achieve that vision. By setting goals we take strides toward developing our ethics by limiting the potential options. If our goals are to grow food without toxic residues on the fruiting bodies, than we can no longer believe in spraying for mid-season pests. After our goals are set, we must use science to inform our ethics.

    Use Science to Make Informed Decisions:

    There are innumerable ways we can manage our growing systems, and in general, there are no rights and wrongs. However, there are decisions and consequences. Our ethics should be informed and substantiated by a scientific understanding of the physical cycles and relationships within the growing system so we can understand the effect of our actions. Awareness of nutrient cycling, water dynamics, and soil food web afford knowledge of the physical consequence of our practices. This in turn allows us to further define our ethics because we understand the benefits and drawbacks of using particular methods or inputs. Fortunately, the scientific details are more easily discovered in this new age, thanks to organizations like A Growing Culture, ATTRA, Acres USA, extension offices, and the plethora of small sustainable farmers sharing their experiences. While science can help us immensely, we must also listen to our own experience and observation.

    Trust Experience and Observations:

    Our land, and the plants and animals on it, continuously respond to our actions. Disease, nutrient deficiency, or lack of water is shown to us by the way our system responds. We must hone our skills of observation to tease out accurate cause and effect relationships within a complex system. This is made difficult by the nature of farming, in that isolating variables is nearly impossible. However, by using observation we do not have to know exactly why something works a given way, only that it does. When we discover something, we must be honest with ourselves, answering the question, “are my methods achieving my goals?” If this means disagreeing with a practice you have been using for decades, then it is time to change. Setting goals and using science and observation are great tools for developing ones ethics and practice. However, there still can be significant fear in abandoning old methods and subscribing to new ones.

    Continually Evaluate Our Practices:

    It is a daunting task to evaluate and challenge all of our practices, especially when this leads to drastic changes in practice. But we cannot be stopped from breaking away from “standard” farming practice for fear of “failure”. We know that current farming cannot continue and it is up to us to change it. One of the largest challenges industrial agriculture has laid before us is the “failure” (crop loss, weed invasion etc) we will endure in rediscovering sustainable ways to produce food. Anything that goes “wrong” (loss of money, poor crop quality etc.) is largely the result of inadequate cultural training, not entirely personal inadequacy. Among other things, when we stop fearing failure and change, we become more open to trying alternative methods of production. And luckily, there are many people willing to lend a hand.

    Learning From Others:

    Many producers are achieving amazing results using innovative practices based on ecological ethics substantiated by years of study and practice. Eliot Coleman, Joel Salatin, John Jeavons, and Sepp Holzer have redefined farming in their own way. Yet, they all have found ways minimize their ecological impact while maximizing yields, as well as social and environment benefit. We should listen to them, and the many others in our own communities, in order to compare their experience with our own. Whether that means reading, watching videos, conducting interviews, or attending workshops this process develops our growing methods and the ethics behind them.

    Blend all Methods to Suit Our Needs, Goals, and Microclimate:

    While we must learn from others, I believe it is counterproductive to get caught up in particular growing “brand names” like “Deep Organic”, “Biointensive”, “Square Foot Gardening”, “French Intensive”, “Biodynamic”, and “Permaculture”. Each one of these methods alone can achieve great results, but by selecting and combining portions of each we have greater versatility and give appropriate respect to our own creative potential. Additionally, drawing from multiple “growing styles” enables one to tailor methods to specific, regional, climactic, and other land characteristics. There are innumerable combinations of actions we can take, and the most healthy, productive, low input, and sustainably fertile are yet to be discovered.

    By using the tools described above, and any others not discussed here, we will stride towards defining our ethics and implementing the resulting practices. The crux to developing ecologically minded ethics and practice though, is committing to the goal of developing a growing system that is productive without negative ecological consequence. Through using the described methods to help discover my ethics, I find myself confident in the necessity of my practices. Growing vegetables in raised beds, without tilling the soil, using any chemicals (chemical or organic), irrigating conservatively, and striving to replace all off farm inputs with self-generated fertility allow me to farm in line with my ethics.

    Developing an ecological, agricultural ethic is imperative to long-term food production and the health of all natural systems that sustain life. Despite being ill prepared by our culture, and confused by rapid incorporation of technology into farming, there are ways that we can develop ethics that force us to grow food without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. I hope for nothing more than to impress upon you the importance of your ethics and the practices that follow in their lead; And, to suggest that we start where Aldo Leopold left us, embracing “the role of Homo sapiens”, and our growing systems alike, not as “conquerors of the land-community” but “plain members and citizens of it” (Leopold, 1987).


    Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R., & Walker, P. (2002). How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture. Environmental Health Perspectives, 110(5), 445-456. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1240832/pdf/ehp0110-000445.pdf

    Cox, C., Hug, A., & Bruzelius, N. (n.d.). Losing ground. Retrieved from Environmental Working Group website: http://static.ewg.org/reports/2010/losingground/pdf/losingground_report.pdf

    Pesticide Action Network. Pesticides on food. Retrieved from Pesticide Action Network, Advancing Alternatives to Pesticides Worldwide website: http://www.panna.org/issues/food-agriculture/pesticides-on-food

    Lin, B. B. (2011). Effects of industrial agriculture on climate change and the mitigation potential of small scale agro-ecological farms. CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources,6(20), 1-18. Retrieved from http://www.lsa.umich.edu/ummz/fishes/publications/pdf/2011%20mitigation%20by%20small%20farms.pdf

    (2013, February 13). Introduction to agricultural water pollution. Retrieved from FAO Corporate Document Repository website: http://www.fao.org/docrep/w2598e/w2598e04.htm#agricultural impacts on water quality

    Centers For Disease Control And Prevention. (2012, July 13). Agricultural safety. Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control Workplace Safety and Health Topics website: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/aginjury/

    Leopold, A. (1987). In A sand county almanac and sketches here and there. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Marder, J. (2011, May 18). Farm Runoff in Mississippi River Floodwater Fuels Dead Zone in Gulf.  Retrieved from PBS News Hour website: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2011/05/the-gulf-of-mexico-has.html

  • February26th

    Biocharby Filippa Harrington-Griffin

    “No society can become a post-food society. … Fertile land is a very precious and very scarce resource .. It needs to be protected and conserved as an asset of the farmers and as a national heritage to be passed on to future generations.” – Vandana Shiva

    Modern agricultural farming practices have depleted soil quality on a global scale.  What it took nature 1000 years to create, took modern farming 30 years to destroy.  Soil, everywhere, is in need of drastic and rapid quality improvement in order to meet the increased demand for agricultural food products.

    A solution is stepping up to the plate, a solution in the form of Biochar.   Simply put, biochar is the charred remains of what is formed when plant material or other waste products are heated in an oxygen free environment, a process called pyrolysis and offers an organic soil amendment that boosts crop yield.

    The process takes material that would otherwise be left to decompose and in turn, release CO2 back into the atmosphere and locks that carbon into a rich in nutrient, biochar, that can be utilized in a number of applications across agriculture and horticulture to aid in soil restoration.   Owing to biochar’s unique physical and chemical nature, a great surface area and complex pore structure, it has the ability to absorb moisture and life-supporting nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.  By adding biochar to soil, land stewards can reduce soil acidity, reduce soil leaching and the need for irrigation and fertilization.

    BiocharThe process of creating biochar has the ability to sequester tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year, whilst simultaneously producing clean renewable energy that would replace fossil fuels.  Furthermore, biochar is celebrated for preventing groundwater pollution, providing low cost water filtration, reducing the amount of material cast to landfills, decreasing greenhouse gases and increasing profitability.

    Since the industrial revolution, we have increased the amount of fossil fuel based carbon added to the atmosphere  per year drastically.  In 2012, the CO2 concentration in the air we breath reached 395ppm, putting us 45ppm over the ‘safe and sustainable’ limit suggested by scientists (Söderberg).   High CO2 levels are a key component to the greenhouse gases that are warming our planet and giving rise to climate instability.  We’ve reached the point where ‘carbon neutral’ just won’t cut it, the solutions of our future need to go that extra mile, when it comes to carbon – we need to be in the negative.

    Unlike other biofuels and bioenergy, biochar does not necessitate valuable agricultural lands, food crops like corn, nor the deforestation of already valuable ecosystems.   Biochar is a great addition to an active farm, as it offers a valuable waste management system whilst producing a soil improving product and it does not compete with the vital food or ecological services being offered.

    Fazenda Santo Antonio, an organic coffee plantation in Mococa, Brazil is currently testing an on-site biochar initiative with support from Swedish based biochar campaigners, the OpenWorld Biochar Coalition.  Brazil’s impressive agricultural resources and year round growing season make it an optimum location for developing and applying biochar.   By nature, coffee plantations generate a large amount of agricultural waste, and thus have great potential for carbon sequestration through biochar production.

    Fazenda Santo Antonio has been run by the Pereira Lima family since it’s inception in 1822 and stands as the first farm in Brazil’s Mogiana region to start producing coffee.  Up until 1990, the farm operated as a high-input conventional coffee plantation, but after a succession of poor growing seasons moved them to reevaluate, they made a bold and considered decision to turn their backs on conventional agriculture.  In 1993, with the farm in the hands of a new generation, Joao Pereira Lima, the farm’s most recent successor introduced a new farm philosophy, Agriculture da Grande Natureza, which translates to Great Nature’s Agriculture.  The core value of this new system is simple, when faced with a problem – bring life to the situation, not death.  Although this new agricultural philosophy has significantly boosted the productivity and life-systems on the farm, there is still decades of conventional agriculture practices to undo.

    The OpenWorld Biochar Coalition are a group of scientists, researchers, agricultural experts, businessmen and women, builders,engineers, and students working to grow biochar facilities throughout Brazil, Sweden and the U.K.  They’re currently focused on introducing biochar to sugar cane, coconut and coffee plantations throughout Brazil, offering substantial savings in energy, increased crop productivity and carbon sequestration.

    The biochar initiative at Fazenda Santo Antonio hopes is only in its infancy and still largely in testing, however, the product is currently being used to support the soil quality of the on-farm organic vegetable garden and is having a measurable impact on the quality and yield of crops.  In testing, the team discovered that the mountain of coffee husk discards already appear to ‘combust’ in a slow pyrolysis process when left to their own devices, producing biochar.  When the project proceeds to the next level, the coalition intend to retrofit the original coffee processing equipment to act as pyrolysis equipment for producing biochar.

    On-site biochar production allows farmers to attain a valuable soil-improving substance to apply to the land from the waste materials that are in abundance in agriculture, without any additional transportation and negligible additional costs.

    Onsite biochar production

    Onsite biochar production







    Biochar has great global potential and thus far has seen success with families,communities, peri-urban micro farmers, commercial agricultural units and private enterprises.  Biochar production can be as simple or complex as needed, it has a role to play with subsistence farmers in the developing world using hand-made kilns, as with medium-large scale agricultural businesses utilising more advance processing units right up to the private commercial companies that have built elaborate biochar processing plants to generate electricity and bio-oil.  It’s believed that biochar was first utilised by pre-Columbian Amazonians in South America’s rainforest basin to enhance soil productivity, this is not a solution limited by time nor modern technological advancements.  The process is ancient and its’ positive effects long withstanding.

    It is said that biochar is the “win-win-win” strategy.  It has the potential to produce clean energy without subtracting from the world’s insecure food supply, it is a waste management solution, it mitigates climate change through the sequestering of carbon and it creates an ecologically friendly soil amendment that boosts crop yield, which in turn supports global food security.



    Brunjes, Lopa, perf. “Biochar: An Ancient Solution to a Modern Problem.” TedxBerkley. TED, 21 Mar 2011. web. 11 Feb 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZroDAyIqW74>

    “Ecoera Biosfair™ – a Platform for Biochar Carbon Capture and Soil Sequestration.” Ecoera. N.p.. Web. 13 Feb 2013. <http://ecoera.se/solutions>.

    “Full Circle Biochar named Virgin Earth Challenge Finalist.”Full Circle Biochar. N.p., 02 Nov 2011. Web. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <http://fullcirclebiochar.com/news-category/press-release-full-circle-biochar-named-virgin-earth-challenge-finalist/>.

    Lehmann, Johannes. “A handful of carbon.” Nature. 447. (2007): n. page. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.

    Shiva, Vandana. Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in a Time of Climate Crisis. Cambridge, Mass: South End Press, 2008. Print.

    Söderberg, C. (2012). Openworld biochar coalition: Brasil. In OpenWorld Biochar Coalition: Brasil.

  • February6th

    Gardening Tools

    by Erica Romkema

    It’s no secret that more and more young people in the U.S. are looking to establish careers in local, organic, and small-scale farming, despite the risk, instability, hard work, and moderate income. Even many well-established career adults are abandoning their corporate jobs to start farms – and writing books about it. Most of these folks are unapologetic about their choices, choosing instead to either shout to the rooftops about why they’ve chosen a lifestyle such as this one, or to quietly go on doing what’s important to them. Yet as much as farmers enjoy their independence, getting started and continuing successfully depends upon a network of support from other farmers, researchers, landowners, and the general public.

    Connecting to the land

    Khaiti and Andrew French, who run Living the Dream Farm in Clayton, Wisconsin, were drawn to farming because “of loving good, real food and caring about how animals are raised in agriculture.” They are famous for their duck eggs in Minneapolis circles, and also raise turkeys, rabbits, chickens, and goats. Farmers such as the Frenches, inspired by voices such as Wendell Berry and Fred Kirschenmann, seek meaningful connection to the land, family-centric lifestyles, and practices that are in line with their carefully considered ethics.

    Not all young or beginning farmers come from farm families, and as interest in this career grows, so does the need for learning opportunities. Internships and apprenticeships can be extremely valuable, if they are well designed and if participants can make do on low wages (if any). Farm schools are springing up here and there, and colleges with sustainable agriculture programs – Warren Wilson in North Carolina and The Evergreen State College in Washington, for example – fill up with students eager to learn traditional methods and community-based approaches to farming.

    PeppersNonprofits and conferences on local, organic food have becoming increasingly common, and resources, especially via the web, are everywhere. The Minnesota-based nonprofit, Land Stewardship Project, offers a Farm Beginnings course, field days, and a regional network that helps give farmers a running start and continued support. Regional listservs run by nonprofits and land-grant universities put local and sustainable-minded farms in touch with one another and keep conversation and information circulating.

    While there will always be more to learn, the knowledge is there, as are people who are excited to share it – so those interested in farming primarily need to determine which method works best for them, according to their schedules, budgets, timelines, and goals.

    Land access a major challenge

    According to Luke Gran, the Next Generation Coordinator for Practical Farmers of Iowa, “the top five challenges our beginning farmers tell us include: land access, capital/financing, legal questions/regulations, marketing, and infrastructure.” Rising land prices make purchasing even a few acres a challenge, particularly when metropolitan areas often provide the best market for organic produce; farmers must decide whether to have less land close to a city but at a higher price, or more land further out but with the added cost and time involved to truck produce into the city. Many farmers begin by renting for a while; some plan to rent long-term if not indefinitely.

    Farmer Connor Murphy worked with several organic Community Supported Agriculture farms before moving on to work with the Boulder-based nonprofit Growing Gardens. “It is difficult, if not impossible,” he says, “to properly plan a land-based business if you are not sure how long you will have your land. Trying to secure good land requires a lot of capital and not a little bit of luck.”

    Leasing remains a viable (and sometimes the only) option for some, but many farmers dream of owning land from which to build their home and business. High land prices combined with competition from corporations, however, makes the initial cost prohibitive.

    Murphy adds that “many states have or are developing programs to connect retiring farmers or others who want to see their land stay in agriculture with young farmers. I think that the landlink programs might be the key for the next generation of farmers.” Landlink programs, such as New England Land Link (NELL), make the connection between farmers who would like to be sure their land stays a family farm with those who would like to run one, rather than simply selling to the highest bidder.

    Harvesting on the FarmMike & Jody Lenz run Threshing Table Farm, an 80-member vegetable CSA near Star Prairie, Wisconsin. These Farm Beginnings graduates recently completed their fifth season on a 10-acre property where they also live and raise their three children. The two continue to be active Land Stewardship Project members, sharing their experiences with others getting started in farming. Jody says, “There are a lot of people that really want to farm out there. If you have land that you don’t know what to do with, consider renting or selling to a beginning farmer. If you want farmers to be in your communities, strengthening them – buy your food from local farmers.”

    Eat for change

    Khaiti French echoes her: “The Midwest is a hotbed of amazing new and existing organic / sustainable farms, and this is a treasure. Supporting the kind of farms you want to see exist is what makes this possible.”

    In a world of big governments and big corporations, small farms are springing up to make change on landscapes and in communities. Individuals put their dreams and hopes on paper and then into action, but simply having farmers producing the food in this manner isn’t going to revolutionize our food system. A significant factor in whether local and sustainable production can succeed – and possibly even overcome corporate and factory food production – is if the region’s eaters, people like you and me, are ready to buy it.

    Are we willing to purchase fresh, highly nutritious food at prices that fairly compensate farmers for the work they’ve done? Are we ready to reposition food within our budgets, not seeing it as the place to cut the most cost but rather acknowledging that food is one of the most important things we can spend our hard-earned cash on – something essential for our survival? And finally, are we able to see that how we spend our food dollars affects not only our personal physical health but also our social and ecological communities?

    While volunteering, education, and advocacy all matter a great deal, perhaps the most important thing that you can do to help the organic / local / sustainable movement succeed is to participate in it as a customer. Create and be the other side of the equation, so that those who produce are able to make a livelihood while restoring the land and reclaiming local community. Sign up for a CSA share, purchase food at farmers’ markets, and choose local whenever you can. In return, you’ll get to take home fresh, nourishing food and the satisfaction of doing something good for yourself, your neighbor, and future generations.


  • January30th

    by Freesia McKee

    A few of the 12,000 BucketsIn 1993, Growing Power began as a small organization employing young people from a nearby housing development to grow food for its roadside grocery stand on the Northwest side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the 1920s, the neighborhood was nicknamed “greenhouse alley” for its many agricultural operations, but eventually, the greenhouses left and like many neighborhoods, the area became what is considered a “food desert.”

    Growing Power remains the last and only operating farm within Milwaukee’s city limits. In 1999, it expanded into a Community Food Center and started hosting additional educational activities. Due to its commitment to community development, social justice, and great food, Growing Power has become a key player not only in its own neighborhood and the City of Milwaukee, but in the major questions of development and resilience our world faces today.

    Will Allen, Growing Power’s founder, has risen to the level of visionary in the new ecological, environmental justice, health, and urban farming movements. Recognized by TIME Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and YES! Magazine (to name just a few), this MacArthur Fellow still does the most important work—sowing the seeds—at the farm when he is not meeting with Michelle Obama or hosting the bi-annual Growing Power Farm Conference of more than 3,000 attendees.

    Growing Power has developed six “Areas of Expertise” under which it categorizes its work:

    • Food Production and Distribution including many regular farmers’ markets; the Rainbow Farmers Cooperative, a cohort of family-run farms that maintain sustainable practices; and Farm Fresh to MPS, a program that provides Milwaukee Public Schools students with healthy foods.
    • Education Through Productive Demonstration and hands on experience in composting, aquaponics, solar energy, and livestock.
    • Youth Programs that span from service-learning opportunities for schools to Youth Corps, a year-long leadership experience.
    • Training Programs that include apprenticeships, training courses intended to “grow farmers,” community food systems workshops that a group or organization can sign up for, and a Food Systems Specialist program consisting of a year of training in “community-based food systems.” Green jobs training also comes from the construction of large hoop houses on Growing Power’s many sites.
    • Outreach: Local, National, and International Community Food System Projects of many varieties. Growing Power is partnering with other organizations nationally to create Regional Outreach Training Centers. Additionally, Growing Power coordinates a seven-acre farm in an abandoned warehouse in Chicago and valuable programming at its other sites.
    • Policy and Environmental Change on municipal, statewide, and national levels. The farm currently has a 20-year lease with Milwaukee Public Schools on a piece of land devoted to community gardens, the longest lease the schools have ever agreed to for such a project.

    One of the best ways to wrap your mind around Growing Power’s wide variety of initiatives is to take one of the tours offered at 1:00 pm daily at the farm’s headquarters. When I arrived on a late Fall Wednesday in 2012, about 15 people had showed up to learn more about the place. Some were Milwaukeeans who had never before made it over to the premises; some were proud locals showing off a gem of the city to guests from out of town; some were students on a field trip from Mount Mary, a local women’s college; and some were just curious.

    After everyone in the group introduced themselves and described why they had decided to attend, our tour guide directed us to the farm’s microgreens production. An emphasis on microgreens increases the farm’s productivity through intensive growing in a limited space. Pea sprouts, zesty sprouts, and other sprout varieties are grown in 10-gallon buckets—over 12,000 of them—that sit on indoor beds of woodchips and hang from the beams of the greenhouse ceiling. Greenhouses are a necessary and rare source of warmth during Wisconsin winters and can be found in many farms in the area, but Growing Power notably uses the very structure of the greenhouse as a design suited for productivity.

    Solar Panels and Vertical Gardening

    Vertical is the name of the game at Growing Power in many ways. A capital campaign is already well underway to build a five-story vertical greenhouse and learning center on the original property. This new center will serve as a processing facility, conference area, classroom space, and allow more year-round indoor growing. Sporting a sloped roof for not only thermal solar panels, but increased greenhouse space and rainwater collection, the building’s design will enable it to collect much of the energy it needs to function. The new building will also expand Growing Power’s market store and create much-needed community meeting space.

    With all its national and international recognition, Growing Power does maintain strong community partnerships in its home city. Each week, over 400,000 pounds of food waste are collected from area restaurants, coffee shops, cafeterias, and the City of Milwaukee to turn into compost. As a Growing Power brochure says, “The simple truth is…it all starts with the soil.” The farm is well known for its vermicompost (you can buy their worm castings in a bag at the store) and is developing an innovative large-scale method to compost meat scraps using layers of worms and wire screen. By the time the worms wriggle through the screen, the compost on the other side is ready to be used.

    After an explanation of the compost and taste test of the microgreens, our guide explained to us Growing Power’s use of aquaponics, a form of cyclical agriculture where fish and plants are grown together. Milwaukee sits on Lake Michigan and has a rich aquatic legacy tied to its local culture. Two of the fish most often found at the city’s many Friday night fish frys are perch and tilapia. Perch are no longer legal to commercially Papyrus Grows in a Wisconsin Greenhousefish in Wisconsin, as the number of Yellow Perch in Lake Michigan has decreased 80% in the last twenty years. Tilapia are also popular, but they are native to Africa and prefer warmer water temperatures. Both perch and tilapia are raised at Growing Power’s headquarters more efficiently and sustainably then their non-aquaponics counterparts. Some of the farm’s tilapia even eat duckweed, a plentiful and complimentary plant that grows easily in aquaponics.

    In some of the systems, papyrus, nasturiums, and water cress act as natural filtration devices. Pea gravel and sand filters are also used in systems created in partnership with scientists from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Fresh Water Science. On a given day at Growing Power, you may run into university professors and students perfecting the pump flows and pH levels in the fish house systems. Solar panels on top of the fish houses are used to heat the water. Vertical space is again noteworthy here, where mycoscaping logs (growing shiitakes and six varieties of oyster mushrooms) hang over the fish tanks to use that little bit of space between the surface of the water and the roof of the greenhouse. Every bit of greenhouse or outdoor space represents an opportunity to grow more food.

    Growing Power’s greenhouses are inspiring. Banana, sugar cane, papaya, and fig specimens can be found in some of the greenhouses at their Milwaukee headquarters, but the organization’s greenhouse spaces are found throughout the area. The owner of Forest Home Cemetery on the city’s South Side called up the farm a while ago to offer use of the cemetery’s greenhouses. In the past, many cemeteries used greenhouses to grow their own ornamentals, but since these flowers have been outsourced, many of these spaces have sat unused. Growing Power has reclaimed this space for growing and has started a new farmers’ market on nearby Mitchell Street.

    Our tour revealed more and more partnerships and initiatives that Growing Power has had a hand in. After and hour and a half, we returned to the entrance with an opportunity to buy produce from the market store and sign up to volunteer. Growing Power utilizes more than 3,000 volunteers each year as well as many other additional visitors and stakeholders.

    Outside of our state, Wisconsin is often associated with old television shows or the Packers, and Milwaukee is famous for its breweries. Milwaukee is a city that remains one of the most racially segregated in the country, a sometimes forgotten place that in the eyes of many is just a little-sister city of Chicago. In recent years, though, when locals are elsewhere in the country and say that they’re from Milwaukee, people increasingly respond, “Oh, I know about Will Allen. Have you been to Growing Power?”

    Growing Power provides a refreshing revisualization of the importance of Milwaukee and the Upper Midwest. Growing Power and others have facilitated Milwaukee’s transformation into an incubator of ways to solve our environmental/social challenges with community-specific creativity. Milwaukee’s assets as a former industrial epicenter are being repurposed and utilized in new ways.

    True to its original form as a roadside farm stand where low-income teens could work for a wage, Growing Power focuses on our abundance of talents instead of the places where our communities have broken. No matter where you are in the world, there is vertical space—you just have to find a way outside and look up.

    To take a tour of, train with, or volunteer for Growing Power in Milwaukee or Chicago, visit their website for details.

  • January18th

    Christmas Tree Farmby Ryan Sitler


    Sometime after the Thanksgiving holiday Christmas decorations begin to appear in shop windows and front yards, and by mid-December most of the nation is fully engaged in the Christmas decorating spirit. This time of year often makes me reflect on the grave wastefulness of such holidays. Due to this point of view, those around me are highly critical of my “lack of holiday spirit”. My mother accuses me of rejecting traditions inherently and for no good reason, but in trying to prove that I haven’t abandoned a positive outlook on the holidays I can’t argue that what is being witnessed during the holiday season is one of the truest signs that our culture is continuing to move away from anything that could resemble an ecological consciousness. As Aldo Leopold stated in Sand County Almanac, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

    The aim is not to just criticize or to eliminate others’ holiday traditions. My goal is to instill a little human ingenuity into our thinking about holiday traditions that will allow us to move from the 20th century – full of ecological imperialism and destruction – into the 21st century – with the mind’s eye on ecological regeneration and reintegration into human culture. What traditions hold true value and are these built upon the cradle to grave model as William McDonough outlined in Cradle to Cradle? Which can be revamped and which need to be left by the wayside for something better? This is not an easy task, and I certainly don’t presume that I have all of the answers. However, if some of us as individuals take the time to examine and improve our own family traditions, it seems inevitable that others would follow our lead. Customs related to Christmas trees are a perfect example, providing an opportunity for consumers and producers alike to rethink their practices and to push one another towards a healthier industry model without the need to sacrifice traditions.

    An Overview of the Christmas Tree Industry

    According to statistics published by the USDA and the National Christmas Tree Association, 33 million real Christmas tree were sold during 2012 in the United States. An additional 9.5 million fake trees were sold. The average growing time for a Christmas tree is seven years meaning that there are approximately 350 million Christmas trees currently growing in the US. There have been many journalists who have discussed the carbon footprint of purchasing a live as opposed to an artificial Christmas tree. The conclusions were consistent, and the American Christmas Tree Association has data that shows that if one purchases a plastic tree and keeps it for 10 years the carbon footprint is less than that of the average US citizen purchasing the average Christmas tree each year only to dispose of it. However, this carbon footprint report assumes that the monocultural production of Christmas trees is the only option for producers and that the current model of distribution is a requirement of the industry. Before getting into the ways that our production systems can be improved, it seems important enough to debunk this myth of the fake Christmas tree. Plastic Christmas trees are nothing but a bane to our ecological communities, and in no way is this alternative the best option in response to an unsustainable Christmas tree industry.

    As with most crops these days, the current industry standard for growing Christmas trees is to grow them to harvest size, remove the trees, prepare the soil for replanting, and do it all again on the same ground. Along the way some pesticides are applied to combat unwanted insects, fungicides are used to avoid unwanted disease infestations, and synthesized chemical fertilizers are applied to supply the nutrients for tree growth. Healthy and abundant soils are the foundation for growing plants, and the production model described above works toward the depletion of soils. In his book Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets outlines some crude facts about the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. Many logging companies that own land in that region are selling it because of the diminished returns on successive planting and harvesting of timber after two, three, or four generations. Stamets points out that the loss of topsoil with each generation of planting is the sole cause of the problems that these companies are having when they try to plant and grow out future generations of timber. In short, poor forest management has led to massive degradation of land to produce what the timber industry still unabashedly refers to as a renewable resource.

    This is a very salient comparison to Christmas tree growers across the nation. Planting successive generations of tree crops in a monocultural fashion without returning any of the carbon to the system or taking any other steps to rebuild soils will lead to depletion of soils and increased dependence on synthesized materials to allow crops to grow on the same land. So, what can be done that is different? That is to say, what actions can growers and consumers take to promote change in the culture of Christmas trees and the Christmas tree industry?

    Efforts Within the Industry

    Farmers are the true heroes of our generation. They are the stewards(esses) of our lands, having chosen a life close to our roots, and they produce all of the food and fiber that allow our systems to continue on. At the same time these people endure the push and pull of markets that only leave them needing more. I would certainly not propose that farmers have turned a blind eye on ecology, while it is true that a lot of mainstream agricultural practices operate contrary to ecological processes in search of economic gain. Many in the Christmas tree industry are implementing production practices that improve upon the model of monoculture described above. These growers are not mainstream, however their work is significant to all of us invested in the Christmas spirit.

    There are a few websites that have compiled a list of certified organic Christmas tree growers. This is a huge step, as organic certification inherently includes and requires a lot of biodiversity, soil management practices, and restrictions on chemical inputs. However, organic is not a solution in and of itself. Organic certification is just a route that a grower can take to allow consumers to more easily differentiate his/her production practices from another’s. Often, the cost to become and remain a recognized part of the National Organic Program is a limiting factor in seeking certification that leads growers to look for other options. Beyond organic other production tools such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) are used by some growers to really help them monitor and understand the lifecycle of pests or diseases in order to holistically deal with problems in crop production.

    trees ground coverIn North Carolina, many Christmas tree growers are utilizing living ground covers. Reports of lessened erosion, increased wildlife habitat, lowered soil temperatures, and harboring of beneficial insects all come from implementing this strategy. The NC Cooperative Extension has been conducting a pollinator study where 75 different plant species have been identified living amongst the ground cover in Christmas tree plots. These plants include important pollen and nectar sources for honey producing insects, many butterfly attractants such as milkweed have been found, and habitats for beneficial predatory insects are also included in this diversity of understory species (Sidebottom). This cognizant approach is beneficial to the individual grower as well as the greater ecological community. As NC Extension continues to research and promote this way of growing Christmas trees, the value of teaming ecological strategies with agricultural practices will surely continue to be uncovered. While organic production and living ground covers are steps towards ecological production, these methods still leave us with trees grown, cut, and replanted in the same fields after each life cycle. It does little to address the massive waste stream of dead trees after each holiday season.

    Some growers are beginning to tap into niche market opportunities for selling potted live evergreens, and this may be an opportunity for growers who don’t currently produce Christmas trees to diversify their operation. Consumers can buy these trees, decorate them for the holiday season, and then plant them outside when the holiday comes to an end. When viewed through the lens of the carbon cycle, this option is potentially superior, as long as the living trees aren’t shipped all around nation for sale. These trees are grown for two to four years instead of seven, and when they have served their purpose as a decoration, they can go on to serve an ecological function as a carbon sink, wildlife habitat, and an aesthetic part of the landscape. But even in the live Christmas tree market, little is accomplished to build soils back on the land where these products originated.

    Suggestions for Growers

    As was previously discussed, there are some growers within the Christmas tree industry that are taking steps to implement more green production models. Using the successes of these folks, other producers can mimic ecological practices to benefit their farms by building soil and biodiversity while also reducing their reliance on chemical inputs. Whether it’s certified organic, IPM, holistic management (Phillips), or some combination of strategies, growers committing to these modes of production would not only benefit their farming operations but also add to the local ecologies and benefit from plugging themselves into the rapidly growing niche market for alternatively produced agriculture products. To take the example from the North Carolina Extension a little further, growers can introduce specific plant communities in between their rows of trees. This method of intentionally intercropping or introducing polyculture would allow producers to diversify their farming enterprises. By growing a combination of pollen and nectar producing plants, habitat for beneficial insects, and other plant crops or even mushrooms that can be harvested and sold, farmers have the opportunity to capitalize on the full acreage being used currently to produce only evergreen trees while also encouraging biodiversity. Perennial crop rotations, where applicable, are another way to ensure the longevity of your soil. Coming back and planting identical, mostly monocultural, plant communities generation after generation will lead to lacking soil quality. Polyculture would allow for multiple tree crops to be grown and rotated amongst the rows over successive generations in a relatively small amount of space. These strategies for adapting Christmas tree production have the potential to increase the value of farm products, create more jobs on the farm by increasing crop production diversity, and they even can boost the potential for tourism if farmers were to choose the route of registering their farms as protectors of endangered plant, insect, or animal species.

    Christmas treesDeveloping new markets is something that established farmers don’t often pursue. In the case of the Christmas tree industry there are two ways that famers can benefit themselves while also creating new potential markets. First, the selling of living Christmas trees has great potential to develop into a major part of the Christmas season. As people and their families begin to understand the value of purchasing a live evergreen then replanting it after the holiday season, there is no doubt that growers would be able to capitalize on new opportunities. The live tree market also has great potential as a regionalized mode of production. Rather than cut trees being shipped across the nation for delivery to retail outlets in big urban centers, smaller growers, greenhouses, and nurseries could market their live trees to a wide variety of retail outlets as well as selling directly to the consumer. Niche market products have no trouble finding their way into stores if the customers are asking for them. This is contrary to the current model of large scale production and distribution of food products, although the increasing popularity and availability of local food would surely tell a story of success when it comes to local producers getting their products into larger conglomerate retail outlets when people ask for them. With some crafty marketing, growers producing live potted Christmas trees could easily sell a story of a new ecological holiday tradition – planting a native evergreen tree as a family after the hustle and bustle of Christmas has gone.

    The second way that farmers can benefit from new market strategies in the Christmas tree industry is to implement recycling programs. Organizations like Springs Preserve, in Nevada, provide examples of opportunities for farmers or other organizations to recycle Christmas trees to keep them out of landfills. This becomes a problem particularly in rural areas. The people of Springs Preserve recycled over 3,000 Christmas trees in the first year of their program, 2001. However, this organization, that serves greater Las Vegas, recycled over 17,000 Christmas trees in 2011. This was turned into valuable mulch and woodchips for many different applications while also keeping this massive volume of biological material from entering the landfill. Farmers can certainly use this recycling model to their benefit, whether they grow Christmas trees or not. Specifically though, Christmas tree farmers can use recycling programs to bring back the biomass that was harvested from their very fields. This can easily be chipped and either composted, spread on the ground as mulch around new plantings, used as base material for hugelkultur beds (as described by Sepp Holzer), or used to make biochar. Reintroducing woody material from what was harvested on that land is a great way to ensure the soil isn’t depleted. Using specific fungal communities to speed up the decomposition process (Stamets) can ensure the agricultural viability of the land in the short term by building soil more quickly. Regardless of how the farmer decides to use the Christmas trees, committing to an on-farm recycling program would add value back into his operation. A concern of Christmas tree recycling or composting are the chemicals used during production of the tree being potentially harmful. This is a concern if certain chemicals were used on the plant during its growth. If a producer using ecological methods recycles the trees from his/ her own farm, then the concerns are easily dismissed.
    Markets certainly don’t change overnight. It is unrealistic to expect or even to ask growers to do the same. It is probably best for them to implement one or two strategic changes on their operations, testing these against current practices before fully augmenting their current successful production practices. That is why this list of options, certainly not exclusive to additional ideas, is provided as a guide for growers. If in time, some of these strategies were to be taken up by Christmas tree growers, there would be potential to see profit on the triple bottom line, meaning the enterprise would be a boon economically, ecologically, and socially.

    Conclusion: Suggestions for Consumers

    An entirely different way to influence the production, distribution, or availability of a certain commodity is to act as an informed consumer. Asking for products that aren’t currently offered and buying only what one believes in are great ways for the consumer to decide what is put before them. Organic, local, eco, and green are all buzz words today, and industry is not blind to what’s popular. As consumers we have the ability to influence even producers. If we decide to commit ourselves to buying a Christmas tree, what is the right choice? Size, shape, kind, color, alive, or dead – these are all options that we have as a consumer. None is perfectly moral or amoral, and the beauty is that we have the option to support what we feel is best. In November, ask your nearest garden supply store if they’ll be selling Christmas trees grown in your area. Are there any certified organic available? Contact your local Christmas tree farm or nursery to inquire about their production practices and maybe even about a potted native evergreen to buy for your family holiday tradition. What we ask for and where we spend our money is noticed. In the event that a cut tree is purchased, buy an ecologically produced tree, and make sure to ask the farmer if they have a recycling program or know of one in the area. Better yet, start a biochar business in your hometown from recycled Christmas trees.

    It is our own responsibility to question the world around us. As celebrators of a holiday, it is right to reexamine traditions to see if they fit the world that we live in or in the world that we are trying to create. As consumers, we have a responsibility to ask producers and distributors alike to make products available that are healthy for our world. It’s not always comfortable to change, but if you build a new family holiday tradition out of a conscious consumer decision you are working towards something great. Along the way, we can influence younger generations to also think with this ecological awareness when it comes to the things that matter most to them.

    Incorporating the ecology of our place into our definitions of community while also incorporating ourselves into the ecology of our place is the only way that humans aren’t going to be kicked out of hotel earth. Hopefully Santa will be amongst those who allow us to keep the room indefinitely.



    “Christmas Trees and the Environment.” American Christmas Tree Association. N.p., 2009. Web. 1 Jan. 2013. <http://www.christmastreeassociation.org/christmas-trees-and-the-environment>.

    “Christmas Tree Recycling.” Springs Preserve. Springs Preserve, n.d. Web. 3 Jan. 2013. <http://www.springspreserve.org/about/sustainability_treerecycling.html>.

    “Christmas Tree Statistics.” Statistics Brain. N.p., 26 Nov. 2012. Web. 1 Jan. 2013. <http://www.statisticbrain.com/christmas-tree-statistics>.

    Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. Toronto: Random House Publishing Group, 1966. Print.

    McDonough, William, and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle. New York: North Point Press, 2002. Print.

    Phillips, Michael. The Apple Grower. White River Jct., VT: Chelsea Green Press, 2005. Print.

    Sidebottom, Jill R. “Pollinator Study.” Pest Control In Frasier Fir Christmas Trees. NC State Cooperative Extension, 7 Nov. 2012. Web. 3 Jan. 2012. <http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/fletcher/programs/xmas/control/pollinator/index.html>.

    Stamets, Paul. Mycelium Running. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2005. Print.

  • January7th


    by Asher Wright


    Soybeans (Glycine max (L.) Merrill) have a long history of being cultivated as a forage crop. Historically soybeans were popular forage for nutritious hay and silage and it was not until the 1940’s that soybean production shifted its focus to the bean. According to Morse et al. (1950) this shift (when more acreage was planted for beans than for forage) occurred first in the Corn Belt in 1935 and later for the entire U.S.A.in 1941. In 1929, 63 percent of the total acreage for soybeans was planted for forage, in 1943, 21 percent, and in 1948, 10 percent (Morse et al., 1950). This shift was initially due to the need for a high protein feed source for animal production. As soybean oil prices began to soar in the 1960’s, value as an oilseed and protein crop far out weighed it’s value as forage. Though soybeans are now cultivated almost exclusively as a high-protein or oilseed crop their value as forage is being reconsidered and even implemented in certain parts of the world. So why would a producer plant soybean for a forage?

    Grazing soybeans as a forage
    For the purpose of this paper all management considerations will be in the context of beef cattle production. During the finishing phase of beef production (when a yearling calf is taken to a finished beef product), high protein and high energy feed are paramount for adequate gains, meat quality, and, ultimately, profit. This is easily achieved when animals are in a feedlot receiving a concentrated diet (a diet higher in energy). However for producers attempting to finish cattle on forage, the type of forage and time it is grazed can have major impacts on animal performance and meat quality. Forage production and quality are impacted by the time of year (Figure 1). For example, alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is considered cool season perennial forage with the majority of its growth occurring in the spring and fall. With exception to regions with a very cool growing season year around, alfalfa production and quality (along with all other cool season perennials) declines during the summer. Soybean and other warm season annuals come into play during summer months. With the underlying goal to provide the highest quality forage at all times, mixing perennials and annuals is a perfect model. In March animals begin grazing alfalfa and continue until late June when they are moved to forage soybeans. Specific dates will fluctuate based on region, year, and forage type.
    Forage production graph

    Figure 1. Cool season perennial forage vs. warm season annual forage production

    Soybeans can be grazed full bloom (R2) until near maturity (R7). The most rapid change in fiber and CP is during stage R5 to R7 (Hintz et al., 1994). Similar to other forages, research (Hintz et al., 1992; Hintz et al., 1994; Sheaffer et al., 2001) indicates that forage-tissue fiber increases over time while crude protein (CP) ultimately decreases over time. This is true with the steam and leaf. The pod has the opposite trend (Hintz et al., 1994) to decrease fiber and increase CP, especially during R5 to R7. This is what Sheaffer et al. (2001) meant by “maintain high quality over time”. This gives the producer flexibility with management decisions regarding soybeans. Should I graze, cut, or both?

    Forage soybeans are great for ratoon cropping. They can be grazed and then harvested for hay or silage, or grazed multiple times. Dr. Atkinson of Southern Illinois University was quoted by Eagle Seed, producers of two forage soybean varieties, that in the right growing conditions, three grazing’s would not be out of the question. With a well-designed management-intensive grazing (MIG) system, soybean can be grazed two and possibly three times depending on climate and growing zone. This can help eliminate the question of, “which plant growth stage will be the most nutritious”, as cattle will be grazing multiple plant growth stages during the season. Grazing soybeans gives the producer flexibility and the opportunity to provide animals with premium forage through the hotter months of the summer.

    Harvesting soybeans for hay or silage

    Like grazing soybeans, harvesting for hay or silage can occur from full bloom (R2) until near maturity (R7). However, much of the research (Hintz et al., 1994; Blount et al., 2009) indicates that the best time to cut for hay or silage, to optimize nutritional quality and dry matter yield is between the R6 and R7 growth stage (Hintz et al., 1992; Munoz et al., 1983). These stages are characterized as “full seed” (pod containing full size green beans at one of the four uppermost nodes with completely unrolled leaf) and “beginning maturity” (pods yellowing; 50% of leaves yellow; physiological maturity) respectively. Optimization vs. maximization is a common question and will be addressed later in the paper.

    If cutting soybean for hay, long curing times are necessary, which is primarily due to the larger stems. In general, the large fibrous stems are the biggest management issue with regards to soybean hay or silage. Blount et al. (2009) recommends conditioning the stems in order to cure the hay in a timely manner. As mentioned earlier, soybean maintains high quality overtime (Sheaffer et al., 2001). Which enables flexibility with hay harvesting times, a very beneficial characteristic. There is a trade off between DM yield and the speed of curing. When beans are at R5 (beans beginning to develop at one of the four uppermost nodes, with completely unrolled leaf) hay can be conditioned because the beans are small enough to not be pushed out of the pods by the conditioning process. When the crop reaches R6 and R7 the conditioner may crush or pop the seeds out of the pod, so conditioning is not recommended. Not conditioning will greatly increase the curing time to 5 or 6 days (Blount et al., 2009). The increase in curing time is a risk, especially in regions with higher chances of late summer rains. It is common knowledge that when hay is rained on, nutritional quality will be reduced. Whether to cut at R5 or wait until R6 or R7 is dependent on the producers region and what quality of hay or silage is desired. If ensiling Blount et al. (2009) suggests adding a soluble carbohydrate (i.e. corn grain or molasses) at the rate of 10% of DM. Which helps combat high levels of ammonia and butyrate, common byproducts of soybean silage. Whether to ensile or make hay is a management question depending on cost, available equipment, climate, and plan for feeding. In general, silage will have a higher feed value (Table 1) in terms of nutrition.

    Nutritional quality and yield

    Quality refers to how well the plant can provide for the nutrient demands of a growing animal. So what is forage quality comprised of and what would be considered good forage quality? Other than vitamins and minerals, forage quality often refers to fiber content and crude protein. Fiber is broken down into three fractions, gravimetrically quantified, consisting of Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF), Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF), and Acid Detergent Lignin (ADL). The actual quantities of fiber lie in the differences, with NDF being the entire cell wall content of the plant and the difference between ADF and NDF representing hemicellulose and pectin. The difference between ADL and ADF is the quantity of cellulose. NDF is typically considered more when assessing quality, and as NDF increases, “forage quality” and ultimately animal performance will decrease. Crude protein takes into account cellular protein and non-protein nitrogen; it is the total N x 6.25. According to Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle, finishing steers at 2.5 lbs. of gain per day requires an NDF of 30% or less and a CP of 12.5 % (NRC, 2000).

    Much of the literature forage soybean discusses different maturity groups, which to plant, what row spacing and seeding rate to plant at and when to harvest. The research reviewed (Seiter et al., 2004; Hintz et al., 1994; Sheaffer et al., 2011) demonstrated that plant growth stage at harvest is the major factor in quality. The issue of plant maturity is very important with soybean because unlike other legume crops when soybean is harvested just prior to leave yellowing and maturity, the pods are high in protein and oil, which adds to the overall “quality”.


    As mentioned earlier, plant maturity is the major factor in fiber content and composition as well. Hintz et al. (1994) found that the greatest change in fiber occurred between R5 and R7. As plants matured NDF and ADF increased, with the greatest shift during R5 to R7. The opposite is true for soybeansthe pod, which adds to the overall quality. The pod decreased in fiber composition during R5 to R7. During these stages, forage samples sent to the lab that include the bean, will have a much better (closer to 30%) NDF and ADF quantity then stem and leaf alone. According to the research of Sheaffer (2011), harvesting in R6 or R7 will provide the most optimal NDF and ADF quantities because the mature beans are in the pods but leaves have not begin to drop yet.

    Seiter et al. (2004) also indicated that plant maturity was the primary factor affecting fiber content. However in one year of their two-year study, row spacing had a significant affect on fiber composition. The wider row spacing (76 cm) compared to the narrow row spacing (18 cm) resulted in larger stem diameter, a possible cause of the increased fiber content. In their study, R5 at 76 cm row spacing resulted in 417 g/kg ADF and 487 g/kg NDF compared to 324 g/kg ADF and 421 g/kg NDF for R5 at 18 cm row spacing. Based on previous research (Blount et al., 2009; Seiter et al., 2004; Sheaffer et al., 2001) a more narrow row spacing is recommended. Though yield is not affected, fiber composition is greater at the larger row spacing, mainly due to increased fiber in the stems. Based on the research of Lundry et al. (2008) Common NDF and ADF values during ideal harvest (R5-R7) will be 30% – 38% and 32% – 38%, respectively.

    Crude Protein

    Other than fiber, crude protein (CP) is a primary indicator of adequate nutrition for growing cattle. As mentioned earlier, 12.5% CP or slightly greater, is ideal for growing and finishing beef cattle. In general, a legume crop will have no problem meeting this, and in most cases exceed it (Table 1). Crude protein may become a metabolic cost to the animal when in too high of a concentration. This is why Blount et al. (2009) recommend mixing sorghum and soybean or corn and soybean when making silage. Energy is always the limiting nutrient in the rumen and balancing energy and CP is paramount to efficient gains and preventing waste.

    Like fiber, CP was only affected by forage maturity (Sheaffer et al., 2004). Hintz et al (1992) found that CP was only affected by maturity as well, but they also concluded that a smaller row spacing resulted in less CP (8 g/kg less). This is in agreement with the work of Seiter et al. (2004) who found a wide row spacing (76 cm vs. 18 cm) resulted in lower CP (139 g/kg vs. 155 g/kg) concentrations. This was only true for one of the two years of their study and they concluded that CP is unpredictable due to high year variability. In general the leaves of soybean will average 20 to 22% CP (Lundry et al., 2008).

    DM Yield

    Though nutritional quality is very important, optimum yield is also very important. This is especially true for the economic side of the equation. Like all crops yield, soybean forage, is affected by precipitation, soil type, and pest pressure. This was demonstrated by the work of Rao et al. (2005) and Nielsen (2011) who both concluded that precipitation distribution played a major roll in yield and that yield was positively correlated to plant water use. When all of these variables are controlled, however, soybean forage yield will follow the same trend with fiber and CP and will increase with plant maturity (Table 2). All studies reviewed (Hintz et al. 1992; Sheaffer et al., 2001; Seiter et al., 2004; Bilgili et al., 2005) found this to be true.

    The other major factor affecting soybean forage yield, is row spacing. All of the extension papers reviewed recommended smaller row spacing. Research in Turkey by Acikgoz et al. (2009) found that the narrowest row spacing, regardless of number of seeds planted, resulted in a higher percentage of plants reaching maturity; 68.3% at 20 cm and 54.4%, 48.5%, and 44.8% with increasing rate of 40 cm, 60 cm, and 80 cm, respectively. This is in agreement with previous work by Hintz et al. (1992) who determined that a 20 cm row spacing produced more forage than 76 cm. This contrasts later work by Hintz et al. (1994) who determined row spacing had little affect on yield. From a management perspective and in general, row spacing has been shown to result in higher yields. Based on recommendations by state extension services, narrow row spacing should be implemented to maximize forage yield.

    Table 1. Nutrient composition of forage soybean silage and hay, adapted from Dr. Atkinson’s research at Southern Illinois University, www.eagleseed.com/articles.html.
    Nutrient Composition

    Table 2. Effect of harvest date on soybean forage quality and quantity, Blount et al., 2009.
    Effect of harvest date on soybean forage

    To optimize or maximize

    forage crop

    Soybean is a unique forage crop because it not only produces quality forage but also is an energy and protein dense bean that can be consumed by grazing animals. So the question becomes, at what point should I graze or harvest? If grazing, graze earlier when leaf tissue is high in CP and low in fiber. Manage animals in a way that gives rest to areas that have already been grazed, and another grazing will be easy to achieve. As stated earlier, forage of soybeans will decrease in quality over time until the beans begin to develop in the pods. This should mainly be considered if harvesting for hay or silage. Thus the optimal time to harvest for hay is between R5 and R7. This leads to the issue of combining the stem with the silage, feed refusal, and an ultimate waste of the high-protein, high-energy bean as mentioned by Blount et al. (2009). There is the possibility to chop the forage for a more uniform mixture, but this has been shown to be costly (Blount et al., 2009). Overall optimization vs. maximization will depend on the producers operation, the needs of the animals, and whether harvesting is even an option. Optimize for quality and maximize for yield.

    Selecting the correct variety

    With plant growth stage playing a large role in quality, selected the proper maturity group variety is crucial for obtaining the best yield and quality possible. Maturity group is an indicator of photoperiod response and must be taken into account. Photoperiod response means that the plant will follow a vegetative and reproductive schedule based on the daylight as opposed to age of plant. For hay production it is important to match highest optimal quality with the greatest chance of a dry weather window. Blount et al. (2009) suggest growing full season (Maturity Group 6, 7, and 8) varieties with the long juvenile traits in the Southern U.S.A. In the Southeast this enables the producer to plant between April and June with little affect on yield. If grazing or harvesting for silage, matching the driest part of the year with optimal maturity is less important, thus variety selection is less important. However, if harvesting for hay, it is important to match maturity with harvest date.


    Soybeans will outperform other broadleaf forage legumes such as field pea or vetch (Bilgili et al., 2005) as a forage crop. Soybeans have the potential to provide similar feeding value as ensiled alfalfa, a real opportunity for producers. Based on research and the work of Acikgoz et al. (2009) soybeans for forage will produce their highest yield at a similar seeding rate as for grain (about 900,000 seeds/hectare) but with a more narrow spacing (20 cm or less).

    When it comes to yield, forage soybean harvested between R5 and R7 have the real potential to pay off. This is because dried forage will weigh about 3 times more than the mature seed. Based on the work of Blount et al. (2009) using current prices (100$/ton forage and 6$ bu/soybeans) and yields from a 3-year trial in Florida, a 3-ton/acre yield would accrue 50% more profit than the bean alone. This assumes a marketing outlet and price points, but in general, forage soybeans harvested for hay or silage can pay off.

    Beyond agronomy and economics, soybeans provide a number of ecological benefits as well. They produce nitrogen through their symbiosis with Rhizobium, provide an excellent wildlife fodder to encourage on-farm biodiversity, and give the producer an opportunity to double crop and keep soil covered after a cereal crop is harvested in early summer. In general, adapted varieties of soybean provide high quality forage for grazing animals during the hottest months of the year. Soybean silage or hay is on par with alfalfa. With affordable seed costs forage soybean is a real opportunity for beef cattle producers everywhere.

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    Seiter, S. C. Altemose, M. Davis. 2004. Forage soybean yield and quality response to

    plant density and row distance. Agronomy Journal 96, 966-970.

    Sheaffer, C., J. Orf, T. Devine, J. Jewett. 2001. Yield and quality of forage soybean.

    Agronomy Journal 93:99-106.

    Subcommittee on Beef Cattle Nutrition, Committee on Animal Nutrition, National

    Research Council. “Front Matter.” Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle: Seventh Revised Edition: Update 2000. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

  • December20th

    Saltby Ross Mittleman

    As the global population continues to explode at an exponential rate the encroaching pressures upon agricultural lands and those who work them are being felt in an increasingly intense manner. Those pressures have been highlighted ever since the emergence of the Green Revolution sought to usher in a new era of intensive farming designed to bring about a surplus supply that could keep pace with a rapidly burgeoning demand. Currently, every type of effort is made to increase yield on a given parcel. Additionally, traditional definitions of what constitutes arable land are being abandoned for a new type of criteria that includes even the most marginalized terrain as a potential site for cultivation.  From small urban plots to irrigated farms of the arid southwestern U.S. far from the source of that water, previous lands deemed inhospitable to agricultural production are undergoing reevaluation with a new and more urgent perspective. Those of us who inhabit the United States envision most farmland gently rolling along a flat vast expanse of earth. However, in many other parts of the world farmers look at a hillside and envision crops clinging to a steep gradient because that is the only choice they have.  The challenges associated with mountain farming are numerous and become exacerbated by climatic conditions, particularly tropical ones. Enter SALT, Sloping Agricultural Land Technology, a strategy pioneered in the Davao region of the Philippines that has gained notoriety and accrued devout practitioners in areas with mountainous terrain throughout the world.

    As the name indicates, SALT offers approaches and techniques for those working lands with varied topographic relief. The objectives are both agricultural and environmental as the technology aims to increase production over the long term while eliminating erosion and land degradation. A man named Harold Watson pioneered the idea while working in the Davao del Sur province of the Philippines during the early 1970’s.  A Baptist missionary from Mississippi, Watson began to recognize the need for a more sustainable form of farming in the region after several years of observation and hands on experience working with the locals. The dominant trend at the time was a type of slash and burn, or swidden, agriculture still practiced throughout much of the developing world where native vegetation is first cut to the ground and later burned when dry. This practice gives soils a one-time injection of nutrients from the ashes that can be readily taken up by crops planted the following season, usually corn or soy. By denuding the land of native vegetation in place of annual crops the potential for rapid degradation and erosion increases exponentially. Without proper crop rotation whatever soil remaining is rendered unproductive and generally abandoned within three to four years. In tropical areas like the Philippines, heavy monsoon rains falling on hillsides cause massive amounts of erosion, loss of nutrient-rich topsoil, and even landslides with disastrous results. These abandoned plots are the most susceptible to extreme environmental factors that trigger chain reactions felt from the top of a valley to the rivers below that become over-run with sediment.

    Forestry and Agriculture ComponetsThrough observation, experimentation, and innovation, Watson and his companions at Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center set about finding more sustainable solutions. They identified a number of nitrogen fixing trees that when planted stabilized areas prone to erosion, enhanced the quality of the soil, and when pruned the cuttings can be used for mulch and livestock fodder. (further reducing exposed earth) These trees, such as gliricidia sepium or leucana (commonly referred to by the natives as ipil ipil) were first planted along a contour of the sloping area in three to five meter wide bands. The contour was determined through a basic wooden A-frame tool with a rock tied to a string that hung in the middle. By working this contraption across a hillside, and using the laws of triangulation, a line level at a specific elevation could be marked out and planting could commence. Once the trees were established, famers planted rows of perennial crops such as coffee, banana or cacao. Yet another category of annual crops such as beans, cucumbers, eggplant, peanut, or tobacco are sown between the established hedgerows up and down the slope. If crops were rotated appropriately throughout the seasons erosion was drastically reduced while soil fertility was greatly enhanced, resulting in increased yields.

    This system rapidly gained favor and went from a small-scale regional experiment to a widely accepted method. Others have championed the cause throughout the world including Ray Wijewardene, a British agricultural engineer (as well as an accomplished aviator, businessman, inventor, and gold-medal winning sailor) who is credited with bringing the technology to other parts of Asia and Africa and customizing the systems to each individual climate and culture. Ray further advanced SALT by heavily stressing the need for all soil within the system to be cloaked by vegetative matter, in the form of living plants or mulch. He further expanded upon Watson’s original ideas by stressing the importance of incorporating  a perennial polyculture. The result was a new type of agroforestry combining the benefits of seasonal crop production with sustained harvest of natural materials in the form of firewood and livestock fodder. The emphasis on agroforestry accomplished two other functions in regards to weed control, a major challenge in tropical agriculture. One, as mentioned above, was the introduction of leaf litter that suppresses weed growth. The second factor had to do with a limited canopy that allowed some shading for crops that do not require constant direct sunlight, and further limited weed germination rates.

    Wijewardene was highly instrumental in promoting SALT throughout other regions of Asia beyond the Philippines, but the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (in cooperation with its sister partner the Asian Rural Life Center) are the ones truly credited with developing and spreading its message to this day. What stands out about these organizations is a full-fledged commitment to communities in which they are designed to serve. SALTWhere as many NGO’s this day in age struggle to connect with the people they hope to help, the MBRLC and the ARLC work lock-step with locals in the region. Harold Watson had the foresight and patience during the initial development of SALT to listen to the problems facing farmers and offered a calculated comprehensive response tailored to their specific needs. He built a consensus at the ground level and began attracting participants in a deliberate manner. He used religion as a tool to strengthen and unify the community.  It was also a philosophy based on education that continues to anchor the foundation of the current incarnation of the MBRLC. People come from the tropical highlands of Guatemala, the Hindu-Kush Himalayas, and West Africa to learn these innovative techniques and bring them home. Adaptations of SALT have sprung up world wide, including the advent of keyline contouring practiced throughout much of Australia, which utilizes contour topography to trap rain water and lessen run-off. With SALT, the grass-roots movement has gained traction within the government as several bills have recently gone before congress to set up national standards and financing. The bottom up approach has proven highly effective in attracting even the most skeptical farmers as they begin to see positive results for those adopting the methods. The movement inspires a second look at the sheer variety and adaptability of agriculture to take shape and form where least expected, and raises the question…where else?



    Sources for material and information used in this article:

    A good resource for farmers looking to employ SALT principles:


  • November24th

    Vetiver Erosion Prevention


    The basic Vetiver Grass Technology comprises a dense vetiver grass (Vetiveria zizanioides L) hedgerow that is planted across the slope of the land or embankment. The hedgerow traps sediments, spreads out rain-water runoff, and provides though its roots significant reinforcement to the soil. Vetiver grass technology (VGT) is the basis of every application that are known collectively as the Vetiver System (VS).  VS covers many applications and includes: soil and water conservation, land rehabilitation and gully control, slope stabilization, disaster mitigation, improvement of the interface of water and structures, water quality, remediation of polluted sites, agricultural uses, and other applications that are unrelated to the forgoing. VS applications are used to remedy past problems and prevent new problems re-occurring.  This paper sets out the most important characteristics necessary for a plant to be useful for agricultural and biological engineering, and describes ten basic and key facts relating to VS that makes it an acceptable and safe technology for the mitigation of problems relating to soil and water.  To avoid repetition, detailed information relating to the many different applications of VS has been left to other presentations at this conference.


    As a result of an initiative, in 1986, by the World Bank [1], VGT was introduced to development projects in India as a low cost vegetative system for soil and water conservation. Since that time VGT has been used in over 100 countries, primarily in the tropics and semi tropics, and has become of principal interest of civil and environmental engineers as a biological method for stabilization of constructed  earthworks  such  as  railroads  and  highways,  mine  land  rehabilitation,  wastewater management and water quality improvement.  VGT is a “green” and very “sustainable” technology. VGT is labor intensive and is therefore  a  good  employment  generating technology in  countries where there are large populations of poor people. VGT is also a low cost, simple and effective technology that can be used by individuals and communities to solve some of their problems.

    The  world  faces  many  ecological  and  environmental  problems  that  relate  to  soil  and  water, including: soil loss that results in physical, chemical and biological degradation and loss of ability to produce food; overuse and misuse of large areas of land and contamination by toxic runoff from mine  dumps, feedlots,  and salinization;  water  polluted  by  mineral  and  organic sediments,  and pollutants  that  are  detrimental  to  drinking  water  and  often  are  unfit  for  irrigation;  decreased groundwater recharge resulting in water shortages and salinization; and inattention to construction site maintenance leading to infrastructure failure and losses.  Solutions to dealing with the foregoing problems  are  often  complex  and  comprise  high  cost  engineering  designs  that  are  impractical, demand  high  quality  input  and  supervision,  and  have  a  record  of  poor  sustainability  and maintenance.  An alternative to this approach is to seek remedial solutions using low cost biological methods.

    For a plant to be useful for agricultural and biological engineering, and be accepted as “safe” it should have as many as the following characteristics:

    • Its seeds should be sterile, and the plant should not produce stolons or rhizomes that could become invasive or weedy.

    • Its crown should be below the soil surface so that it can resist fire, traffic and overgrazing.

    • It should be capable of forming a dense, ground level permanent hedge, performing as an effective filter, preventing soil loss from runoff.  Apparently only clonal material seems to be able to grow ‘into’ each other to form such a hedge.

    • It should be perennial and long lasting, capable of surviving as a dense hedge for decades, but only growing where we plant it.

    • It should have stiff erect stems that can withstand a water flows of at least 1 cusec (.028cumecs) 12 inches (0.3m) deep.

    • It should exhibit xerophytic and hydrophytic characteristics if it is to survive the forces of nature.

    • It should have a deep penetrating root system, capable of withstanding tunneling and cracking characteristics of soils. The roots should penetrate vertically below the plant to at least three meters.

    • It should be capable of growing in extreme soil types, regardless of nutrient status, pH, sodicity, acid sulphate or salinity, and toxic minerals. This includes sands, shales, gravels, even more toxic soils and mine tailings.

    • It should be capable of developing new roots from nodes when buried by trapped sediment, and continue to grow with the new ground level, to eventually forming natural terraces.

    • It should not compete with the crop plants it is protecting.

    • It should be free of pests and diseases

    • It should be capable of growing in a wide range of climates — from less than 300 mm of rainfall to over 6,000 mm  — from temperatures of -15ºC to more than 55º C. It should be able to withstand long and sustained droughts (>6 months).

    • It should be inexpensive and easy to establish as a hedge and easily maintained by the user at little cost.

    • It should be easily removed when no longer required.

    Vetiver grass has all these characteristics.

    Vetiver Grass Technology

    The Vetiver Grass Technology (VGT), in its most common form, is simply the establishment of a narrow (less than 1 meter wide) live stiff vetiver grass barrier, in the form of a hedge, across the slope of the land.  When applied correctly the technology is effective on slopes from less than 1 to3 over 100%.  A well-established vetiver grass hedge will slow down rainfall runoff, spreading it out evenly, and will trap runoff sediments to create natural terraces.  In addition its massive root system will increase the shear strength of soil (thus providing improved stability of soils on steep slopes).

    Vetiver grass is a clump grass, with erect and stiff stems that grow to as much as 2m high.  The roots are very long (3-5 m) and in the main do not spread much beyond the footprint of the crown of the plant. The roots are extremely dense and have an average tensile strength of 75Mpa. The plant is propagated vegetatively by dividing the clump into slips with about 3 tillers each.

    Vetiver GrassThe vetiver grass hedge is established by planting slips 10-15 cm apart in a line on the contour. Time of planting is important, and is best done in the rainy season or with supplementary watering. Hedgerows vary in distance apart depending on the slope.  As a rule of thumb the vertical interval between hedgerows should be about 1-2 m, depending on climate, slope gradient and soil types.

    Vetiver grass (Vetiveria zizanioides) is  an  ancient  grass with its  center  of  origin in south India. Other related species such as V. nigritana and  V. nemoralis have origins in Africa and South East Asia respectively. These species do not have all the characteristics of V. zizanioides and are not recommended as a base component of VGT.

    The basic aspects of VGT, management, and application is set out in a small handbook for farmers, now in its fifth  edition,  “Vetiver Grass (Vetiveria  zizanioides) A Method  of Soil  and Moisture Conservation” [2,3].

    It has also been comprehensively discussed and reviewed in a more recent publication: “Vetiver Grass – An Essential Grass for Planet Earth” [4}.  Both authored by John C. Greenfield. In addition “A Look See at Vetiver” by P.K. Yoon [5], available on CD ROM, is a remarkable collection of research data and photographs from Malaysia depicting the basic attributes and management of vetiver grass and related hedgerows.

    The following paragraphs set out some of the evidence to support the use of vetiver grass as the prime candidate for bio-engineering programs.

    Vetiver grass hedgerow is an effective measure for soil and moisture retention and conservation.

    Research at ICRISAT, India [6] compared VGT with stone barriers, lemon grass, and bare ground (control) under natural (total rainfall 689 mm.) and artificial rainfall conditions.  In all cases VGT was the most effective technology for reducing soil and water losses.  VGT reduced rainfall run off by 57%, and soil loss by over 80%. The results clearly showed from the experimental hydrographs the enhanced delay in release of run off from the vetiver plots, an interesting feature that could be applied as an upper catchment flood control measure. The same research team [7], confirmed that in the next year vetiver performed even better.  Vetiver shows a distinct improvement in efficiency as the  hedges  become  older  and  denser.  At  CIAT  [8],  Colombia,  vetiver  was  compared  to  other vegetative systems grown in conjunction with cassava. At 11 months (rainfall 1240 mm.) vetiver hedges reduced soil  loss from  142  tons/ha for  bare fallow  to  1.3  tons/ha. for  cropped  cassava between vetiver hedges  Rainfall run off was reduced from 11.6% to 3.6%.  Other researchers have reported similar results.  Evidence [9] shows strong positive correlation between soil loss and water runoff  reduction  when  VGT  is  applied  on  black  vertisols  in  western  India,  and  that  VGT  is significantly superior to other hedge type barriers. In Louisiana [10], demonstrations conclusively show the impact of vetiver hedges on sediment retention.  In Malaysia [11], large-scale experiments have demonstrated substantial sediment deposits behind vetiver hedges, in one case of about 1 meter in 1 year.

    Farmers have in nearly every case reported favorably on the use of VGT.  A farmer [12] has used vetiver  on  the family sugar  cane farm  in Natal,  South Africa, for  over  70  years  as  a means  of stabilizing roadsides. Since 1989 he has protected 186 ha. of farmland with vetiver hedges. Erosion losses have been reduced substantially and rainfall runoff was reduced to the extent that in a very serious drought in 1992 not one of his young lychee trees was lost. Vetiver grass users in Central America, amongst them those from Honduras [13], confirm that vetiver hedges are the most cost effective method of soil conservation, as do users, [14] in Ethiopia, and other African countries. The feedback from 17 farmers in Layete, Philippines [15], gives clear indication of the impact of VGT and its superiority over other systems.  It should be noted that vetiver grass can regenerate from stem nodes. This means that as the sediment builds up behind and within the vetiver hedge to form a terrace, the grass will grow up with the rising terrace – in Fiji terraces with risers as high as 3 meters have been formed naturally [1] under such conditions.

    There is no evidence to show that vetiver grass hedges are inferior to other types of hedge. To the contrary, evidence suggests that vetiver hedges are the most effective of all vegetative barriers.

    Vetiver grass will grow over a wide range of site conditions.

    Experiments [16] with  vetiver  under saline  and sodic  conditions in Australia  demonstrated that vetiver will tolerate high levels of salinity up to ECse of 38 mScm-1. Vetiver shows a 50% dry matter yield reduction around ECse of 20 mScm. Investigations [17] into the tolerance of vetiver to a range of soil pH have been carried out, and demonstrate the tolerance of vetiver to pH levels as low as 3.3 with soil Al toxicity levels of 68% – indications are that vetiver may be one of the most tolerant crop and pasture species to Al toxicity.  It was also demonstrated that vetiver could be established on soils of pH 11.5 and that it survived well when adequate levels of P and N were supplied.  Vetiver grass has been demonstrated to grow under a wide variety of soil types, depths, and structure. The growth of vetiver on five different soil types in Malaysia [18] was compared; and although growth of vetiver differed  from  one soil  type  to  another,  in  all  cases  vetiver  grew  reasonably  well.  It was  also demonstrated that vetiver can be established on ex-tin mining land, leading to the rehabilitation of such degraded land. In India, vetiver grows  as strongly on the black vertisols  as it does on the alfasols. Vetiver grows well on upland as well as wetland conditions, demonstrating its xerophytic and hydrophytic characteristics [18]. Vetiver’s cold tolerance limit is around – 9.5° C [19], although some plants have survived short spells at – 15° C [20].

    Rainfall is a constraint to the growth of vetiver.  It grows in low rainfall areas of 300 – 400 mm, but requires  greater management  attention. Under  these  conditions  it  is more  difficult  to  establish vetiver; and due to seasonal extremes, caused by overgrazing and periodic droughts etc. vetiver, like all  other  plants, suffers. However where  ground water  tables  are  high  or  irrigation  is  available vetiver will grow under zero rainfall conditions.  At times of extreme drought, rainfall less than 50 mm vetiver has been recorded surviving 12 months without rain. As a rule of thumb vetiver will grow  under most site  conditions throughout the tropics  and semi-tropics. It does  best  on welldrained soils.  It will not grow in areas that have extreme cold during winter months, and where there are permafrost conditions. Except for the effect of temperature vetiver will grow at most altitudes. In Honduras [13] vetiver grows quite well at 2,800 meters. Vetiver hedges have been established [21] in western Ethiopia  at  2,000 m. Vetiver  has survived snow  conditions  at  3,000 meters in Lesotho [22]. Vetiver  has  high  potential for  growth  in saline  areas [23]  in Australia,  and was successfully used for the rehabilitation of the derelict sodic Ussar lands of northwest India.

    More recent [24, 25] work by Truong et al shows vetiver to tolerate high levels of most heavy metals and toxic materials, well above threshold levels of most other plants. Researchers in China and Thailand have confirmed these findings.  Combining its tolerance to heavy metals and its ability to take up excess phosphates and nitrates makes it an ideal plant for constructed and natural wetlands where there is a need to clean up polluted water, sewage and factory effluents. Paul Truong and his associates in Australia and Xia Hanping of China have led the research and demonstrations in this important area.

    Overall evidence points to vetiver tolerating a very wide range of site conditions, including those that may be considered extremely hostile to plant growth.

    Vetiver grass is non-competitive with adjacent crops and Vetiver hedgerows are associated with crop yield increases.

    Most  evidence  indicates  that  vetiver  does  not reduce significantly  yield  of  adjacent row  crops.Experiments [8] in Colombia indicate no yield loss reduction of cassava when grown with vetiver hedgerows, whereas there was a 33% reduction in yield with elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum) hedges. The latter has wide spreading roots and is much more competitive with adjacent crops. Similar  experimental results  are  demonstrated in Maharashtra, India [25]  and Malaysia[17]  and confirmed by farmers from South India to Fiji. Sugar farmers in Natal, South Africa[12] and Fiji [26] report production gains.

    Experiments [27] over the period 1989 to 1991, at Akola, Maharashtra, India, on Lithic Ustorthent soils under  an  average rainfall of 840 mm. showed that  crops grown in  association with vetiver hedges had superior levels of production.  Average total production was 17.1% and 32.3% higher for crops grown in vetiver-protected plots compared to crops grown in fields with graded bunds and across the slope cultivation respectively. Moisture Use Efficiency was the highest for vetiver plots, as was the level of residual nutrients.  These researchers also compared the effectiveness of vetiver  grass  with  other  vegetative  barriers. In  all  there  were four  comparisons – Vetiveria zizanioides (Vetiver Grass), Leuceana leucocephala  (Subabul), Cymbopogon flexuosus (Lemon Grass),  and Chrysopogon  martini (Tikhada). Yield  of seed  cotton was  25.5%  higher with  vetiver than the untreated control, and compared to 24%, 15%, and 11% for leuceana, lemon grass, and Chrysopogon respectively.  In all cases the highest mean soil moisture percentage, profile and available moisture storage were recorded for vetiver. Farmers in the Philippines indicated that corn and rice planted near a Mura (vetiver) hedgerow performed better [15].

    Although in some instances there is evidence of competition with the crop row immediately adjacent to the vetiver barrier, most experimental results, and overwhelming farmer reports indicate that there are no negative yield changes, and that to the contrary, most crops show positive responses to vetiver6 barriers due mostly to its water conservation capacity.  It should be noted that vetiver hedgerows use up  less  land  than  other  barrier systems such  as  alley  cropping,  and  thus  (all  other  conditions remaining equal) the overall yield per unit area can be expected to be higher.

    In recent years it has been demonstrated in South Africa that vetiver grass can be used as a biotrap which attracts stem borer to its leaves instead of crops, when grown in association with maize and sorghum, hence the incidence of stem borer attack on the crops is greatly reduced [28] without any detrimental effects to vetiver grass.

    Vetiver grass is not a weed, it is not invasive. 

    There is no evidence of vetiver being invasive under upland rainfed conditions [29].  There is some evidence  of  natural  spreading  under  swamp  conditions  [30  and  31]  Nowhere  is  it  seen  as  a threatening weed (note this is not the case for other hedge species such as Leuceana sp. that can become  a  major  weed  if  not  managed  properly).  Its  roots  are  not stoloniferous, some  of  the accessions originating from south India rarely flower, and if they do the seeds are mostly sterile.Vetiver, probably originating from Guatemala, now grown in Louisiana has at one site not flowered for  25  years  [32]. Vetiver  is  propagated  vegetatively. In  Zambia  vetiver  hedges  at Msamfu Research Station have remained intact for more than 60 years [33]. One of the main objectives of the National Research Council’s review [29] of Vetiver was to verify whether vetiver might be a threat as a potential weed.  The review found that in the majority of instances vetiver was not invasive, but it strongly recommended  that  only  the  non-seeding  accessions  be  used. Evidence suggests that accessions from south India are less prone to seeding than those from north India. There are reports that accessions introduced from north India to ARS stations in Mississippi were very fertile and germinated strongly. This seems  not  the  case  of  the  Le  Blanc  accessions  near  Baton  Rouge, Louisiana, nor those of Boucard [33] at Leakey, Texas. More research is required into the flowering habits of vetiver in relation to cultivar, climate, rainfall, and day length. Molecular diagnostics [35] linked with rigorous biometric analysis were used to identify relationships between different vetiver successions. DNA was extracted from young leaf tissue.  It was found that the Boucard accession, and what is known as the Huffman accession (believed to originate in Guatemala) were essentially the same genotype,  and they were very different from the three  accessions received from India. There  are  believed  to  be  over  20  accessions  of  vetiver  grass  introduced  to  the  United  States. Molecular  diagnostics  offers  a  means  to  identify  different  accessions  and  to  correlate  positive biological features relevant to the accession.  This should result in a more scientific and controlled use of vetiver with potentially better results.

    In Thailand [36] over 30 different accessions of Vetiver have been identified. These accessions often  differ  markedly  in  character  and  include six  accessions  of  an  upland species  of  vetiver identified as Vetiveria nemoralis. These accessions include some that flower, but produce sterile seed, and others that have seed that germinate more freely.

    Recent work [37] in Australia and DNA [38] analysis of noninvasive vetiver accessions show very conclusively that Vetiver zizanioides originating from south India, and used in most countries for VGT technology is not invasive. It is concluded that at most sites vetiver has rarely been recorded as invasive, and if germinated seedlings are present, they can be easily removed by cultivation or by the use of the herbicide – Round Up.  There are clear differences in accessions and these differences need better identification so that in the longer term the most suitable accessions can be identified and matched to site and

    need. There  are  a  number  of  accessions that  are  becoming well  known to  vetiver  users. These include Huffman (US), Sunshine (US), and Monto (Australia). These all have essentially the same DNA and are indistinguishable.  There are at least 50 other accessions around the world with similar genotypes (DNA analysed).  None of them have invasive characteristics.

    Vetiver grass is resistant to pests and diseases.

    Vetiver is extremely resistant to insect pests and diseases [18 and 19].  There is evidence from India [39] that when dead vetiver plant material is eaten by termites there may be an allelopathic reaction that prevents regrowth of vetiver from the center of the plant, and under severe drought conditions, new young shoots on the periphery of the plant are grazed out and the plant is killed. Alternatively, and most probably, the termite cast is too tough for the new young shoots to penetrate.  Management by burning may eradicate this problem.  Reports from Brazil [40] suggest that vetiver is resistant to Meloidogyne javanica  and M. incognita  race 1 (root knot nematodes), both serious root nematodes in tobacco. In China there  have  been reports that  vetiver  has  hosted rice stem  borer [19],  and although this has not affected the growth of the vetiver, the latter might act as a host plant.  However in Fujian (south east China), where vetiver has been grown in close association with rice for many years, this does not seem to be a problem. In most cases pests and diseases in vetiver can be best controlled through burning, and as will be noted later in this paper burning ma have an important place in the general management of vetiver hedges.  The fact that insect pests generally do not eat vetiver makes the grass a very useful thatch and mulch.

    Evidence to date indicates that overall, vetiver is resistant to pest and diseases, and is not seen as a serious host plant.  In fact evidence is growing that vetiver provides a preferred habitat for beneficial insects [30].

    Vetiver grass is fire resistant and repels rodents and other animals.

    Vetiver is well known for its resistance to fire. This resistance has resulted in its survival in sugar cane fields that are burnt prior to harvesting. In South Africa vetiver is used to protect forestry firebreaks from erosion [22], and that this method is accepted by the forest insurance companies. Young burnt vetiver (burnt as a result of a mass of cut and dried leaf) under Malaysian conditions recovered fully in four weeks [11]. Historically nomadic herdsmen in grazing the flood plains of the Niger River in Mali, West Africa,  have  burnt  vetiver in  order to  get  a  quick flush  of  grass for grazing. Vetiver’s resistance and quick recovery from burning is primarily due to its protected crown and from its deep root system and associated nutrient storage that enables quick recovery.  It is these same characteristics that allows fire to be used as a maintenance system for vetiver in drier areas where large amounts of dry leaf material accumulates in vetiver hedges, burning “clears” out the hedge  and  reduces  the  incidence  of  termite  infestation. Vetiver’s  quick  revival  after  fire  is particularly important in that by the wet season and erosive forces are at work the hedge is back up and doing its job.

    There is conflicting evidence on vetiver’s effectiveness to deter rodents and other animals.  Farmers are continually reporting that rats appear to be repelled by vetiver and do not burrow into the root system.  In fact on Nepal’s irrigation schemes many farmers have planted vetiver on their inter-field bunds in order to reduce rat infestation [43].  Recently a forester in Papua New Guinea [47] reported that thus far (3 years), the notorious bush pigs have not up rooted vetiver grass hedges.

    Vetiver grass requires minimum maintenance or management

    Initially in the marketing of VGT the claim for minimum management was based on its use in higher rainfall areas such as Fiji and the West Indies.  In these areas experience showed that on cultivated lands vetiver maintained itself well, the only maintenance being an annual cutting. Following its introduction to less favorable  climatic  conditions such  as in the semi  arid  areas of  central India (rainfall 500 – 600 mm.) it has been found that selection of quality planting material, planting at the correct time (under such climatic conditions the planting window is quite small), gap filling in the first  year  or so,  planting  via  the  use  of  polybags  (container  plants)  under  extremely  difficult conditions, the use of fire as a management tool to eradicate excess dead plant material etc., and using different planting techniques to match different site conditions are all important management aspects that require good practical judgment.  Experiments [18] have shown that management plays an important role in the level of success of vetiver hedges as an erosion control system. There is conclusive evidence that just “sticking the grass in the soil and forgetting about it” does not often lead to success, for that matter most technologies fail when this approach is taken.

    Studies in Andhra Pradesh [48] and in the Philippines [15] show where farmers have understood the technology and apply and manage it properly the system is effective.  When government undertakes the work on behalf of the farmer we find the farmer less committed to VGT; maintenance is not carried out and the hedge system degenerates. On the other hand VGT applied in Costa Rica [42] in a citrus orchard (free of livestock) showed no signs of deterioration with no maintenance after five years.  Another study [49] shows that on very small farms (less than 0.5 ha.) farmers are loath to put any barrier across their land as they take up potential food crop production areas.  In such cases we need  to  be  more  aware  of farmer  practices  and  encourage farmers  to  use  VGT  as  a  boundary demarcation  as has been practiced for  centuries by farmers in Gundalpet in south India,  and by thousands of farmers outside the city of Kano in northern Nigeria.

    Vetiver grass can be used as a fodder.

    Where there are other more palatable grasses vetiver grass is normally ignored by livestock, this is an important feature if the grass hedge is to remain intact for many years. There has been limited research carried out on the management and feed value of vetiver as a fodder. It has been observed on many occasions, under farm conditions, that if the hedge is managed correctly, regular harvesting of  young  leaves  is  possible,  and  that  these  young  leaves  provide  a  “maintenance  +” ration. In Malaysia sheep will not eat vetiver in the field when there is an abundance of other more palatable species, but cut tops when fed to penned sheep were readily consumed. In China and Malaysia vetiver has been successfully fed to grass carp. In eastern Indonesia, under very dry conditions, cows and horses ate vetiver.  Under good management young vetiver leaves have a nutritive value similar to  napier  grass  with Crude  Protein  levels  of  about  7.0  to  12%%. Under  good  conditions  high volumes of green leaf are available. In Texas [34] under irrigated conditions, production of dry9 matter at more than 100 tons per ha. per annum, equivalent to about 350 tons of fresh leaf, has been achieved. Reports [41] from China indicated mulch production from vetiver of 11.4, 14.7, and 17.8 tons of green weight per 100 sq. meters of hedgerow over three consecutive years. Note 100 sq. meters in this case was equivalent to 230 linear meters of hedge.  There is little doubt that with some improved management vetiver would make an adequate dry season fodder, particularly if combined with high protein forage. Farmers at Gundalpet, India, have been using vetiver for centuries as a field boundary, and for fodder, where during the peak growing season it is cut once every three weeks.  Reports for its use as a fodder come from many other countries including China, Guatemala, Honduras, Niger, and Mali. Some accessions are known to be more palatable – i.e. the so-called “farmer” cultivar from Karnataka, which had been selected by farmers over decades as a softer and more palatable cultivar.

    In areas where there are more palatable species of forage grass or where livestock are absent, users who require an inert grass that can be developed with minimum management should look to vetiver. There are excellent examples of this application demonstrated in Costa Rica [42] for the protection of mango orchards on steep slopes.

    The most recent analysis [43] from China indicates high crude protein levels of 11-14% when cut young and regularly.  Even the more mature plants showed CP levels in the 5-6% range.  We have evidence of vetiver’s extreme drought tolerance; therefore it might prove a very useful forage crop when irrigated (using an abundance of brackish water?) in the Middle East.

    Vetiver grass  can be used for structural strengthening of  earth  embankments, drainage lines, roads, gully rehabilitation and control.

    There is worldwide evidence to support the use of VGT for embankment stabilization [2, 3, 11, 12, 22, 44]. Vetiver has been used successfully in Brazil, Central America, China, Ethiopia, India, Italy, Malaysia,  Philippines,  South  Africa,  Sri  Lanka,  Venezuela,  Vietnam,  and  the West  Indies  for stabilization of roadsides. Vetiver has been used in conjunction with geotechnical applications for embankment stabilization in Nepal and South Africa. It has been used successfully [22] to stabilize gold mine slag heaps in South Africa.  It has been used to stabilize flood embankments, river and canal  embankments  in  Bangladesh,  China,  Madagascar,  Vietnam,  Zimbabwe  amongst  others. Because it’s great strength and capacity to absorb shock vetiver has potential in the stabilization of canal banks against the force and shock of boat wash and wind Vetiver Propgationcreated waves. The Vetiver Network has received  positive reports  of  vetiver  being  used to reduce  erosion in small  dam spillways in Zimbabwe [40], gullies in Fiji [26], and drainage ways in Guatemala, South Africa, Malaysia, and Nepal [11, 12, 42, 44]. VGT is being used for the protection of building sites when located on sloping land [22].

    VGT  can be used  effectively for the stabilization of irrigation  channels [45]. Experiments using irrigation  channels with  vertical side slopes  compared  vetiver  on  unlined slopes  and  vetiver  on polyethylene lined slopes.  The side slopes planted with vetiver in the polyethylene lined channels remained vertical,  and nearly so in the unlined slopes. The results indicated the high ability of vetiver to bind the soil (a sandy loam), and the potential for designing channels with much steeper slopes with the resultant saving in land area.

    In  more  recent  times  there  have  been  many  studies  carried  out  on  VGT  for  embankments stabilization, the most important [46]  of which  demonstrates that  vetiver roots  have  an  average tensile strength  of  75 MPa  and  improve  the shear strength  of soil  by  as much  as  30%. These findings led to a great interest in the use of VGT by engineers and a major expansion of vetiver for these types of applications.  In recent years China has taken the lead in the use of VGT for major highway  and railroad  embankment stabilization. Probably the  best summaries  of this work  are available on TVN’s website at: http://www.vetiver.org/TVN_ICV3_proceedings.htm

    VGT has been used in many countries as a very effective means for gully control.  Because of its strength vetiver can withstand high velocity water flows that are normally associated with gullies, and  can  grow  up  and through  deep  deposits  of sediment that  are formed  behind  vetiver  hedges established in gullies. As a result natural steps are formed in the gullies.  Where gabbions are used to stabilize  gullies  and  waterways,  vetiver,  if  planted  in  association  with  the structures  will  help stabilize them.

    Vetiver grass is a low cost and economic technology for bio-engineering

    An economic analysis [48, 49] compared establishing vetiver grass hedges at less than $30 per ha. with more than $500 per ha. for conventional engineered systems.  Economic rates of return for the latter are around 20% compared to more than 90% for vetiver.  The costs of establishing vetiver hedges vary from site to site and country to country, depending on the labour cost. On gentle sloping lands vetiver hedges may be established 50 meters apart, and thus only 100 meters of hedge per ha. of protected land is required.  On steep lands of 60% the distance between hedges may be 4 meters or less, requiring 2,500 meters of hedge per ha.  The cost of planting material varies depending on how it is produced.  It will cost more if propagated by hand in a commercial nursery, less expensive by mechanized methods, as done by the Boucard brothers in Texas, and even less if existing farm hedges are divided for replanting as new hedges.  In India a farmer can dig and plant 200 meters in a day – cost US $3 per day. “Commercial” vetiver nursery enterprises in India were paid in 1987 about US 1  cent per 3 planting slips. At three slips per hole planting material would  cost  about Rupees  300  (US  $  10  per  km.  of  planted  hedge).  In  Thailand  good  quality  bare  rooted  “slip producers” are paid in 1993 US$ 2,600 per ha. which at 1.25 million slips per ha. is equivalent to US 0.2 cents per slip or US$ 60 per km. In Thailand polybag vetiver is produced and planted at US 62 cents per meter. The mechanized cost [32] of planting of vetiver, including cost of planting material, is estimated at about US $175 per mile.  In the USA protecting 1 ha. of land on a 4% slope would, using six lines  of  hedgerow,  cost  about US  $  90. Because  of the  variation in  planting  density according to slope and labor costs probably the best way of quoting cost is cost per linear meter planted.

    Benefits from using vetiver grass hedges are less easy to determine.  In most instances soil loss is quickly and permanently reduced, reductions of erosion losses from 143 tons to 1.3 tons per ha. in one  year  are  not  uncommon [6]. Short-term  yield  gains  have  been  demonstrated  in India [25] resulting in estimated Benefit Cost ratios of more than 2:1.  Some farmers in India have reported no crop loss in drought years when using vetiver, whilst their neighbors have lost their unprotected crops.  Other benefits that should be quantified include the value of vetiver as a mulch (in China US 2 cents per kg), as a fuel (vetiver has an energy value of about 55% of that of coal), and as a fodder. Indirect benefits include value of otherwise lost soil and soil nutrients, value of increased ground11 water recharge, its  value  in  upper  catchment flood  protection  and reduced maintenance  cost  of embankments.  If one assumes the benefits between engineered systems and vetiver grass  to be the same (which  they  are  not -  vetiver’s  being superior)  then  the  low  cost  of  vetiver  compared  to engineered systems (about one fifth) should rank VGT as a priority technology.  Detailed costs of vetiver  hedge  development [48] show  its superiority  over  other systems,  including  engineered structures, in terms of benefit cost ratios.

    Other than soil conservation a general rule of thumb is that the application of Vetiver System is about 20% of the cost of engineered applications.  Ultimately one has to carry out individual cost analysis for each site and application. Generally the technical parameters of VGT is known and reasonably accurate, all other factors are country, design and site specific.

    Vetiver Systems

    As background VS was first used for soil and water conservation purposes probably by Indian farmers in Mysore District of India’s southern state of Karnataka. There it had been used for centuries for conservation purposes.  Likewise it has been used (in this case Vetiveria nigritana) for more than 100 years in Nigeria’s northern city of Kano as a boundary demarcation for household plots and as a windbreak.  Its first modern use for conservation purposes was probably in the West Indies (St. Lucia, St. Vincent) and then in Fiji where John Greenfield introduced the technology to protect steep hillsides that were being planted to sugar cane.  The current vetiver initiative, developed by John Greenfield and myself, at a time when we were working in India during the latter part of the 1980’s, in the beginning focused primarily on soil and water conservation.

    Vetiver grass has been used for millennia for the extraction of an aromatic oil, oil of vetiver, from its roots, prior to 1985 most of the research on vetiver had focused on vetiver oils.  Indian research stations (G. Bharad) were the first to undertake serious soil conservation related work from 1987, closely followed by Malaysia’s Rubber Research Institute (P.K/Yoon) and Thailand’s Royal Project’s Development Board at the insistence of the King of Thailand.  By this time research was moving into new areas including vetiver’s use from highway stabilization, water quality improvement, disaster mitigation, mineland rehabilitation and handicrafts.  In the early 1990’s Paul Truong (Australia) researched aspects relating to flood mitigation, heavy (toxic) metal tolerance, water quality improvement, and constructed wetlands.  Chinese researchers headed by Xia Hanping followed up on Truong’s work and carried out extensive research on the use of vetiver for water quality improvement and at the same time undertook large scale applications of VGT to highway, railroad and landfill stabilization.  Currently a new and large vetiver program is developing in Vietnam for a wide range of applications focusing on disaster mitigation and backed by research and data collection.

    India, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, China and Vietnam have been or are currently important centers of research and development.  Even so there are other initiatives taking place that are important in other parts of the world.  Today over 100 tropical and subtropical countries around the world are fairly serious users of vetiver.  In addition special niche environments such as California and some Mediterranean countries are developing techniques to use Vetiver Systems to mitigate problems that impact their infrastructure.  Some of this is backed by local research, but much of the VS development is undertaken on the basis of research done elsewhere, and the use of vetiver grass cultivars that are related to those non-invasive types from south India. Such cultivars include: Karnataka, Sunshine, Hoffman, and Monto.  Combine the two and one can expect good results if applied correctly.

    The Future

    VS is still not widely known despite efforts of TVN and others.  This is particularly so in South America.  South American countries support climates that are conducive to the growing of vetiver grass and in such cases VS could be highly applicable in meeting the needs of these countries, specifically in mitigating against increased natural disasters (flooding and land slides) and increased land degradation resulting from deforestation, mining, and industrialization.  As mentioned earlier its use is not dependent on new and time consuming research.  Fortunately there are a number of South American countries that are starting to use the technique including Venezuela, Chile, Columbia, and Peru.  There is a huge potential in Brazil for VS application covering a wide range of needs.  Most Central American countries have used VS quite effectively and their experience should be harnessed.

    Although much research has been carried out over the past 20 years additional research is needed to understand the basic plant physiology, and in the ways it might be bred for such characteristics as cold tolerance, root variation for different applications, and water submergence tolerance. Additionally with the high cost fossil fuels vetiver grass has potential as a bio fuel, either as a biomass for burning in modern and efficient boilers, and or as ethanol. Vetiver, because of its massive root and leaf volume makes an excellent carbon dioxide sink.  Research into these potential applications would be most valuable.


    In order to take advantage of VS it is recommended that country and sub-regional workshops are organized  embracing  interested  parties from  all  the sectors  that might  be  interested,  including: agriculture, public works, health, urban, mining,  and water  authorities. Both public  and private sector  agencies should be involved, including NGOs. These workshops should use experienced vetiver resource persons to conduct the workshops. Past experience shows that this is one of the most effective ways of introducing VS.

    The vetiver Network is the custodian of most of the important reports, papers and documents relating to the world wide initiative on VGT.  In particular we hold the Proceedings of the past International Vetiver Conferences that cover all the foregoing topics and more. They can be accessed via the Vetiver Network homepage: http://www.vetiver.org/TVN_archive.htm.  In addition 10,000 pages of vetiver documents are available on CD-ROM.


    Literature Cited

    [1]  Greenfield, J.C. 1989. Vetiver Grass  (Vetiveria sp.): The Ideal Plant for Vegetative Soil and Moisture Conservation. Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [2]  Greenfield, J.C. 1987, 1988. Vetiver Grass (Vetiveria zizanioides). A Method of Soil and Moisture Conservation.  Editions 1 and 2. The World Bank, New Delhi, India.

    [3]  World  Bank.  1990.  Vetiver  Grass. The  Hedge  Against  Erosion.  The  World  Bank, Washington DC.

    [4] Greenfield, J.C.  2002.  Vetiver  Grass  –  An  Essential  Grass  for  Planet  Earth”, Infinity Publishing.com.  www.buybooksonthewen.com

    [5] Yoon, P.K. 1993.  A Look See at Vetiver. 1st and 2nd Progress Reports. The Vetiver Network on line shop. www.vetiver.org.  Vetiver Systems 2005

    [6]  Rao. K.P.C., Cogle, A.L.,  and K.L.Srivastava. 1991. Conservation Effects of Porous  and Vegetative Barriers.  ICRISAT, Annual Report 1991, Resource Management Program. 1992. International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh 502 234, India.

    [7]  Rao. K.P.C., Cogle, A.L.,  and K.L.Srivastava. 1992. Conservation Effects of Porous  and Vegetative Barriers.  ICRISAT, Annual Report 1992, Resource Management Program. 1993. International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh 502 234, India.

    [8]  Laing, D.R, and M Ruppenthal 1991. Vetiver News Letter # 8, June 1992, Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [9]  Bharad,  G.M.  and  B.C.  Bathkal.  1990.  Role  of  Vetiver  Grass  in  Soil  and  Moisture Conservation. In the Proceedings of The Colloquium on the Use of Vetiver for Sediment Control. April 25, 1990. Watershed Management Directorate, Dehra Dun, India.

    [10]  Materne, M., and C. Schexnayder. 1992. Excerpts from minutes on Materne’s presentation at the Work Group on Grass Hedges (cum Vegetative Barriers) for Erosion Control, at Oxford, Mississippi. December 1992.

    [11]  Yoon, P.K. 1993. A Look See at Vetiver in Malaysia: A Second Progress Report. Vetiver News Letter # 10. October 1993.  Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [12]  Robert, M. 1993. Personal communication.  Vetiver News Letter # 10. October 1993.  Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [13] Hendriksen, K. 1993. Personal communication.

    [14]  Mekonnen, A. 1993. Personal communication.14

    [15]  Ly Tung, and F.T. Balina. 1993. A Methodological Account of the Introduction of Vetiver Grass (Vetiveria  zizanioides)  to  Improve  an  Indigenous  Technology  for  Soil  and Water Conservation. Contour, Volume 5 Number 1, 1993.

    [15]  Truong, P.N., Gordon, I.J., and M.G. McDowell. 1991. Vetiver News Letter # 6. June  1991. Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [16]  Truong, P.N. 1993.  Vetiver News Letter # 6. June 1991.  Asia Technical

    [17] Yoon, P.K  1991.  A look See at Vetiver Grass.  Progress Report # 1.  Vetiver News Letter #6. June 1991.  Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [18]  Wang, Zisong. 1991. Vetiver News Letter # 6. June 1991.  Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [19] Kemper, D. 1990.  Personal Communication.

    [20] Labene, W. 1993.  Personal communication.

    [21] Tantum, A. 1993.  Vetiver News Letter # 10. October 1993.  Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [22]  Cook, G. 1993.  Soil Salinity Tolerance of Vetiver Grass Species Compared with Two Native Australian Species. Vetiver News Letter # 10. October 1993. Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [23] Truong P. 2000. The Global Impact of Vetiver Grass Technology on the Environment. Proc. Second International Conference on Vetiver. Thailand.

    [24] Truong, P. and Baker, D. The Role of Vetiver Grass in the Rehabilitation of Toxic and Contaminated Lands in Australia,  Resource Sciences Centre , Department of Natural Resources, Brisbane, Australia.

    [25]  Bharad, G.M. 1993. Vetiver News Letter # 10 October 1993. Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [26] Greenfield, J.C. 1986 Personal communication.

    [27]  Sagare, B.N.,  and  S.S. Meshram.  1993. Evaluation  of  Vetiver  Hedgerows Relative  To Graded Bunds  and Other Vegetative Hedgerows. PVK University, Akola, Maharashtra, India. Vetiver News Letter # 10. October 1993. Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.15

    [28] Van den Berg, J , Midega, C , Wadhams, L. J, and Khan Z. R.. Can Vetiver Grass be Used to Manage Insect Pests on Crops? 2003. Proceedings of Third International Vetiver Conference, Guangzhou, China.

    [29] National  Research  Council.  1993.  Vetiver  Grass:  A  Thin  Green  Line  Against  Erosion. National Academy of Science Press, Washington DC.

    [30]  Yoon, P.K. 1992. The Use of Vegetative Conservation for Embankment Stabilisation in Bangladesh. The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [31]  Embrechts, J. 1993.  Personal communication.

    [32]  Le Blanc, E. 1989. Personal Communication.

    [33] Greenfield, J.C. 1986 Personal communication.

    [34]  Boucard, G.R. 1992. Large Scale Propagation of Vetiver Grass. Vetiver News Letter # 9. November 1992.  Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [35]  Kresovich, Lamboy, Li Ruang, Jianping, Szewc-McFadden and Bliek. 1993.  Application of Molecular  Diagnostics  for  Discrimination  of  Accessions  and  Clones  of  Vetiver  Grass.

    Vetiver News Letter # 10. October 1993. Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [36]  Royal Development Projects Board, 1993.  Progress Report.  Published in Thai.

    [37] Hopkinson, John. 2002. The Potential Of Vetiver Grass To Produce Fertile Seedwhen Used For Roadside  Stabilisation In Cook  Shire.  A report  to  Paul  Graham (Main Roads  Dept, Cairns).

    [38] Dafforn, Mark. 2000 Know Your Hedge Vetiver : Environmental Concerns About Vetiveria zizanioides.  Proceedings of the 2nd International Vetiver  Conference, Thailand

    [39]  Smyle, J.W. 1993. Personal communication.

    [40]  York, P.A. 1993. Is there a role for vetiver grass on tobacco farms. Zimbabwe Tobacco Association Magazine, June 1993, Vol 2 No 6.

    [41]  Chen, Kai. 1993. Effects of Vetiver Hedges and Mulch on Micro-Site Factors in a Citrus

    Orchard. Vetiver News Letter # 10. October 1993. Asia Technical  Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [42]  Grimshaw, R.G. 1993.  Soil and Moisture Conservation in Central America, Vetiver Grass Technology,  Observations  from  Visits  to  Panama,  Costa  Rica,  Nicaragua,  El  Salvador,16 Honduras, and Guatemala.July 4 -16 1993. Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [43] Pingxiang Liu, Chuntian Zheng,  Yincai Lin,  Fuhe Luo1,  Xiaoliang Lu,  and  Deqian  Yu. 2003. Dynamic State of Nutrient Contents of Vetiver Grass. the 3rd International Vetiver Conference, Guangzhou, China

    [44]  Choi, Y.K. 1991.  The use of vetiver grass to stabilize drainage lines in irrigation projects in Nepal.  Personal Communication. The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [45]  Sahu, A.P., Sharma,S.D., and S.C.Nayak. 1993. Vetiver News Letter # 10. October 1993. Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [46] Hengchaovanich,  Diti.  1999.  15 Years Of Bio Engineering In The Wet Tropics from  A (Acacia  auriculiformis) to V (Vetiveria  zizanioides). First  Asia-Pacific Conference  on Ground and Water Bio-engineering, Manila. Philippines

    [47] Aina, A.R. 1993. Personal Communication.

    [48]  Sivamohan, M.V.K., Scott, C.A., and M.F.Walter. (1993) Vetiver Grass for Soil and Water Conservation: Prospects  and Problems. World Soil Erosion  and Conservation. Edited  by David Pimentel. Cambridge Studies in Applied Ecology and Resource Management.

    [49]  Kerr, J.M. 1992. Economics of Soil  and Water Conservation. ICRISAT, Annual Report, 1992, Resource Management  Program.  1993. International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh 502 234, India.

    [48] Yudelman, M., Greenfield, J.C., and W.B.Magrath. 1990. New Vegetative Approaches to Soil  and Moisture Conservation. World Wild  Life  Fund,  The Conservation  Foundation, Washington DC.

    [49]  Doolette, J., and W.B. Magrath. 1990. A Strategy for Watershed Development in Asia. Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

    [50]  Vetiver News Letter Special Bulletin. December 1993. Asia Technical Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.

  • November2nd

    When grazing beef cattle or other ruminants in the Southeast USA or other humid temperate regions around the world, a well-designed grazing system is key to maximizing returns and protecting the land from degradation due to overgrazing. If a forage never has a chance to “rest” than it will not develop a good carbohydrate store in the roots and potentially could be grazed out of the system. For this reason a rotational grazing system can and should be implemented to improve the land and potentially the quality of the beef product.

    The benefits of rotationally grazing cattle, will generally, far outweigh the negatives. The main negatives to a system of this nature are extra management time and initial set up costs. Labor costs must be factored into the equation in order to see if it will pay off; however, a well-designed system initially will prevent extra management time and headache down the road. With a little bit of time at the drawing board and some savvy fencing and water supply shopping, input cost and time can be decreased to a range where the positive aspects of this system will almost guarantee both ecological and economic profit. Many farmer’s wouldn’t think twice about bringing their animal hay or feed on a daily basis, but when the idea of moving the animals once a day comes up, they all seem to get scared.

    A continues grazing system has been shown to have about 30% efficiency, whereas, a moderate rotational grazing system (with 6-8 paddocks), improves efficiency by 40% for a total of 70% efficiency. This will generally enable a farmer to have an increased stocking density without decreasing animal performance. A University of Missouri study on management intensive grazing showed that it would only take 2 years to get 1 pile of manure/ 1 sq. ft. of ground. As opposed to 27 years for a continuous grazing system. There are a number of studies that will indicate the benefits of manure on soil quality and how depositing them more efficiently in all locations can lead to potentially higher levels of soil organic matter. As the level of soil organic matter increases (not the recently dead, but the very dead, the humus), the cation exchange capacity increases, leading to a higher level of surface area for binding macro and micro-nutrients. In climates like this,  there are generally high levels of Aluminum permanently bound to the clay colloid causing toxicity problems, which leads to an acidic pH. It is common knowledge that an acidic pH will lead to a cascade of other negative issues. With proper fertility management (i.e. liming) and good consistent manure deposition through rotational grazing the pH of the soil can potentially be raised into the 6’s, where most forages will perform best.

    So what can a farmer do if there is no lime?

    The best management practice, if lime is not available, is to eliminate or limit the use of high salt-index fertilizers and manage the land as sensitively as possible. This means high forage rest periods! These high rest times will also prevent the elimination of “grazing sensitive” plants such as red clover, orchard grass, and other native grasses; the increased rest time will enable them to remain in the system for more years. Many of the “grazing sensitive” forages have high levels of crude protein or carbohydrates and can help improve animal gains. Consistently moving animals will train them to be calmer around humans and more relaxed when being worked as well. The farmer can also improve his/her pasture management skills, as they are in the field more often, observing. Balancing pasture and forage management to the nutrient intake requirements of a growing ruminant has long been the biggest challenge to a producer. Time in the field, and I don’t mean “windshield” time, is key to success. So get out and walk, its good for you and for your land.

    A final benefit of rotationally grazing beef cattle with well-behaved animals is the ability to diversify with different grazing methods. Beef animals in different phases of production have different TDN requirements, and being able to diversify forage options and grazing methods can improve the quality of your heard and the individual product you may be trying to rear, whether that be a stocker, a finished meat product, or a weaned calf. For instance, if you are finishing beef animals and only have a limited supply of high quality forage remaining, “limit-grazing” can be a method implemented to maximize what’s left of the pasture. An Oklahoma State study showed a significantly higher ADG when beeves were allowed to graze for only 4-8 hours per day in the finishing period. Another method that works well in a rotational grazing system is ultra-highs stocking densities. When forage has a chance to grow tall and become lignified, mature cows, in competition, will be forced to eat as much as they can and will “clean” a pasture of old forage that would normally be overlooked and ignored. What is trampled into the ground has the potential of improving soil quality by feeding soil microorganisms.

    Though there are a few initial management hurdles, and start up costs. The long-term benefits of rotational grazing far out weigh a continuous grazing system and with careful planning a manageable system can be established almost anywhere. Improving gains and pasture quality through rotational grazing is the first step to becoming more economically viable and environmentally sustainable.

  • August24th

    Titleby Dr. Paul Oliver

    Since 1992 the anaerobic digestion of pig waste has been quite popular in Vietnam. Here urine and feces are flushed periodically during the day and routed to biodigesters that generate methane. This solution to the disposal of pig waste, at first glance, sounds quite positive, but it demands closer examination.
    This practice involves a great deal of pumping. Even a small pig farmer is forced to pump and treat tens of thousands of liters of water each year. In many cases, the water that is pumped is not fresh but re-circulated water. This re-circulated water is not free of pathogens, and it often serves as a vector of disease. The pig is raised in a damp, wet and humid environment where conditions are ideal for the proliferation of disease.  

    In order to flush, a concrete floor is required. But concrete floors have a very negative impact on the bone structure of the pig. When pigs are brought to slaughter after having spent their entire lives on a concrete floor, they have great difficulty walking. It can be forcefully argued that it is inhumane to raise pigs on such a hard surface.

    A biodigester is always producing gas, and this, in many cases, necessitates the construction of a large gas storage vessel. Such storage vessels are generally located in close proximity to kitchens, sometimes even within kitchens. If ever they should leak, there is the very real danger of explosion and fire. Piping methane from the biodigester to the storage device and from the storage device to the stove is often risky and unsafe.

    Anaerobic digestion is far from being a complete waste treatment solution. It leaves behind both a solid and a liquid that require further treatment. Before it can be incorporated into the soil, the raw sludge has to be composted or otherwise amended. The effluent from the biodigester is too rich in NPK to be released into the environment and is often treated in duckweed ponds.

    GasifierRecent experiments have been conducted in Vietnam and Laos that show the effectiveness of rice hull biochar in cleaning up biodigester effluent. But to produce biochar, gasifiers are needed, and the primary product of these gasifiers (in terms of economic value) is not biochar but syngas. This syngas should not be wasted or flared, but fully utilized as fuel. Since this syngas can be used by pig farmers for household cooking and the distillation of rice wine, it undermines the need for biogas.

    So in the production of fuel, gasifiers can seamlessly replace biodigesters. Here we are talking about top-lit, updraft gasifiers that are constructed completely out of stainless steel and that sell for about $35 USD (700,000 VND). They can easily fulfill the energy needs of the average pig farmer in Vietnam.1

    The syngas produced in these gasifiers does not have to be stored. Rather it is produced on the spot only as needed. Instead of utilizing pig feces rich in nutrients that can be reintegrated into the feed/food chain, the farmer utilizes nutrient-poor, low-grade, lingo-cellulosic biomass. At the same time the farmer plays an active role in recycling low-grade biomass that all too often is thoughtlessly dumped in rivers or burned. Even when purposefully burned as a source of fuel, this biomass releases enormous pollution into the air.

    But what alternative to the anaerobic digestion of pig waste does the Vietnamese farmer have?

    BinsOne of the most exciting ways to dispose of pig waste is to raise the pig on soft bedding comprised of sawdust, shredded straw, coconut dust, coffee husks or some other form of dry biomass. The feces deposited onto the bedding by the pig is collected once or twice a day and placed in nearby mesophilic bins2 or biopods.3 Both devices are ideal for growing black soldier fly (BSF) larvae.

    BSFBSF larvae are some of the most voracious eaters within the natural world. They can effect as much as a 20-fold reduction in the weight and volume of some forms of putrescent waste in a period of less than 24 hours. In an area of only one square meter, they can eat up to 30 kg of putrescent waste per day. And for each 100 kg of putrescent waste, there can be as much as 20 kg of nutrients of a high protein (42%) and fat (34%) content. Live larvae sell for about $500 US dollars or 10.5 million VND per ton. Dry larvae have roughly the same value as Menhaden fishmeal valued at about $1,200 US dollars or 25.2 million VND per ton.

    If a mesophilic bin is used to grow larvae, the larvae are destined primarily for chickens. At night mature prepupae crawl through the aeration holes of the mesophilic bin and fall onto the ground. They then seek refuge under leaves and other debris around the base of the bin. The following morning, chickens have no problem finding and eating them.

    But if a biopod is used to grow larvae, the larvae self-harvest into a bucket. This leaves the farmer free to feed larvae to whatever he wishes: chickens, fish, frogs, shrimp and so forth. In the picture above left, we see BSF larvae grown in the Mekong on nothing other than pig feces. In the picture above right, we see the biopods in which they were cultivated.

    Red WormsThe residue of the mesophilic bins or biopods is then fed to red worms. Red worms grow 2 to 3 times faster on BSF residue than on partially decomposed food waste.4 BSF larvae digest fresh putrescent waste, something that red worms cannot do, and red worms digest the more recalcitrant cellulosic materials, something that larvae cannot do. Together they form a perfect partnership, recovering all possible nutrients. Red worm residue (or castings) constitutes one of the best growing mediums for plants. It effects an enormous reduction in the amount of fertilizer required to grow plants.5 Vermicompost sells in Vietnam for about $500 US or 10.5 million VND per ton.

    In this pig-on-bedding concept, urine simply drains into the dry bedding and is absorbed by it. Biochar and effective microorganisms (EM) can be incorporated into the bedding and are quite efficient in preventing the escape of ammonia. When urine comes into contact with the bedding, beneficial mesophilic microorganisms proliferate. These microorganisms compete with and eliminate a broad variety of swine pathogens. As pigs walk, play and root on and within the bedding, they keep it well aerated. The bedding also functions as a soft cushion for the pig.

    This approach to the processing of pig waste is somewhat similar to the processing of human waste described in another essay.6 But in the case of humans, urine is diverted away from feces (while feces remains on site), and in the case of pigs, feces is diverted away from urine (while urine remains on site). In both cases, it is important that the two types of waste not be processed together.

    Clean Up

    In the picture above on the right, we see the collection of pig feces with a dustpan and small spade. This collection has to be done but once or twice a day, and the entire procedure takes less than five minutes. In the picture on the left, we see the sieving of feces right before it is deposited into a biopod. A single 4-foot biopod can easily serve 20 pigs.

    Since the floor of the pig pen is not flooded with water, everything remains aerated, dry and sanitary. This translates into far less disease and mortality. When properly managed, the bedding has a fresh, pleasant, compost smell. Since the bedding does not smell, filth-bearing flies and rodents are not attracted to it. The pig pen stays remarkably free of flies and rodents.

    In the same time that the pigs walk and play on it, the bedding is slowly transformed into a mesophilic compost of considerable value (at least $50 US or one million VND per ton). Unlike anaerobic sludge, this compost does not have to be amended in any way prior to incorporation into the soil. This bedding can also be made available to red worms and converted into vermicompost.

    Just as it does not make sense to make ethanol out of corn, it does not make sense to make methane out of nutrient-rich pig feces. What can be easily transformed into a valuable feed should not be transformed into a less valuable fuel. This is especially true in Vietnam where rice hulls and coffee husks are abundant and can be inexpensively gasified. At the same time the problem of the efficient and rapid disposal of these two forms of cellulosic biomass is squarely addressed.

    But note that in gasifying rice hulls and coffee husks the pig farmer is not simply disposing of biomass, but he is also earning a substantial profit. One ton of rice hulls or coffee husks has, for example, a combined value in gas and biochar of almost $300 USD (6.3 million VND). In the case of rice hulls, the by-product (rice hulls) often has a greater value than the paddy rice from which it was derived.

    wastePig farmers in Vietnam are quite resourceful in collecting food waste from restaurants and feeding this waste to pigs.7 This collection takes place within all major cities within Vietnam. In the two pictures below we see the informal collection of food waste right in Hanoi.8

    Pig farmers can also be taught how to ferment fruit waste, vegetable waste, fish byproducts, fish mortalities, slaughterhouse waste, shrimp shell waste and so forth.9 Furthermore, the pig farmer can grow taro and other plants rich in protein to ferment and feed them to his pigs. Conventional pig feed produced by Cargill and other feed companies constitutes as much as 70% of the cost of raising pigs in Vietnam, and the Vietnamese pig farmer can be easily taught to produce all of the feed he needs to raise his pigs.

    In feeding his pigs, the pig farmer should buy nothing from feed companies, and in growing the plants needed to feed his pigs, he should buy nothing from fertilizer companies. He should become strong, independent, and no longer subject to the fluctuations and uncertainty of the global marketplace. Since 98% of the Vietnamese people eat pork, the pig farmer becomes a key player in assuring the security of the supply of food within Vietnam.

    There was a time in Vietnam when it made a lot of sense to process pig waste in a biodigester. This solution was far better than simply discharging pig waste into ditches, streams and rivers. But with the advent of living bed technology, BSF and redworm bioconversion, and the availability of low-cost gasifiers, the logic of the biodigestion of pig waste is not as compelling as it once was.

    It’s a question, not of doing away with the biodigestion of pig waste, but of making more options available to the pig farmer. Some pig farmers might like to get involved in selling larvae, red worms and vermicompost as an additional source of income. Some might want to take things a bit further and grow larvae and red worms to feed to catfish or shrimp which they might culture in ponds located on their pig farms. Some might not have sufficient space to construct biodigesters and duckweed ponds. Some might feel a bit uneasy about storing methane in close proximity to a kitchen and might prefer the safety of cooking with gasifier heat. Some might need cured bedding and vermicompost laced with biochar to fertilize their vegetable gardens. This list goes on and on.

    In producing the four basic components of food, fuel, feed and fertilizer as described in this essay, the Vietnamese pig farmer can make far more money than ever before, and he can accomplish all of this in a thoroughly sustainable manner.


    1 On gasification, see: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/22013094/Paper/Presentations/Gasification.ppsx
    The 150 gasifier in operation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnM5Itk7wlQ 

    2 On mesophilic composting, see:  http://dl.dropbox.com/u/22013094/Paper/Presentations/Mesophilic%20Composting.ppsx 

    3 On BSF and redworm technology, see:  http://dl.dropbox.com/u/22013094/Paper/Presentations/BSF%20and%20Redworm%20Bioconversion.ppsx

    4 Professor Tran Tan Viet of the University of Forestry and Agriculture in HCMC has carefully studied the mutually beneficial relationship between BSF larvae and red worms in disposing of putrescent waste.

    5 “A study in Connecticut (Lunt and Jacobson, 1944) reported worm castings increase the nutrient availability of the soil by 1.4 fold for calcium (Ca), 3.0 fold for magnesium (Mg), 11.2 fold for potassium (K), 7.4 fold for phosphorus, and 4.7 fold for nitrate-nitrogen (NO3–N).” See: http://www.scribd.com/doc/30909297/Biochar-Article

    6 See: https://dl.dropbox.com/u/22013094/Paper/Summaries/Human%20Waste.docx

    7 Of course such food waste should always be pasteurized. Here gasifier heat can be used to kill pathogens.

    8 These pictures were taken on July 8, 2012 at the end of Tong Duy Tan street in Hanoi.

    9 See: https://dl.dropbox.com/u/22013094/Paper/Presentations/Fermentation.ppsx

  • August10th

    CornfieldPart two of this review will continue to elaborate on the techniques used to modify organisms. The point of these two articles is to present a fairly unbiased view of the strategies and techniques used to identify, isolate, and implant genes for genetic engineering.  The conclusion to the two articles can be found at the end of this piece and it is important to remember that these are the words of the author and do not represent A Growing Culture.  

    Creating the Physical Map:  enzymes, PCR, and bioinformatics
    The exploitation of polymorphisms for fingerprinting has been widespread, but the information is worthless without a physical map. Labs and Genomics institutes all over the U.S. are using tandem repeats, SNPs, or RFLP to identify unique sequences between individuals. These sequences are easily identifiable by both the scientist and the restriction enzymes (RE), which are a class of enzymes that catalyze the cleavage of DNA at specific sites to produce discrete fragments of DNA. Single base changes, for instance A to G, may introduce a new restriction site into the DNA. These changes are often in the non-coding regions, but are quite common. The polymorphic nature of these non-coding regions, leads to a variable length in fragment after restriction, and these DNA markers are known as restriction fragment length polymorphisms or RFLPs. Again, these segments can help identify differences between individuals.

    RE hydrolyze the backbone of DNA leaving a phosphate on the 5’ end and a hydroxyl group on the 3’ end. Each RE has been isolated from bacteria, and their name represents the species they came from, for instance EcoRI from E. coli. They cleave the DNA at a unique sequence known as a ‘palindrome’, where the nucleotide sequence is the same forward and backward. Once the DNA has been incubated with the REs, the methodology of RFLP is as follows: DNA gel electrophoresis to separate fragments, Southern Blotting to immobilize DNA on an inert support, Hybridization between two complementary DNA sequences, and finally the denaturation of the template and the probe readying the DNA for PCR.

    Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a molecular biology technique to amplify a single or few copies of DNA across several levels of magnitude to ultimately generate thousands or millions of copies of that particular DNA. This is useful because a very small amount of DNA sample can be turned into an amount worth manipulating, studying, or identifying. This is where genomics institutes come in with bacterial artificial chromosomes (BAC) and high information content fingerprinting (HIFC).

    Once the sequence of interest has been identified it can be inserted into the Bacterial cell, often E. coli, to be cloned and amplified for sequencing purposes. After amplification, the DNA is extracted from the BAC clones, digested with 5 REs, labeled with 4 unique fluorescent dyes, and placed on the DNA analyzer. At this point the computer takes over with fragment analysis and outputs fingerprinted contigs. Other sequencing such as Automated or Pyrosequencing can also occur. The various contigs, or overlapping sequences of DNA, represent a consensus region of DNA and are the precursors to physical gene distances, gene loci, as well as the template for the isolation of genes. This realm of genetics is known as bioinformatics, and is responsible for every genome map today. With a solid gene map, and a plan of attack, the actual engineering process is now ready to implement.

    Genetic Engineering: vectors, bacteria, and some time in the lab
    GE technology exists in all fields of science; however, for the purpose of this paper, GE will be in the context plants, especially those used for agriculture. This is also the arena where the most controversy lies; most people are not arguing about GE technology in vaccines, as we are a generally anthropocentric society.

    Even though the story truly begins with the advent of agriculture, this story will begin with the vector. Vector in Latin means “carrier”, and in GE, the vector ‘carries’ the desired genes into the cell. The vector in this case, is a plasmid, which is a double stranded DNA ring that has the ability to replicate independently of standard cellular DNA replication mechanisms. There are other vectors such as retroviral, bacteriophage, cosmids, and fosmids, depending on the desired application. In this case the bacterial plasmid is modified by adding the gene of interest, which has been identified by the mapping techniques listed above. This process is not 100% efficient, and after insertion, the bacterial cells must be tested for the receipt of the modified plasmid. This is often done with the addition of a selectable marker, such as an antibiotic into the culture; if the cell has successfully been modified, it will not die when exposed to the antibiotic. The modified bacteria have been identified, and can then be replicated through ‘natural’ cell division. If more than one gene is desired, microarray technology can be used. After the mRNA containing the genes is hybridized they are placed on the microarray slide, essentially a square with a bunch of dots, and scanned with a laser. The result is a multicolored printout; the colors correspond with traits and statistical analysis can occur for better selection. If all has gone as planned, the vector is ready.

    The genes have been selected and incorporated into the plasmid (plasmid vectors are owned by companies, and easily purchased for GE), now it is time to insert them into the cell. This can be accomplished through biological or physical methods. The biological methods use viruses or bacteria that naturally infect cells with their own genetic material as part of a survival mechanism. The desired genes are added to the vector; the vector is added to the cell culture, and natural infection occurs. Biolistic particle delivery systems also known as gene guns or biolistics are physical methods that have the ability to inject cells with genetic information. The bullet or payload is a heavy metal (often gold) coated with Plasmid DNA. The payload is ‘blasted’ into the cell with the hopes that a plasmid particle will make it all the way into the nucleus.

    These methods require a tissue culture that takes weeks of incubation. Examples of tissues used are: cotyledons, protoplasts, somatic embryos, pollen grains or tubes, ovules, disk leaves, roots, or a callus which is essentially a mound of undifferentiated plant cells. There are also a couple methods that do not require a tissue culture: meristem and pollen transformation. The premise here is the transformation of tissue prior to the differentiation of the germline; the resulting tissue and seeds will be transgenic. This can be achieved through floral dip methods, vacuum infiltration, electroporation, or osmotic shock.

    GMO Seed CornAt this point another selectable marker will be used to test if the transgenes were incorporated into the tissue. Plant cells are often exposed to an herbicide such as glyphosate or glufosinate. If the cells die, they were not; however, if they survive they were incorporated and the cells can then be exposed to plant hormones to induce differentiation into the actual plant. There are also other reporter genes such as fluorescents that can be used to identify transgenic success. Whether from a tissue culture or meristematic transformation, the next step will be growing the plant to maturity; using conventional breeding and selection processes to isolate the best strain. Verification of transgene effects should be noticed in T2 and T3 generations before homozygous lines can be selected. At this point the transformation is more or less complete, and the socio political side takes over with regulatory measures. If all regulatory agencies such as APHIS, EPA, and FDA approve the product with their multi-step process, marketing can occur. So where to now?

    The Future of GE in Agriculture: thoughts and conclusion
    The last century has brought many changes to the face of the earth, most notably in agriculture. Today the average US farmer is feeding approximately 140 people, the highest it has ever been in history, and the highest of any other nation. This can be attributed to dozens of things, and some will say GE varieties of crops are one of them.

    Other then the fact that the industry is worth billions of dollars, GE plants arose because genetic modification through conventional plant breeding takes years of selection due to lack of control over how the gene is expressed, combined traits after crossing, high levels of recombination, and an undesirable genetic load. The production of transgenic plants are faster and whether agreed upon by the majority or not, the advent of GE technology in crops, has changed the agriculture landscape forever.

    Concerns about GE technology arise all over the planet, to the point where exported U.S. seeds have been burned just to prove a point. But is all of this hatred deserved? Whether a staunch environmentalist or not, understanding the science behind GE is paramount to intelligently discussing the issue. Value-laden debates without understanding are a waste of time, and all people are guilty of this. So after immersing myself in the literature my conclusion is this: GE crops, on a molecular level, are really no different than regular crops and transgenic technology is more or less an accelerated form of conventional breeding and hybridization. Unfortunately, this is only one side of the story, and the situation must be analyzed through a more holistic lense before legislation can take place. Like all human systems, the problem with legislative regulation in the U.S. is corruption. This stems from the fact that many positions on regulatory agencies are filled by previous or current employees of the exact companies that are being regulated!

    MonsantoThese companies use devices to “soften” the ecological impact such as antibiotic/herbicide-marker free transgenic plants, chloroplast transformation technology, or terminator technology. The cynic would say that antibiotic/herbicide marker free plants are missing the issue and simply placate regulatory agencies, that chloroplast technology makes sense but may not be 100% effective, or that terminator technology is simply a means for the seed company to stop seed saving in an effort to protect their own patent interests. The advocate for this technology is the farmer who actually has to deal with weed pressure, low yields and a family of five, the employee of the GE company who needs a job, or the ignorant consumer who has no idea about anything and will purchase whatever is cheapest at the grocery story.

    Overall, it is clear that the issue is still up for debate, and even though there are dozens of GE plant varieties with excellent traits that improve agrisystems and human health, there have only been a few traits approved for use. These traits such as herbicide resistance and antibiotic exudates where pushed through the regulatory process while improved varieties of rice, cassava, or animal forage still linger in the balance. This is the clear indicator that GE technology is “all about the Benjamins”. If the companies in favor of transgenic plants actually cared about global food insecurity, they would have pushed these varieties through legislation, instead of Roundup Ready® or Liberty Link® technology, which account for billions of dollars in revenue annually. From a strictly molecular level, GE is not different; however, from an ecosystem or socioeconomic view it is, and the implications of this technology as well as the patenting of life should continue to be heavily regulated and scrutinized.

  • August2nd

    Contrary to popular belief, biotechnology has been around for a while. The idea encompasses a wide range of procedures for modifying all forms of living organisms for human use. Early forms of biotechnology date back to the domestication of animals and the cultivation of plants where improvements were made through breeding programs and the implementation of artificial selection and hybridization. In the past forty years with the discovery of recombinant DNA technology, biotechnology in the form of genetic engineering has become more advanced than ever before. For the first time in history, genetic engineering (GE) is not limited to species or cultivar, but across all genomes. This paper will attempt to discuss biotechnology from an agricultural perspective, and what implications it may have on the future of food systems and the perseverance of Homo sapiens.  

    Current statistics reveal that one sixth of the world’s population does not have enough food to sustain a productive life. Though some will say this has to do with food speculators, corruption, and global trade, others will say that our agriculture production systems must be improved through GE. Whether an agreement is made on how to solve the problem or not, most people can agree that proper nutrition outweighs medical intervention and through translational agriculture sciences, solutions can be reached.

    Agriculture Revolution: starvation ended or growth enabled?
    In general the concept of agriculture has only been around 10,000 years or so (others may argue less), and is one of the most famous cultural revolutions. According to Vavilov throughout those 10,000 years food had eight centers of origin; however, these origins were different then the location of the crops’ actual genetic diversification. In short, the location of domestication was much different then the origin. As domestication occurred, the germplasm, or genetic base of a particular crop, began to grow and develop. New landraces, or traditionally selected cultivars, were created and humans continued to expand gene pools up into the 20th century when a second revolution occurred.

    Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, is hailed for his improved wheat varieties that supposedly saved 1 billion people from starvation. A plant pathologist/agronomist, Borlaug’s hybrid varieties were planted all over the world. More importantly the concept of hybridization and improved varieties was planted all over the world, and this is when the idea of biotechnology really grew (pun intended). With a tripled food supply in the last thirty years and almost tripled population growth; biotechnology would appear to be a blessing. To understand this better a bit of genetics must be reviewed.

    Genetic basics: a deep understanding is paramount
    In a nutshell genetic engineering is the addition of a desired gene, in a noncoding locus on the chromosome, to produce a desired phenotype. Some individuals are heterozygous, meaning a different allele at the same locus, whereas others are homozygous, or the same allele at the same locus. Often times homozygous individuals will have more success being engineered, because the genes for the trait are the same. New traits can arise from a mutation, and when successfully and permanently incorporated into the genome, or the entire genetic material in a chromosome set, natural selection has occurred. Mutations should not be confused with polymorphisms, such as eye color, which are the coexistence of two or more common phenotypes for the same genotype. Mutations are essentially nature’s form of GE, and their concept played a major roll in the discovery of recombinant DNA technology in 1972. Recombinant DNA themed research continued to advance, with multi-billion dollar companies involved in research, and in 1982 insulin, the first GE product was marketed; world food crops would soon follow.

    To modify the phenotype of an individual, a person must have a strong understanding of genetics. It is one thing to successfully place a foreign gene into a chromosome and produce a phenotype; it is another thing to have an individual successfully pass the gene, and subsequent phenotype, onto its offspring. This is why understanding the genetics side of reproduction is so important. In meiosis when chromosomes are reduced from diploid to haploid, a process known as independent assortment (IA) occurs. IA is the process of random segregation and assortment of chromosomes during gametogenesis, which results in genetically unique gametes. During meiosis, a number of genetic ‘phenomena’ can occur such as crossing over or recombination, which result in a segment from one chromatid swapping locations with the same segment on the other chromatid. This leads to a crossover chromosome. The take home message here is during gametogenesis and meiosis; a certain gene assortment will take place. Not all genes from the GE parent will end up in the offspring, and a selection process to find the ‘modified’ individuals will need to occur. So where does this all begin?

    DNA: structural & functional approaches
    All organisms have trillions of cells that make up their body. With exception to a few organisms, each eukaryotic cell contains a nucleus with identical complements of chromosomes, each chromosome is one long DNA molecule, and the ‘functional’ regions are known as genes. At this point in history, studies will indicate that genes are transcribed to an RNA transcript, which are later packaged by nuclear proteins to leave the nucleus through a pore. After entering the cytosol, mRNA, in simplified terms, makes it way to the ribosome where it is ‘translated’ into an amino acid polymer known as a protein. There are dozens of regulatory steps along the way that could easily take up a lifetime of research and not a day spent outside of the lab.

    Though the process is heavily regulated and monitored, mutations do occur. If the mutation does not lead to cancer, apoptosis (programmed cell death), or another negative outcome, the new mutation is now apart of the genome and has the potential to be passed along during reproduction. This process, whether spontaneous or induced, is known as forward genetics, where a phenotype leads to a change in the DNA. The antithesis to this process is reverse genetics, where a specific change is introduced into a specific gene. This is useful if there is no known phenotype to look for, or if genetic engineering is the goal. So how exactly is DNA created and replicated?

    Before understanding replication, a few enzymes must be mentioned. DNA polymerase uses a DNA template to synthesize a DNA strand, RNA polymerase uses a DNA template to synthesize an RNA strand (transcription), and reverse transcriptase, commonly in viruses, uses an RNA strand to synthesize a DNA strand. These processes are also in need of other regulatory enzymes and proteins such as ligases or histones to repair and package the chromosome. Though the process functions quite well, there are always mistakes. Some mistakes are harmful to the cell and others will simply create a change in phenotype. One example of this is a single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP). While DNA polymerase is working hard in the replication bubble, or ‘split’ duplicating region of the chromosome, it may accidently swap a single nucleotide basepare; for example, T & A instead of C & G. Though this only results in a one-basepare difference between chromosomes, the resulting change in sequence can give rise to a completely different phenotype.

    Genomes: parameters & practicality
    Before anyone begins modifying the genes of an individual, taking a look at the bigger picture will be helpful helpful. Again, the genome is the total genetic content, coding or non-coding, contained in a haploid set of chromosomes. This is true for eukaryotes, however for bacteria the genome refers to a single chromosome and for viruses, simply the DNA or RNA. Understanding the genome has a number of practical applications such as geographical variation based on evolution, species relationships, gene expression analysis, cDNA libraries, linkage maps, and recombination distance estimates for better GE success rates. To understand and speak about a genome, a few parameters must be used. The C-value, is expressed as the content of DNA per haploid set of chromosomes. This value is expressed in Picograms (pg or Gram x 10-12), which can later be expressed in a base pair number. Base pairs are the linkage between two nitrogenous bases (A & T, C & G) on complimentary DNA; there are kilobasepairs (Kpb), megabasepairs (Mbp), and Gigabasepairs (Gbp), each of which are a 1000x the previous. The number of basepairs can be expressed as the mass in pg x 0.978 x 109. Aren’t you glad someone else figured that out?

    Now that a language has been created, a successful dialogue can take place and genomes can be better understood. This is referred to as genomics, or the study of the entire DNA sequence in an organism. There are a number of different “omics”, but fort the purpose of this paper the focus will be the genome. Plant genomes are often broken down by monocot or dicot and gymnosperm or angiosperm. These can range anywhere from 0.06pg (G. margaretae) to 153pg (P. japonica). Animal genomes are a little more complicated. Initially broken down by phylum, and later by family, animal genomes range in size from 0.02pg (plant-parasitic nematode) to 133pg (marbled lungfish). By understanding the size of the genome, what genes are where, and which sequences are introns (non coding) or exons (coding), strategies for genetic engineering can be formulated and implemented.

    Until the advent of flow cytometry (FC) in the 1960’s, genome size estimation was relatively non-existent. BD Biosciences sponsored a broadcast Feb. 1, 2012, on how their new cytometer enables rapid determination of eukaryotic genome size and cell type-specific gene expression. In genetics FC is a technique used to count and examine microscopic particles, in this case chromosomes, by suspending them in a stream of fluid, blasting them with a laser until they excite and give off a wavelength of energy. Electronic detection devices pick up the wavelength, which can later be analyzed on a print out in the form of a peak. Today this technology is the basis of genome research such as genome size measurements, ploidy screening, characterization of unsuspected phenomena such as endoreduplication, as well as molecular and cellular biology of the nucleus. GE strategies begin with genome projects and if it weren’t for these new forms of FC some projects may never be completed.

    Complexity of the Genome: chromatin, gene pyramiding, & synthetic chromosomes
    At this point it is clear that even though a gene has found its way into a particular chromosome, the process of turning that into a viable individual can be very difficult due to the multiple areas of potential error or the many locations the gene could end up within the genome. As stated earlier, the genome contains multiple chromosomes, each of which possesses two types of chromatin, the combination of DNA and proteins within the nucleus. Chromatin is organized into two regions, euchromatin is loosely packaged and heterochromatin is densely packed. Due to the less dense nature of chromatin it is considered genetically active, and most proteins are transcribed and translated from these regions. Heterochromatin on the other hand, is broken down into two groups: ‘constitutive’ contains repetitive sequences containing mainly “junk” DNA and transposons (sequences of DNA with the ability of excising themselves from the chromosome and reinserting themselves in a new loci); whereas, ‘facultative’ is comprised of transcriptionally active or inactive regions such as the silenced X chromosome in mammals. These two types of chromatin are wound tightly around histone proteins, ultimately determining their conformation and affecting gene expression. Understanding this is paramount for GE. Different patterns of histone modification could change regulatory signals resulting in different processes such as replication, transcription or DNA repair taking place.

    Gene pyramiding is a technique used to “stack” genes located at different loci on the chromosome with the ultimate goal being the accumulation of genes that have been identified in multiple parents into a single genotype. One way this is achieved is through the slow and error-laden process known as backcrossing, process of crossing a hybrid with one of its parents to achieve a genetic identity closer to the parent. This depends on a few variables such as the number of genes to be transferred, the distance between the target genes and markers, as well as the nature of the germplasm.

    As mentioned earlier, the success of this can be determined by the level of gene density and whether or not the sequences are tandem or interspersed. Another method of gene pyramiding is the insertion of a manufactured chromosome into the nucleus. This process uses a tiny chromosome discovered in maize known as the B-chromosome. Scientists can insert as many genes as needed into the modified B-chromosome. This chromosome serves as a vector that can deliver multiple genes known as a gene stack. This is much faster then inserting one gene at a time, and the benefits are reliable inheritance through multiple generations, highly predictable gene expression, and a stable DNA structure. With the technology in place to deliver desired genes,

    Centromeres & Telomeres
    In general centromeres and telomeres are two essential features to all eukaryotic chromosomes. Each provides a unique function that is absolutely necessary for the stability of the chromosome. Centromeres, are located at the center of the chromosome, and are responsible for the ‘pinched’ look that they all tend to have. They are responsible for the segregation of sister chromatids during meiosis and mitosis. Telomeres provide terminal stability to the chromosome and ensure its survival. Other than stability why do these sequences really matter? They matter because they contain repeat sequences that help create the ‘map’ of the chromosome. The ultimate goal is to map or ‘fingerprint’ the genes on the chromosome, which leads to a deeper understanding and better decision-making. This is where tandem repeats come in.

    Fingerprinting & Tandem Repeats: mapping out the chromosome
    The first type of DNA fingerprinting (FP) is known as ‘single locus’. This form implements a specific probe or specific PCR primers. This is used when the single loci are known and the ultimate result is a DNA genotype. The other form is known as  ‘multilocus’ where polymorphisms at multiple loci are identified simultaneously. The first type of ‘multilocus’ FP involves a mixture of single locus probes; whereas, the second uses a single probe that identifies multiple similar sequence polymorphisms. This form is detecting unidentified fragments of DNA, thus the result is a DNA phenotype, not to be confused with genotype. Each method is useful in certain applications, and there are number of repeat sequences that can be taken advantage of.

    Variable nucleotide tandem repeats (VNTRs), also known as Minisatellite DNA, are non-coding sequences composed of arrays of short repeats (2-6 bp). Arrays range from 10 – 100+ bp. They are variable number sequences at different chromosomal positions and do not exist in every individual of a species. This method is highly polymorphic, producing a large number of different-sized fragments making it useful as a polymorphic marker in fingerprinting. The products can be amplified by PCR and labeled for easy identification. Repeats can also be harmful. If the copy number of the repeat increases to high, for instance 50 AGCs vs. 15 AGCs, some harmful genetic disorders can result, such as Fragile X syndrome. This issue is compounded over generation because the repeats can expand as they are passed down from parent to child.  Good or bad, the discovery of VNTRs opened the door for multiple genetic applications.

    Transposable Elements: mystery or miracle?
    Transposable Elements (TEs) are unique sequences of DNA that have the ability to excise from the chromosome and reinsert in a new location. Like tandem repeat sequences, (TEs) are sequences located in all genomes. They range in size from 50bp-10kb, and have played a role in mutations, natural selection, and evolution as a whole. Each TE has its own ‘instruction’ for transposition, the term referring to excision and reinsertion. Once excised, the transposon relies on enzymes for insertion. Bacteria use transposase, and eukaryotes have reverse transcriptase (Class 1) and transposase (Class 2). Overall there are two types of TEs: Autonomous, capable of self-transposition and Nonautonomous who transpose only in the presence of autonomous elements. Autonomous elements code for their ‘own’ reverse transcriptase or transposase, which enables the transposition of themselves and related non-autonomous elements through an RNA intermediate.

    Most TEs are flanked by repeating sequences, making them easy to identify and label. Class 1 are known as retrotransposons, and there are those with Long terminal repeats (LTR) and non-LTR labeled LINEs and SINEs. Class II are DNA transposons and there is also a Class III. TEs are labeled by discovery, species, function, or phenotypic effect. When these elements are transpositioned, they can cause a fully or partially active allele, or a variant or defective allele. If this occurs before cell division, the subsequent tissue will contain the mutation, whereas the previous cell line will not. This is incredibly useful for gene identification.

    Transposon tagging uses the DNA of TEs for transformation. Since TEs have known sequences and methods, they can be implemented by transpositioning themselves at certain sequences within the chromosome. This helps manipulate or better understand gene expression, recombination, genome rearrangements and break repairs. A good example of this is the Sleeping Beauty transposon (SB). It is used in insertional mutagenesis as a ‘knockout’ transposon. This TE can essentially silence an unknown gene of choice, ultimately identifying the phenotype it is responsible for. TEs are also used to insert sequences into the plasmid of a bacteria. This is the basis of GE and when a desired gene is inserted into the plasmid of a bacterial cell, that new gene is one step closer to modifying the phenotype of a new individual.

    Now that a basic language has been created, Part II will begin to tell the story of how genetic engineering is actually implemented, and final conclusions will be drawn.

  • July20th

    We The TreesWeTheTrees.com has just officially launched their sustainability crowdfunding platform, bringing a new and exciting tool to the alternative agriculture world, and an ability to easily and creatively raise funds. This platform helps organizations and individuals around the globe gather the resources needed to meet their goals.

    With this in mind, the launch of the first and only crowdfunding platform focused on permaculture, alternative agriculture and sustainability brings renewed optimism to many in the movement. WeTheTrees was designed specifically to bridge the gap between idea / design and the resources needed to make it happen. 


    What exactly is crowdfunding, and how does it work?

    bike familyCrowdfunding is a means of networking and pooling economic resources from a wide range of people, generally to support an idea or initiative from an individual or organization. It involves a campaign creator who posts her idea to an internet crowd funding platform, like WeTheTrees, sharing what her plan is, how much she needs to make it happen, and requesting that the reader consider making a contribution.2 The campaign creator then shares the URL for their crowdfunding efforts with their contacts, colleagues, family and friends, via social networking, e-mail and word of mouth, and asks them to visit their fundraising campaign and to share it with their contacts. In this way, news of the campaign can spread far and wide, and whoever feels excited about helping to make the idea a reality can contribute towards it by contributing to the campaign at whatever level they like. If the campaign reaches its goal, then the campaign creator receives the money and has everything she needs to bring her idea to fruition. In return for their contributions, contributors may receive some sort of reward from the creator of the campaign. Often it is something related to their project, and usually the reward gets bigger and better relative to the amount of the contribution.

    Crowdfunding really started to gain steam in 2009 when Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform focused on artistic endeavors, quickly became the most visited crowdfunding site. Since that time, the platform has helped successfully fund over 25,000 projects, raising over 225 million dollars for the campaign creators.3 Kickstarter has done an incredible job of harnessing the joy of giving, and helping to make the dreams of artists of all kinds come true.

    The inspiration for the creation of WeTheTrees.com came from a failed attempt to create a permaculture related campaign on Kickstarter. After the campaign had been submitted for review, Christian Shearer received this message in response:

    Thank you for taking the time to share your idea. Unfortunately, this isn’t the right fit for Kickstarter. We receive many project proposals daily and review them all with great care and appreciation. We see a wide variety of inspiring ideas, and while we value each one’s uniqueness and creativity, Kickstarter is not the right platform for all of them. We wish you the best of luck as you continue to pursue your endeavor.

    Obviously, this was rather disappointing. Kickstarter’s niche centers around art-related projects like movies, dance, fine arts and more. Alternative ag, permaculture, and sustainability sometimes overlap with their criteria, but often not. So, being proactive and living the permaculture spirit (the problem is the solution), Christian decided that he had better get a team of people together to build a crowdfunding platform that does fit the needs and ethics of this community. Not only would it help him to secure funding for his permaculture endeavors, it will eventually help thousands of others with theirs. After a few e-mails to some prospective team mates, Christian found three others trained in permaculture who wanted to join the effort: Ian, with website development project management experience, Jerry with front-end graphical skills and Vidar with the back-end programming skills needed. Together, the vision began to manifest into a functional website, and as of July 15, 2012, WeTheTrees is live and eager to help all who seek funding for permaculture and sustainability related projects.

    How does WeTheTrees work?

    Straight from the WeTheTrees website:
    WeTheTrees works like this: you submit your campaign, set a fundraising goal and a deadline to reach this goal (maximum 90 days). Then you promote the campaign to your friends, family and networks, encouraging them to come check it out. People can opt to contribute to your campaign at any amount above $5.00 and receive rewards for their contribution! We work on an all-or-nothing system. If you reach your fundraising goal by your deadline, then the contributions are debited from the contributors accounts on that date and deposited into your account (less fees). If you don’t meet (or exceed) your goal, then no money ever is collected. Use the WeTheTrees platform to fundraise for projects big and small.

    With a minimum campaign amount of only $100, WeTheTrees could be a valuable resource for fundraising at all levels – from the purchase of a scythe for harvesting wheat to the purchase of the wheat field itself!

    To learn more about WeTheTrees visit the website (www.wethetrees.com). Be sure to visit the FAQ page, as well as the really interesting strategy guide.


    How is WeTheTrees helpful to the alternative agriculture movement?

    WeTheTrees provides a multifaceted tool to every farmer, teacher and gardener, and can be used very creatively to not only raise funds for a project, but also to fundraise for a course, assess the market potential of different ideas, and even to pre-sell products that will be produced with aforementioned fundraised capital, allowing the farmer or eco-social entrepreneur to feel more secure in their undertaking.  WeTheTrees can also function as an excellent way for a community to collect money for cooperative endeavors.

    And furthermore, WeTheTrees allows a wonderful and meaningful way for anyone to be able to contribute to positive change on this planet.  Just browsing through the site can be enjoyable, seeing all the interesting projects that other folks are raising money for, and when a person sees one that really excited them, its just a click away to become a contributor.

    A few examples of how the WeTheTrees platform could be a useful tool.

    lemonade1. The Traditional Fundraiser – Lets say a family wants to install solar panels on their roof to supplement their electricity needs from a renewable source. This family (let’s call them the Kimbles) could post a campaign on WeTheTrees to do just that. The Kimble family posts a campaign to raise $1800 for fifteen 100W solar panels. This will give them a big start on their grid-intertied solar system. They set a goal for $1800 and a campaign length of 90 days. On WeTheTrees, all campaigns must offer rewards. Because the Kimbles assume that most of their contributors are going to be friends and family, they offer what they have in abundance. It does not actually need to be related to the solar panels (as it would be difficult to give away electricity as a reward).

    Their rewards could look like this:

    1. If you contribute $5 we will send you a personalized thank-you card.
    2. If you contribute $10 we will give you a quart of our canned apple sauce.
    3. If you contribute $25 you will receive an invite to our “Going Solar” installation party and bar-b-que.
    4. If you contribute $100 you will receive the invitation as well as a set of our home made artisan bees-wax candles.
    5. If you contribute $250 you get all of the above plus a hand made Shaker bench made by Mrs. Kimble in her wood shop.

    PDCcourse2. Fundraise to take a course – Shu Mei has been wanting to take a PDC course for a long time, but felt that she could not because of the price of the course. Using WeTheTrees she was able to post a campaign to raise the funds to take the PDC course. She set her fundraising goal at $1200 ($980 for the course itself and $220 for travel and expenses). In her description of the campaign, she explains how the PDC course will support her in moving toward what she wants in her life, and true independence on her path. She promotes the campaign by sending it out to her family and friends, and is easily able to raise the money needed to make this inspirational course a reality for her. On WeTheTrees anyone can fundraise to take any course that is related to the environment, social change, or permaculture, and there is already a list of organizations and institutions that are encouraging their students to do just that. For rewards, she may offer to do permaculture designs for people contributing over a certain amount, or give an evening presentation about what she learned during the course.

    cargo-bike3. Pre-selling products and gathering market potential on an idea- All campaigns posted on WeTheTrees must be finite and definable; they must be clearly stated and have a clear end. A person can fundraise for “the purchase of a cargo bicycle for delivery of fresh baked organic bread” but cannot fundraise “to start a bread business”. In this case, Mary Breadmaker may post a campaign on WeTheTrees that invites anyone who feels moved to contribute toward the purchase of this bike, which she will then use in her bread making business to do home deliveries. “Fresh on your doorstep in time for breakfast!” She sets her fundraising goal at $2,500, sets her campaign length to 60 days, and offers rewards for the contribution.

    1. If you contribute $5 toward this campaign, you receive a coupon for one loaf of her classic sourdough.
    2. If you contribute $10 toward this campaign, you receive a coupon for any of her dessert breads.
    3. If you contribute $25 toward this campaign, you receive a coupon for four loaves of your choice.
    4. If you contribute $100 toward this campaign, you will receive 20 coupons and be given a special thanks in her newsletter.


    Mary could post this campaign with complete uncertainty as to whether she will achieve her goals or not. She sends it out to all her contacts and invites them to check out the campaign and share it with their friends and neighbors. Because Mary lives in such a supportive community (and she makes such good bread), she exceeds her goal by $500 and is able to purchase additional equipment on top of the bike. She already has hundreds of loaves sold and is off and running. Had she failed to meet her goal, she receives nothing, and contributions are never debited. She would have learned about the market potential in her area, and that there isn’t enough interest in her community for her bread at $5 a loaf, and saved the effort and heartbreak of starting up and failing.

    Kids'Entrance4. Community cooperative action -  The crowdfunding tool offered by WeTheTrees is a perfect platform for building community cooperative projects and events.  For example, the Clark St. Neighborhood Association as been discussing for some time the idea of putting in a playground on the empty lot on the corner.  It seems that there is a fair amount of support, but it is tough to gauge whether the community will really pitch in when it comes time to pay for supplies.  One of the board members of the neighborhood association volunteers to post a campaign up on WeTheTrees to raise the funds for this playground.  The fundraiser is for $25,000, enough to build a wooden play castle with rope wall as slide, put up a set of swings, and to plant an edible forest garden that is child friendly (thornless blackberries, strawberries, kale snap peas, and dwarf apples, pears and plums.  The community has pledged the hard labor, all they need is to see the money and make it happen.  So the campaign is launched with a $25,000 goal, and a sixty day campaign deadline to help everyone in the community realize this is happening, and it needs to happen now.  Besides posting the news on their facebook page and writing a blog post about it, a couple of the young association members drop fliers off in every mailbox in the neighborhood letting people know about the fundraiser, and directing them to the proper URL.

    The association sets rewards low, because the main reward is having a community playground in the neighborhood.  $25 contribution gets you a thank you card.  $100 donation gets you a Clark St. t-shirt, $250 donation gets you a special mention at the opening ceremonies of the park, and a $1000 donation gets you a brick engraved with your name (or words of your choosing) that will be laid on the path of the park.

    If the community raises enough awareness and gets the word out, they should be able to raise enough for that playground, and if they don’t raise enough, then they have ascertained that the community is not willing to give enough to make it happen. Maybe they can adjust their plan and help it meet the economic resources of their community.

    What are the costs of using WeTheTrees?

    It is totally free to post a campaign on WeTheTrees, and if you do not meet your goal, there are no fees at all. If the fundraising goal is met, the pledged contributions will be debited out of the contributors’ accounts at the campaign deadline. You will receive all the money from the contributors, minus the fees of the payment processors (like Paypal and WePay) which are generally about 3-4% and a 5% WeTheTrees platform fee.

    A New Model of Doing Business

    WeTheTrees has been set up as an eco-social business, committed to transparency, equality and the ethics of permaculture. The company was founded and is currently run only by Permaculture Design certified staff, and all individual earnings (to employees and managers) are committed to be used toward permaculture projects of their own. Up until the launch, almost all the work done to make WeTheTrees a reality was done as sweat equity, and the company was funded only by the members of the WeTheTrees team. A true team spirit and a desire to give something back to the permaculture community are at the heart of why WeTheTrees exists.

    Open Source – WeTheTrees is running using open source software called Catarse, and then adapted and stylized to fit our unique needs.  The development team at WeTheTrees feels passionately about open source movement, and is glad to be able to give back the improvements and upgrades made on this site.

    How can I help make WeTheTrees a success?

    The platform just publicly launched on July 20th, 2012, so the greatest challenge at this point is just getting the word out.  If you feel moved to help get the word out, please share this article with your friends, like us on facebook, and let your friends and colleagues know it exists.

    The team at WeTheTrees hopes that this platform is useful to you and your community. Please come check out the site, post a campaign for your next project, contribute to someone else’s dream, and let others know that this resource is out there.

    And thanks for all you do!

    Christian Shearer






    ChristianChristian Shearer is a PRI certified Permaculture Design Course teacher and the founder of the Panya Project in Northern Thailand.  He is a natural builder, a food forest enthusiast, a musician, an advisory board member to WeForest, a certified educator and has extensive knowledge of tropical permaculture systems. He has taught permaculture in Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan and the United States and helped found Terra-Genesis International, an international permaculture design consultancy firm. Christian is excited to continue contributing to the Permaculture movement and to deepen his own understanding of how to make real lasting change on this planet.

  • July14th

    Mountain GardensA Growing Culture is pleased to announce it’s first article by Joe Hollis. For the past 25 years, Joe has been engaged in developing a Paradise Garden on several acres of mountain woodland in Western North Carolina, U.S. For him, Paradise Gardening is both a place to live and a way to live, and, above all ‘visionary ecological theater.’ He is trying to act on deep instincts and archetypal images related to human habitat and niche as a way of providing a sustainable values system with sufficient appeal to challenge the dominant consumer culture.

    Notes on Chinese Materia Medica for American Gardens

    Mountain GardensThese notes summarize ten years’ experience with the cultivation of Chinese medicinal herbs at Mountain Gardens, a botanical garden of useful plants, located near Mt. Mitchell in western North Carolina (USDA hardiness zone 6, elevation 3100′). Species listed are those cited in the widely available Materia Medica of Bensky & Gamble. (Spp. not mentioned in Bensky will be included in future revisions of these Notes.)

    Here are enough plant species to landscape a home or office, or (if there were time and world enough) to conduct a Chinese herbal medicine practice. Two major problems inhibiting the growing of Chinese herbs in this country are lack of sources of seeds or plants and lack of information on propagation and culture. Planting material for most of the plants listed here is available from Mountain Gardens, where the plants may also be observed in a display garden. Information follows:  

    Warm, Acrid Herbs to Release the Exterior

    • Perilla frutescens leaf, zi su ye – “Shiso” Tender annual herb, upright, branching, 2-3′. Very easily grown and likely to reseed (harvest the seeds, zi su zi, to avoid weediness). The purple-leaf form is the one used medicinally (it’s also used as a food coloring and flavoring, e.g. umeboshi plums). Tolerant, preferring rich, moist soil, full sun.
    • Schizonepeta tenuifolia flowering herb, jing jie – Easily grown aromatic annual herb, narrowly upright to 2′, occasionally reseeds here. Prefers well-drained soil and sun.
    • Angelica dahurica root, bai zhi – Easily grown annual / biennial herb, spreading, upright, to 3′. Monocarpic: the main root dies after flowering & seeding, but plants may persist vegetatively by small offsets around the main root. The Chinese produce large roots of this and other Angelicas by preventing flowering (removing flower stalk). Angelica seeds germinate readily the spring after harvest (and will self-sow), but viability declines dramatically after that. Prefers rich moist soil, sun or part shade.
    • Zingiber officinalis root, sheng jiang – Ginger is easily grown from pieces of fresh root (now available at many grocery stores). They take several weeks to emerge but then grow rapidly in warm, moist, rich soil. Not hardy – harvest at the end of summer, or dry off and allow to become dormant.
    • Allium fistulosum herb, cong bai – These are called ” Japanese bunching onions” in American seed catalogs. Easy from seed sown in greenhouse in spring. Perennial in warm / sheltered situations, rarely survive the winter here.
    • Elsholtzia ciliata herb, xiang ru – Attractive, easily grown annual herb, slender, upright 1-2′, self-sows here and would definitely take over my garden if I let it. Tolerant of soil, sun or part shade.

    Cool, Acrid Herbs to Release the Exterior

    • Mentha arvensis herb, bo he – “Field mint” Easily grown perennial herb, 2-3′, spreading by roots (invasive). Mints prefer rich moist soil, sun or part shade. Propagate by division – not true from seed.
    • Arctium lappa seed, niu bang zi -”Great burdock”- easily grown biennial herb, leaves to 18″, height 5-6′ (second year). First year roots are a Japanese / macrobiotic vegetable. Root is the medicinal part in Western herbalism (‘blood cleanser’). Grow from seed: self-sows here. Tolerant, prefers moist, well-drained soil, sun or part shade.
    • Morus alba leaf, sang ye – “Mulberry” – easily grown small (30-50′) deciduous tree, very tolerant and very useful. Sometimes produces root suckers, especially if the (rather shallow) roots are cut.
    • Chrysanthemum morifolium flower, ju hua – Ornamental hardy perennial herb, 2′, easily propagated by division. This is the white-flowered variety, better for liver / kidney deficiency.
    • Chrysanthemum indicum flower, ye ju hua – Similar to above, but more vigorous (here), to 3′; yellow flowered variety – better for wind-heat problems. Chrysanthemums prefer rich, well-drained soil, full sun.
    • Equisetum hyemale herb, mu zei – “Horsetail” – perennial herb with slender unbranched stalks 1-3′, spreading by roots, prefers moist soil, sun or light shade. Likely to prove invasive. A biodynamic plant.
    • Pueraria lobata root, ge gen – Kudzu is a powerful twining vine from a large root, notoriously invasive in the southeastern U.S. Tolerates most soils, sun or shade. A plant of many uses.
    • Bupleurum chinense root, chai hu – Attractive, yellow-flowered perennial herb, slender, upright 2-3′, easy from seed and may self-sow; prefers moist, well-drained soil, sun.

    Clear Heat, Relieve Summer Heat

    • Phaseolus (Vigna) radiata seed, lu dou – “Mung bean” – Tender, upright, branching annual to 3′Citrullus vulgaris fruit, xi gua – This is watermelon, the well-known tender, annual, long-running vine.
    • Dolichos lablab seed, bian dou – “Hyacinth bean” – Tender perennial twining vine to 30′, grown as annual in temperate areas. Attractive flowers. An important legume in tropical areas.
    • Artemisia annua herb, qing hao – “Sweet Annie” – hardy annual to 6′+ with aromatic, feathery foliage; prefers full sun, any good soil. Often self-sows and is weedy in much of E. U. S.

    Downward Draining Herbs, Purgatives

    • Rheum palmatum tanguticum, da huang – Hardy perennial herb to 6′, ornamental with large leaves and panicles of red flowers. Prefers rich, moist, well-drained soil and full sun, but dislikes heat – thus difficult to site in E. U.S. May be grown from seed.
    • Aloe vera (barbadensis) or ferox herb, lu hui – Tender perennial herb, a suckering rosette of fleshy, spiky leaves. Propagate by division, grow in container (well-drained soil, sun).

    Downward Draining Herbs, Moist Laxatives

    • Cannabis sativa seed, huo ma ren – Hardy annual herb to 6′+; easy, but not legal, to grow.

    Downward Draining Herbs, Harsh Expellants (Laxatives)

    • Euphorbia pekinensis root, jing da ji – Hardy perennial herb, 3′, for well-drained soil, sun or light shade. Propagate by seed.
    • Phytolacca acinosa root, shang lu – Attractive hardy perennial herb, 4-5′, multi-stalked; similar to American pokeweed, but not weedy here so far (perhaps only because I usually harvest the seed). Easy from seed.

    Clear Heat, Drain Fire

    • Anemarrhena asphodelioides root, zhi mu – Perennial herb with grass-like foliage and slender upright stems, 2′. Sun or light shade. Easily propagated by division.
    • Lophatherum gracilis herb, dan zhu ye – Broad-leaved perennial grass, 1-3′, prefers shade. Easy from seed. Not hardy here.
    • Prunella vulgaris seedstalks, xia ku cao – “Heal-all” – Attractive perennial herb, 1-2′, a rather common weed in eastern U.S. Tolerant, prefers moist, well-drained soil, sun or part shade. Propagate by seed or division.
    • Phragmites communis rhizome, lu gen – The common reed is a grass-like plant to 10′ which grows by the acre in coastal marshes, and will flourish in any wet soil. Invasive, easily propagated by division. Has many uses.
    • Celosia argentea seed, qing xiang zi – Slender, upright annual herb to 3′, ornamental with silver-pink spikes. Easily grown from seed; a useful weed in the tropics.

    Clear Heat, Cool the Blood

    • Rehmannia glutinosa root, sheng di huang – Attractive perennial herb (“Chinese Foxglove”), 12″; prefers moist, well-drained sandy soil. Easy from seed; spreads by roots and may be divided. Not reliably hardy here.
    • Scrophularia ningpoensis, xuan shen – Perennial herb 3-4′ for moist-wet soil in sun or light shade. Not difficult from seed. Has not been perennial here so far.
    • Paeonia suffruticosa root, mu dan pi – This is one of the “tree peonies”, an ornamental perennial shrub to about 4′. Easy to grow in fertile, well-drained soil, sun or light shade. Not easy to propagate.
    • Lithospermum erythrorhizon root, zi cao – Perennial herb 18-24″ for well-drained soil, sun or part shade, not too acid. Not difficult from seed; perennial here.
    • Lycium chinensis bark, di gu pi – “Matrimony vine” – Arching / spreading deciduous shrub which has been difficult to establish here. My best specimens ( now 4 years old, 4′ x 4′) are on top of walls (well-drained), sun or light shade. Prefers a dry, sandy soil and dry situation.
    • Gypsophilia oldhamiana root, yin chai hu – Perennial herb, 2′, succeeds here in average soil, sun or light shade. Not difficult from seed.

    Clear Heat, Dry Dampness

    • Scutellaria baicalensis root, huang qin – Attractive perennial herb with sprawling stems, 18″, purple flowers. For well-drained soil in sun. Propagated by seed.
    • Phellodendron amurensis bark, huang bai – Ornamental small – medium (to 40′ x 40′) deciduous tree; tolerant of most soils, easily grown from seed.
    • Sophora flavescens root, ku shen – Attractive deciduous shrub, for well-drained soil and sun. Easily propagated from seed; seedlings are tender, perhaps established plants will be root hardy.
    • Fraxinus bungeana bark, qin pi – Small , hardy, deciduous tree (15′). Probably prefers moist soil and sun. May be grown from seed (stratify).

    Clear Heat, Clear Poisons

    • Lonicera japonica flowers, jin yin hua – “Honeysuckle” – perennial, twining or trailing, deciduous or evergreen vine with very fragrant white, turning gold, flowers. Easily grown, to say the least. (This has become a very common invasive and roadside weed in the southeastern U. S.)
    • Forsythia suspensa fruit, lian qiao – Arching deciduous shrub to about 10′, attractive (but not as showy in bloom as the common garden Forsythia). Easily grown; propagate by seed or layering.
    • Isatis tinctoria leaf, da qing ye – “Woad” – biennial herb to 3′ (second year), attractive yellow blooms. Easy from seed and often self-sows; for most soils, sun or light shade. (I. Tinctoria is a secondary species for this herb)
    • Isatis tinctoria root, ban lan gen – as above Taraxacum mongholicum plant, pu gong yin – I keep getting this mixed up with the T. officinale Viola yedoensis herb, zi hua di ding – Hardy perennial herb, 6″, for moist, shady location. Propagate by seed or division.
    • Patrinia scabiosa or villosa herb, bai jiang cao – Attractive, easily grown perennial herbs for sun or light shade. P. scabiosa is upright, 4′, with yellow flowers. P. villosa spreading, 2′, white flowers.
    • Thlaspi arvensis herb, bai jiang cao (secondary species)- Widespread garden weed, winter annual, 1-2′, easily grown from seed and will self sow in sunny areas. The disklike seedpods are eyecatching (‘pennycress’).
    • Houttynia cordata herb, yu xing cao – Perennial herb, 12-18″, spreading by roots; somewhat invasive, especially in moist soil. Easily grown. A culinary herb in S and E Asia. A multicolored variety (red, yellow & green) is sold as a groundcover under the name “Hot Tuna.”
    • Lygodium japonicum herb, jin sha teng – Herbaceous perennial climbing fern; attractive, but apparently a noxious invasive weed in some parts of the country (not here). Moist soil, part shade. Propagate by division.
    • Portulaca oleracea herb, ma chi xian – “Purslane” – cosmopolitan garden weed, annual, sprawling and mat-forming, will self-sow in sunny garden areas. Edible and nutritious.
    • Dictamnus albus (=dasycarpus) root, bai xian pi – “Gas plant” – long-lived, ornamental, hardy herbaceous perennial, 2-3′, for well-drained, neutral soil, sun. Sow seed in autumn for spring germination.
    • Scutellaria barbata herb, ban zhi lian – Hardy perennial herb, 12″, easily grown from seed. For moist, fertile soil, sun or light shade. Belamcanda chinensis root, she gan – “Blackberry lily” – attractive hardy perennial herb with iris-like leaves and small red/yellow flowers followed by ‘blackberry’ fruits. Propagate by seed or division. For damp, rich soil, part shade.


    Mountain GardensMountain Gardens is a botanical garden featuring the largest collection of native Appalachian and Chinese medicinal herbs in the Eastern US, organically grown at the foot of the Black Mountains, in Western North Carolina. Our specialties include: native (S. Appalachian) and oriental medicinal herbs, wild foods, perennial vegetables, craft plants and other ethnobotanicals. We offer for sale seeds, plants, fresh and dried herb material and tinctures and other preparations. We present useful information regarding the cultivation and uses of these species, as well as our philosophy of Paradise Gardening.

    For more information, please explore our website: mountaingardensherbs.com

  • June30th

    GAINESVILLE, Florida – Grafting tomatoes to control soil-borne diseases may be a cost-effective management solution in some organic production situations, according to a University of Florida study.

    Graduate student Charles Barrett and horticulture professor Xin Zhao received a $10,000 Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Graduate Student Grant to examine the effectiveness of using rootstocks in organic production of grafted heirloom tomatoes to provide resistance or tolerance to root-knot nematodes — a prolific soil-borne pathogen of Florida’s sandy soils. In addition, the researchers were interested in assessing the growth, yield, and fruit quality of the grafted tomatoes and analyzing the costs and returns of producing and using grafted tomatoes in organic farming systems.  

    “Grafting is not a new technique worldwide, but its interest in the U.S. has been increasing in recent years as a potential alternative to chemicals as a disease management tool,” said Zhao. “Organic growers, especially, have limited options for controlling soil-borne diseases and root-knot nematodes. Chemicals aren’t the answer and crop rotation, which is an alternative, may not always be feasible, especially when you are dealing with small-scale production systems. That’s why we wanted to look at grafting as an option.”

    The process of grafting involves fusing the foliage and fruit-producing top (scion) of a plant cultivar with the rootstock of another plant cultivar, producing a plant that carries the characteristics of both the rootstock and the scion. In the Southern SARE project, two heirloom tomato cultivars were grafted onto two tomato rootstock cultivars that show tolerance or resistance to root-knot nematodes and express a vigorous growth habit.

    “The results of our study showed that both rootstocks significantly reduced root-knot nematode galling in the grafted plants as compared with the non-grafted and self-grafted scion plants,” said Barrett. “Root-knot nematodes cause root galls that damage the roots and thus result in the plant’s poor performance.”

    Barrett studied the effectiveness of the grafted tomatoes versus the non-grafted tomatoes in two nematode-infested fields: one that had a history of consistently high root-knot nematode populations, and one where root-knot nematodes were introduced through the planting of a susceptible crop.

    “In the field with very high pest pressure, we saw one rootstock was even more effective than the other rootstock in decreasing root galling, but there was no clear relationship between root galling and tomato yields. Better yields with one rootstock-scion combination was observed as compared to the non-grafted plants and self-grafted plants in that field,” said Barrett. “In the field where the pest population was induced and not as high as the other field, we saw less gall development on the rootstock grafted tomatoes than the non-grafted and self-grafted plants, but there was little difference in yield.”

    The researchers agree that the effects of grafting on root-knot nematode control and tomato yields deserve more in-depth research, but the take home message from the study is that when seeing root-knot nematode infestations, grafting is a method that can be used to overcome this soil-borne pest.

    Barrett added that in their economic analysis, the researchers found that the economic benefit of grafting is most evident when used in highly infested fields.

    “The cost of grafting can be four times more expensive than non-grafted transplants, so there is a limitation of adoption,” said Zhao. “Ultimately, the determination of weighing the cost of producing/using grafted transplants versus the expected return has to be made by the grower.”

    Zhao said that additional grafting research is required, including more economic analyses; using the technique in other production systems, such as high tunnels; encouraging more breeders to get involved so more rootstocks are available for growers; performing more site-specific studies on various rootstock and scion cultivars; and exploring the nutrient management aspects of grafting. The nutrient management research is also supported by a Southern SARE Graduate Student Grant (Enhancing Nitrogen and Water Use Efficiency in Tomato Producer By Using Grafting Technique).

    To learn more about the project, “Integrated Use of Grafting Technology to Improve Disease Resistance, Yield and Fruit Quality in Organic Heirloom Tomato Production,” visit the national SARE projects database and search by project number GS10-096.

    Want to learn more about grafting? Check out SARE’s 8-page Fact Sheet, “Tomato Grafting for Disease Resistance and Increased Productivity.”

    Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of GeorgiaFort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America’s Southern region.

  • June6th

    Written by William Rutherford and Loren Cardeli

    There has been much discussion amongst swine producers throughout the world about the most optimal conditions for raising hogs.  The most common and preferred method has been raising swine on concrete.  This method allows for easy cleaning, removing of feces, and disinfection.  Some other systems found throughout the world include the Swedish deep-bedding system, forest-based, or even pastured systems. A new technique is building momentum as it offers a wide range of benefits for farmers around the world.  In China this technique is called Fermented Bed Technology and through our experience we prefer to call it LIVING BED TECHNOLOGY. In this system the swine are not the only livestock, the farmer is raising a living bedding material as well.  This bedding not only feeds on the pig waste but also creates a living compost to improve soils.  

    We believe raising pigs in this environment encourages the natural behaviors of the animal instead of suppressing them.  It can be argued that pigs are naturally forest dwellers, and the softness of the forest floor provides them the ability to exhibit their natural behaviors especially rooting.  In places like Hawaii it is common to see wild bores foraging fallen fruits and rooting for grubs, tubers and insects on the forest floor. While in Europe there are areas that still forest their hogs in the fall to consume high protein nuts.

    Today farmers most commonly use concrete because it is relatively low cost and also long lasting.  Concrete pig houses are also easy to clean and disinfect which is extremely helpful.  Concrete though considered ideal, may actually cause many problems.  Concrete’s hard surface prevents any natural rooting behaviors.  The hard and cold characteristics of concrete provide little comfort for the animals. Others would argue that concrete’s lack of beneficial organisms provides little competition amongst bacteria to prevent disease.

    Swine production systems range in size and this makes it easy to understand the reasons for indoor production.  Indoor production allows for the collection and separation of pig waste that can then be used for compost, what a great idea.  Unfortunately, throughout our travels around the world, composting is rarely used, as most houses are designed with gutters to carry the waste outside to a pond, lagoon, or even river systems.  We view this waste as a valuable resource and choose to create compost from the waste instead of polluting our waterways. In some cases a lagoon can be used if composting is not an option, but the slurry must be managed correctly in order to prevent eutrophication of aquatic ecosystems.

    Living bed technology offers many benefits but the core benefit is the most simple; and efficient way to turn both manure and urine into finished compost.  Imagine a bedding material that acts as a host to beneficial microorganisms, bacteria such as lactobacillus.  This absorbent bedding when healthy and designed accurately can actively breakdown all pig waste significantly decreasing odor and fly populations.  This bedding also creates an immense amount of heat through decomposition and breakdown that can help swine stay warm during cold weather.  This technique not only controls swine waste but, when managed correctly can create microbial rich compost for building soils.


    • Provides warmth
    • Allows for natural behaviors such as rooting
    • Helps prevents the outbreak of disease
    • Improves immunity of swine
    • Helps control fly populations
    • Helps decrease odor
    • Minimizes cleaning
    • Reduces need for disinfection
    • Effectively controls urine and manure
    • Reduces water consumption during pig house cleaning
    • Low labor
    • Low cost
    • Low tech

    The preparation of the living bed technology is quite simple.  Most suggest using about 70cm of woodchips or sawdust to compose the bed.  Firstly creating a floor low enough or building a structure high enough to contain roughly 70cm of absorbent organic material must be provided.  We believe that most wood types will work for the living bed technology so there is no need to be specific on the kind of sawdust used.  However some sawdust may take longer to breakdown because their oil content is higher such as pine.  We have been advised that the one tree that cannot be used is a tree called Lim.  We would strongly advise not using pressure treated woods, or any woods that have been treated with anti microbial chemicals.  Other absorbent organic materials such as straw and rice husks can be used as well.  In our experience sawdust has worked the best. We encourage farmers to be creative with this technique and use any organic absorbent carbon materials readily available.  For our last installation of Living bed technology we used about 15% rice husks mixed with sawdust from a local saw mill.  The key is balancing the C:N ratio. Do not let your ratio fall below 1 with an ideal range being 4-10.

    As you are filling up your bed mix activated EM completely into your bed at a ratio of around 800 parts water to one part EM.  Make sure the EM is distributed throughout all layers of the bed, allowing a healthy inoculation of beneficial microorganisms.  Note that this is not an exact science.  Therefore do not worry too much about how much EM to use or what ratios to spray with. A little EM can go a long way.  The key is to make sure your bed is not too wet or damp.

    Once you have built up your bed and inoculated it with EM, it is time to wait for about 8-10 days.  I encourage all farmers to monitor their bed temperature throughout this waiting period.  Dig down with your hands and feel the temperature of the bed.  You will see how the temperature will increase the further down in the bed.  Also smell your bed, we cannot emphasize how important your own natural senses are to raising animals.  Monitoring conditions not only with your eyes but your hands and nose as well can tell you a lot about how successful your bedding is.

    Introduction of Swine and Maintenance
    After around 8 days your bed should be strong and what we would like to consider “alive”.  Understand that this concept is based on the theory of creating a community of bacteria and microorganisms rather than the common method of disinfection.  This allows for a community that competes and naturally fights breakout of disease, bacteria, odor and flies.  Once your pigs are introduced you will quickly notice how the like to dig around and can root around their pig house.  The pigs will ingest some of the sawdust, don’t be alarmed this is a natural behavior, and any ingestion of microorganisms, bacteria, and especially lactobacillus will actually help build their immune system.  On cold days and nights you may see the pigs digging deep in to the bed where the temperature is warmer to help regulate there body temperature.

    You will notice that this environment will reduce not only the odor but also fly populations as well.  To help encourage no flies, no odor and assist the break down of fecal matter it is necessary to turn the bed.  As manure is deposited on the surface of the bedding it can still attract flies.  Therefore the little maintenance needed is to turn the manure into the bed.  This can be done every day or 2-3 times a week, depending on the preference of the farmer and the number of animals you have in the space.  The odor and fly control will only improve the more often the manure is turned into the bed.  The bed should never have a foul smell.  Also it is necessary to see if the temperature is maintained.  We recommend additional sprayings of EM.  Some farmers we have spoken to say they only spray EM once a month.  We would recommend initially every 2 weeks keeping the population strong and active.  The key is constant monitoring of your bed.  If your bed does not smell like manure or urine than your bacterial community is healthy and there is no need for spraying.  Though if you start to notice a foul odor then return to a more frequent spraying and turning schedule.  If the bed gets to wet it will rot. If you notice the moisture level of your bedding getting to moist add more sawdust.

    Eventually you will realize that your bedding has aged, and the color has become darker and the sawdust has broken down more.  The EM, heat and feces have all aided in the decomposition of your sawdust creating rich compost.  This process depending on the number of pigs and allotted space of your living bed can vary from 6 months to maybe even 2 years. We recommend using this material in your garden as it will be extremely beneficial to your soil and plants. If you have the ability to soil test, send in your compost as well to get a better idea of the nutrient composition. This will give you a better of the compost’s fertility, and how much is needed. We would recommend to not fully harvest 100% of your bedding.  Instead take around 75-80% of your bedding and keep the bottom layer to mix into your fresh bedding.  The reason for this is you have worked so hard to create a healthy living culture there is no need to start again from scratch.  Use the percentage you saved to help inoculate the new bed to keep it strong and active.

    Observed Insights:

    Bedding Temperature:    
    As the bedding matures and the bacteria become healthy temperatures at the bottom of the bed can raise to about 60 degrees Celsius. The temperature at the surface will be dramatically lower and often match the ambient temperature of the environment.  It is important to note that swine are not able to regulate their temperatures and they can be very sensitive to high temperatures.  We have observed this technique in several farms throughout Asia, though some farmers choose not to raise hogs fully on the living bed as they want to allow them to cool down during the high mid-day temperatures of the summer. They do this by pouring a concrete slab so that the pigs have access to a cooler area. Some farmers argue that they have not noticed problems with the bed becoming too warm.  So we encourage you to make your own decisions about this and to let us know of your experience.

    Bedding Depth:
    When we applied this technique we had an average bed height of 65 cm, which worked well.  We strongly encourage farmers to play around with bed depth and to test the response they receive.  It may be practical to have part of the bed a smaller depth, which may or may not change the temperature, to allow for the pigs to enjoy a wider temperature range.

    Turning the Bed:
    As the only additional labor is turning the manure into the bed, there might be some solutions to minimizing turning.  We have buried cracked corn into compost piles which encouraged hogs to turn the compost, we wonder if buy occasionally burying food deep into the bed you can encourage the hogs to actively turn the bed themselves? We also noticed that the corners of the pig house became more saturated with pig waste thus needing more turning and attention.

    Bedding Materials:
    For this project we used mostly woodchips and saw dust, with about 15% rice husks.  We believe that there are many materials that can be incorporated successfully into Living Bed designs.  For instance more rice husks, straw, and biochar.  We encourage others to test materials out and to play with the ratios and to let us know their success or failures.

    Poultry Production:
    Living bed technology can be used for poultry raising as well, though We would suggest, a depth of 15-20cm of coarser wood chips instead of saw dust.  As chickens are more sensitive to fine dust, we would recommend woodchips. Also as manure builds up more extensive spraying of EM as well as the addition of more woodchips is necessary to build bed height.  We think after building up bedding depth, turning the bed can than produce promising results thus making compost faster.

  • May16th

    by Erica Romkema and Mae Rose Petrehn

    The Peterson Ranch, owned by Chad and Jenny Peterson, extends across 4600 acres of the Nebraska Sandhills. In this landscape of wide skies and mixed grass prairie, the ranch is among the first ranches in the U.S. to practice what has become known as mob grazing. Mob grazing is a method of intense rotational grazing, putting a large amount of livestock in a relatively small paddock and moving them every few hours, in order to closely manage grass recovery time and plant utilization.  

    On this particular ranch, Scottish Highland cattle, commercial Angus cows and Dorper sheep graze together. It’s estimated that there are around 200 species of plants in these pastures, most of them native. The Nebraska Sandhills compose a unique geographical region resistant to the sort of tractor-and-plow farming that extends through my home states of Iowa and Minnesota. The hills are, in fact, extremely sandy, and only the most well-adapted species can survive here. These species rooted themselves into the landscape during wet periods when the water table is high, and with their long roots they keep themselves, and the sands, in place. The dunes of sand have become stabilized by plants. Though if you reach down to take a handful of sand in your palm, it’s as loose and soft as if you were at the beach.

    The Petersons currently maintain a herd of about 600 Scottish Highland cows and 250 calves. The sheep, which are 7/8 Dorper and 1/8th Rambouillet, number close to 300. The ranch has miles and miles of primarily solar-powered electric fencing, up to seven wires high, and a portable water tank with a pump to follow the animals through the land. In the winter, when I was able to make my visit, the herds were somewhat separated, roamed larger pastures to access shelter, and were fed ground hay from round bales. In the true grazing season everything changes, as the animals are mixed and rotated through a series of paddocks, with the intention of rationing the use of available forage and contributing to soil health.

    I stopped by the ranch to visit my friend Mae Rose Petrehn, who is working there as an intern and assistant ranch manager. Mae Rose has a Master’s degree in Sustainable Agriculture, and is trained as a Holistic Management educator. She connected with Chad through holistic management classes, and upon graduation aimed to build her knowledge of animal agriculture by practicing it herself. Mae Rose took some time to answer a series of questions for me to share with A Growing Culture readers and others interested in alternative grazing practices.


    ER: How would you personally define or describe mob grazing?
    MRP: Any discussion on mob grazing should go back to Allan Savory’s principles. It’s a way of getting ultra-high stock density. Some people say this high stock density can range from 100,000 lbs of live weight to 1 million lbs per acre; from my experience you’re not really getting benefits until you’re at about a million pounds/acre.

    At the Peterson Ranch, we’re not achieving quite as much anymore because we’ve switched to more of a cow/calf operation. The main goal or purpose for mob grazing is working with young animals [to be raised for slaughter]. The practice builds in a really long recovery period for the land, and that’s what we’re shooting for. It’s a break from animal impact, which involves more than simply grazing – we’re talking about trampling vegetation, manure, etc.

    With mob grazing, you’re utilizing more of each acre that you’re on – you may  not be getting every pound of biomass through the animal but if you’re not the animal is trampling it. Ultimately you’re dramatically changing the structure of the grassland canopy. Depending on the time of year, there are different benefits for different plants. In theory it’s a way to achieve high level of diversity. Different plants can dominate and thrive at different times of year.

    ER: Tell me a little about how Peterson Ranch got started with mob grazing.
    MRP: Chad had experimented with about every different grazing strategy out there – from continuous grazing, to a few rotations, watching the neighbors to see what they were doing, just dabbled. He sought advice and examples, and then he got turned onto Allan Savory’s stuff and took it to heart. If you look closely at what Savory describes as animal impact and a way of maximizing productivity of your grass, it’s having animals that at a very high stock density. Yet the emphasis is on time and not numbers; how long animals are in an area at any given season. You’re growing as much grass as possible. Animal performance is a different issue. Chad discovered quickly that [using this approach] he could make a lot more vegetation grow. He held fast to that strategy and started seeing what the outcomes were. Then he started getting attention for it – curiosity and support maybe helped keep him the ball rolling. It’s never exactly the same every year.

    For Chad – somebody who is at heart a bison man and interested in preserving the land and creating a very healthy ecosystem – this is ultimately what meets those goals. We’re not a ranch that produces a lot of fat animals and sells them that way – for us that’s not the goal, or even what this kind of land is capable of, at least not without substantial amounts of inputs. It’s important to have animals that can tolerate this kind of grazing system, hence the reason we have the Highlanders.

    We’re not saying we’re the best. It’s still a big experiment. The ideas are there. There’s a lot of history to this ranch. It had several hundred bison on it from the 1940s up to a few years ago. It was continuous grazing mainly with bison. Bison behave differently from cattle, and it’s difficult to find a fencing system that works well. The reason Chad got rid of them is because bison love to make wallows and in the Sandhills that creates blowouts. Chad doesn’t want those. Some plant species do okay with that, but they take a long time to re-vegetate. The bison market is pretty unreal right now – he does still have some bison cows somewhere else. But that’s the platform and part of why he thinks differently about ranching.

    ER: Scottish Highland cattle have been experiencing revived interest in recent years. What are some of the benefits of this breed? What are some of the challenges of working with this breed?
    MRP: I mean, I think this is still being discovered on a commercial scale. One clear benefit is calving ease, provided that you breed them to the right bulls. We never have to pull calves. And they’re excellent mothers. When you move them a fair distance they tend to keep track of their calves. Also they have thick hair that’s pretty impervious to this rough climate, the wind and the winters. They’ve basically got an undercoat and a topcoat. Obviously they come from highlands of Scotland. Winter here in Nebraska is harder and longer, but similar. They’re just hardy animals. Chad built up the herd pretty rapidly.

    They’re also much more feed efficient. We feed oh, maybe a third of what a comparable animal – say, a commercial Angus cow – might require to maintain a similar body condition. Same thing is true for bison. They are more efficient users. They’re not diluted down. They’re not designed to be on small farms or feedlots getting corn. Health wise, they’re not very susceptible to disease. We haven’t had issues with foot rot. If you have the mindset of keeping inputs low, that’s what you want to go for.

    As for challenges, well, they are slow maturing. Two- year-old heifers still can’t have calves this year, so you have to wait a little longer for a calf. That calf, to get to slaughter weight, takes longer. It’s a smaller animal in general, frame wise, though you seem to find that efficient cattle. They develop slower but have greater longevity. It’s definitely a challenge for a for-profit business, especially if you’re dabbling in the grass-fed/grass-finishing world. Grass-finishing takes more time. With prices the way they are it’s a hard thing to justify. No one else that I know of is trying this with this breed at such a commercial scale. What I’m saying is based on our experience.

    ER: You also graze sheep, a mix of 7/8 Dorper and 1/8 Rambouillet. What can you tell us about this breed? What advice would you have for folks wanting to incorporate sheep into their operation?
    MR: We chose Dorpers because they are pretty versatile. Hair sheep are gaining traction, especially for smaller scale folks. Unless you have a niche or a way to utilize wool it isn’t worth it to have to deal with shearing. By no means are sheep the central focus of the operation here, so we’re really not interested in needing to shear them. Some of them will need to be shorn since they have that Rambeleigh in them and can get shaggier. They’re bred to be parasite resistant. We got them because they’re the only hair sheep available in commercial quantities. You don’t see people raising Katahdins in a big giant group, that I know of. Dorpers have made their way specifically in the Texas scene, which is where we got them from.

    If you’re not working with facilities and equipment specific to raising sheep and handling them—without the right tools and the right expertise—you may have to accept more death/loss in the beginning. Predation prevention is key. We didn’t really know how big a population of coyotes we had near us and how quickly they would come on to the system. For us, I think, we were willing to accept a certain amount of death loss, but right now it’s been too much, mainly due to predation. Everybody will always joke around that sheep will find a way to die. One stuck its head in the hay feeder and suffocated. They’ll crowd around a water tank and one falls in and drowns. Death is something that you definitely have to come to terms with and deal with.

    ER: Talk about the logistics, benefits, and challenges of grazing sheep and cattle together.
    MR: It was a joy to see how well the sheep incorporated themselves in with the Highlanders. We just kind of let them in with the cattle. They were calm about it, though pretty alert. They really had no reason to be afraid. The cows weren’t aggressive towards them. Within a few weeks the sheep were more than comfortable being around the cattle. Someone in Sheep Magazine wrote a letter to the editor about Highland cows and sheep, and they were concerned that the horns would poke the sheep’s eyes or they would gouge each other, but we never had a problem. The sheep would kind of filter in and fill in the gaps as the cows moved forward. Once the space filled up a little bit the sheep would move to the back and would eat things the cows tromped on or munched and left behind. Sheep graze a different trophic level of grassland, in a sense. They have different diets and different sized mouths. They each have their own little niche.

    Sheep are easier to herd into small areas, so Chad’s thought was to use them as a way to heal bare ground by crowding them onto an area for a short amount of time with ample hay or grass residual – the manure/urine sort of creates a fertile mat to heal bare ground. There are lots of examples of that from Allan Savory’s work in Africa as well as his son Roger’s work. We haven’t seen anyone out here doing that in earnest. The goal is definitely to have profit from the enterprise, but in regards to the sheep it’s almost more about using them as a tool. Their feed requirement is so low. Aside from disease, occasional parasite issues, and predation they are a pretty low-maintenance animal. They’re built to survive on pretty low-quality forage for most of the year.

    ER: Talk about your perspectives on scale in regards to animal agriculture.
    MR: I don’t think there’s a limitation to what scale is or is not profitable. The dividing line is your resources and your goals. Someone who’s really good at spinning wool and making cheese can make profit on 30 acres. If you have access to a market like that, that could make a ton of money. At the same time, if you aren’t interested or don’t have the time for a specialty market, you’ve got to scale up.

    What I see a lot in the “New Agrarian” movement or whatever you want to call it is people just expect things to work at a small scale because there is a market and they have the interest. You can’t cash flow a piece of property quickly that way—you have to make a lot of investment and have a lot of hope. People put a lot of stock into the grassfed market as being a sitting duck. There are plenty of examples of people making that work. But for people like me, potentially wanting to buy a large amount of land and/or livestock or leasing land, I have to prove to a banker that I can turn money in a fairly short amount of time. It’s the entitlement thing, maybe a generational attitude, I’m saying for my generation – especially with the urban agriculture thing. People expect to show up at a farmer’s market and make money just because people are there and they have this ideology. I’m not saying that it doesn’t work, because I’ve seen it work and it’s cool! But it’s too easy to be duped into the idea that this is an easy business. It’s fundamentally a really different kind of work and a really different lifestyle and it’s not cool all the time.

    I feel like I’m seeing people totally create and accept this martyrdom of poverty. We’re farming and these are our values. Good for you! I want to make money. I just need to know how to be a good manager. That’s not easy. But if you understand the beef business you can print money. I really believe this is a good business to get into and that’s why I’m here. I’m passionate about prairies, wildlife, good food – but I’m also passionate about making a good living. That’s the scale issue. I feel like I’m being such a critic right now, but that’s that entitlement issue. You want to have a couple animals around that potentially create a high-value product and if you can do that again I think it’s awesome – but people also treat those animals like pets and they have this attitude towards their livestock that they’re kind of like people. I find that sometimes they treat them a little fluffy. I think: they’re livestock. They’re working for you. Respect them, create a low-stress environment for them. That’s why we have the corral system we do—it’s about keeping stress to a minimum. Healthy livestock is profitable livestock. But remember they need to be working for you, not the other way around.

    ER: Is there anything else you feel that is important for readers, and particularly graziers, to know?
    MR: The big thing that I’m hoping to build on in the future and that is kind of my lifelong soapbox is that, you know, eventually people are going to figure out that programs like CRP, taking land out of production for “conservation” is a total waste of money. You can manage and incentivize a production system that is still a working landscape—people are still working grasslands, creating ecosystem goods and services, like soil conservation—those are all things that are totally proven outcomes of a well-managed grazing system with adequate recovery periods. Unfortunately, a lot of grasslands around the world have been very degraded and overgrazed. A lot of people’s perception of people who have cattle is that they totally destroy the landscape, and it’s because sometimes that is true. It totally can happen. A lot of the wildlife biologists that I talked to in Iowa would make jokes about golf course grazing. In the corn belt, that’s how it looks. And that’s not going to do much of anything for ecological health. You could argue that it does nothing for animal health, either. The message I’m excited about getting out there is that there’s another way to do conservation. It’s been happening and it’s going to grow, but the government’s involvement in it is very tangled. It’s atrocious the amount of money that we are spending as a country on grass that is bad habitat and that needs to be contributing to the local economy as grazing pasture, hay ground, whatever. But then you go down the rabbit hole of who’s going to manage it. Less people are raising animals, farming. And grazing, well, takes more people.

    That’s a challenge in the U.S. Not so much in a lot of the poor economies in Africa – for example, a recent article in Beef Magazine had rancher Ian Mitchell in it; he’s this grazing guru who does workshops with Greg Judy. He can hire herders for pennies on the dollar. He’s in South Africa. People need any kind of a job. He doesn’t need to do payroll, doesn’t need to call them interns. But who’s going to be able to do that here?

    With this type of grazing management, you always have to be making judgments. It’s a never-ending process of reading the land. You’re continually learning from the ecosystem. It’s always changing, especially out here where we have so many different plant species. They’re all telling you something, it’s just a matter of you knowing how to read what they’re saying.

    For more information on Holistic Management, visit: www.holisticmanagement.com or the Savory Institute: www.SavoryInstitute.com.

    To see more writing by Erica Romkema, visit: www.kindsofhoney.wordpress.com.
    To contact Mae Rose Petrehn, email: treadearthintometaphor@gmail.com.

  • May2nd

    By Asher M. Wright

    All across the United States stands of Alfalfa in different stages of growth are reaching to the sky; putting on their spring growth and preparing for a productive season. Some stands are dealing with weevils, others with low pH or insufficient micronturients, but for the first time in history, much of this acreage is not dealing with weed pressure. As many of you know, the U.S. has recently approved Roundup® Ready Alfalfa. This article will attempt to clarify the issue by discussing the transgenic technology of RR alfalfa as well as other political and socioeconomic issues surrounding the crop.  


    Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is a broadleaf perennial legume in the Pea family (Fabaceae) and is the most widely cultivated forage legume in the world; in 2006 the FAO estimated 456-million tons were used globally. Alfalfa is primarily cut for hay production, but can be grazed or used as a cover crop as well. The United States is the largest producer worldwide and the only country where Roundup® Ready (RR) Alfalfa has been approved for cultivation (For the purpose of this paper, all values will refer to U.S. production only). Alfalfa is the nation’s third most valuable crop occupying more than 22-million acres (8.9 million ha); it is the premier feed for the dairy industry and is commonly used in beef, sheep, and horse operations as well (Van Deynze, A., et al., 2004). Alfalfa is a very valuable forage crop for a number of agronomic reasons, and like many other types of forages, is at its highest risk for failure during seedling establishment. Compared to the other RR crops however; alfalfa is actually not that difficult to establish and grow. It is a hardy, deep-rooted perennial that actually competes well with weeds (Hall, M. H., et al., 2004). So why do farmers even need RR alfalfa? Well the truth is, it depends on who is asked. This paper will attempt to clarify the issue by discussing the transgenic technology of RR alfalfa as well as other political and socioeconomic issues surrounding the crop.

    Glyphosate Technology:

    Alfalfa is not the first U.S. crop that has been modified to exhibit resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient of Roundup® that actually kills the plant. In fact, soybean, maize, sorghum, canola, sugar beat, and cotton are all RR crops. Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide first patented by Monsanto Company in 1970 and marketed as Roundup. The patent expired in 2000, and today glyphosate is the most widely spread herbicide in the U.S. with an estimated 94,000 tons (not including alfalfa) used annually, according to the 2007 Pesticide Industry Sales and Usage Report. Compared to its predecessor’s 2,4-D and Atrazine, glyphosate has been hailed as a savior for lower mobility rates in the soil, and a shorter persistence time in aquatic environments (Shipitalo M.J., et al., 2008).  Though a number of third party studies have shown glyphosate to have adverse effects on animals, there has been little published research on the effects of glyphosate on humans, and almost no regulation within the U.S.

    So how exactly does this compound work?

    Glyphosate (N-[phosphonomethyl]glycine) is “undoubtedly the most effective non-selective foliar herbicide available” according to Steve Orloff’s progress report on RR alfalfa (Orloff, S., et al., 2003).  It works on dozens of annual and perennial broad-leaf weeds by irreversibly binding to the active site of the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS). EPSPS is the initial catalyst to two reactions that ultimately result in the synthesis of chorismate, an essential precursor in plants for the aromatic amino acids: phenylalanine, tyrosine, tryptophan. Without these essential amino acids, the plant cannot function and will soon die. The biochemical pathway of glyphosate is approximately the same in all plants and therefore the method for genetically engineering the “immunity” is approximately the same as well.

    The first papers on Recombinant DNA technology began to appear in 1972 and the technology was patented in 1980, with human insulin as the first product released on the market. Monsanto Company quickly took notice and began some research and development of their own. They discovered that a certain soil bacteria known as Agrobacterium sp. strain CP4 produced a glyphosate-tolerant form of the enzyme EPSPS which was designated CP4-EPSPS (Monsanto, 2005). When the CP4-EPSPS gene is incorporated into a plant’s DNA, the resistant enzymes created will ultimately lead to a resistant plant. The resistance stems from the fact that there are extra copies of the novel CP4-EPSPS gene thus extra copies of the novel enzyme; CP4-EPSPS does not replace the EPSPS gene. This is the basic premise for all RR crops and the mechanism used by Monsanto to create immunity; but how does the gene get into the DNA?

    Biolistic particle delivery systems also known as gene guns or biolistics are devices that have the ability to inject cells with genetic information. The bullet or payload is a heavy metal coated with Plasmid DNA. Plasmids, often found in bacteria, are double stranded DNA rings that have the ability to replicate independently of standard cellular DNA replication mechanisms.  When used in genetic engineering a plasmid is known as a “vector”. Through breeding technology, microbiologists and geneticists are essentially able to insert the desired plasmid into a new bacteria cell, after the cell replicates they can ID the “incorporated” cells with antibodies, and thus isolate the desired plasmid. Once the plasmid has been isolated and replicated, it can be injected into any plant cell with biolistic technology. Monsanto Company used the Agrobacterium sp. plasmid PV-MSHT4 (Figure 2.0) as a vector and incorporated the CP4-EPSPS gene into the DNA of alfalfa. In reality, this was only the beginning, and was actually the easy part.


    Alfalfa is a perennial, autotetrapolid with four sets of eight chromosomes (n=8 and 4×8=32 chromosomes). This means alfalfa contains four copies of all gene loci, a key feature to the success of the program. Alfalfa also exhibits genetic self-incompatibility or self-sterility, and is affected very negatively by inbreeding. Because of this trait and the inability to achieve “high trait purity” through self-crossing, a strategy was needed to minimize inbreeding depression. Forage Genetics International (FGI) in partnership with Monsanto Company developed a complex breeding system to prevent “inbreeding depression”  and after 5+ years of subsequent field trials they had produced a viable seed. (Figure 1.0) The research found plants to have anywhere from 1-8 copies of the CP4-EPSPS gene, and that the RR phenotype was exhibited in the plant, no matter how many copies of the gene it had. Roundup Ready alfalfa was finally ready for the market (Monsanto, 2005).

    Risk Assessment

    The U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) requires field trials and Ecological Impact Studies (EIS) for all new biotechnology crops, and in 2001 and 2002 an EIS study, funded by Monsanto have you, was conducted on 940 roadside sites of 47 counties in California, Idaho, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Approximately 22% of the sites contained populations of “feral” alfalfa, the at risk species for gene transfer. Monsanto’s 2001 and 2002 EIS concluded:  “Proximity of feral populations to cultivated alfalfa suggests that gene flow will occur between these populations. Gene flow in seed production regions, however, may be limited by the management practices used by seed producers to control feral populations and to ensure varietal genetic purity. In forage production systems, pollen flow from cultivated alfalfa is minimized by continual harvest of the forage at early bloom throughout the growing season. The consequences of gene flow from cultivated Roundup Ready alfalfa to feral alfalfa, in terms of increased pest potential, are low because (1) phenotypic evaluations concluded that the introduction of the Roundup Ready trait does not increase the fitness of alfalfa, (2) feral populations are not typically controlled using herbicides, and (3) where controlled, glyphosate is not the only herbicide used as other more, effective herbicides are available “ (Kendrick, 2001). After the EIS and other field trials in California, researches stated, “These results clearly demonstrate [that] there is a fit for Roundup Ready alfalfa in California.” Their conclusion did not come without a disclaimer however: RR alfalfa is not a “panacea” and weed resistance will still present problems in alfalfa production systems.

    As initial research and development of RR alfalfa came to a close in 2004, APHIS granted ‘non-regulated’ planting status to the crop, which was quickly followed by a lawsuit from concerned citizens putting a moratorium on the non-regulated status in 2005. At this point the case bounced around the California courts and in 2007 a government required, APHIS-managed EIS was implemented. In 2010, APHIS released the final version of the EIS, and held a number of public forums to allow for comments and concerns.  In 2011 after the proceedings, they stated that RR alfalfa would be granted non-regulated status. They made their decision after conducting a “thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative EIS and several public comment opportunities, and determining that RR alfalfa does not pose a plant pest risk” (APHIS History, 2012). To many this was a blessing, and to others a curse, but what exactly are the pros and cons?

    Potential Problems

    From a production standpoint there are obvious benefits to a Roundup system. Weeds prevent successful seedling establishment, diminish overall yield, and bring a lower value to hay when present in the bales. Why wouldn’t a manager want to spray a field of alfalfa a couple of times a year to ensure a higher quality, higher yielding, “less headache” of a crop? Well the answer is fairly simple, but the reality is there is little transparent, peer-reviewed, third party (meaning not funded by Monsanto) research on the subject. There are few U.S. scientists willing to lay their heads on Monsanto’s chopping block. One scientist doing research on the “other-side-of-the-fence” is Purdue University’s plant scientist and pathologist Dr. Don Huber. As a leading expert in the field, he believed that there needs to be further research on RR alfalfa before release, and lead a petition of concerned U.S. citizens with a well-crafted letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, urging him to halt the non-regulated status of this crop. He was denied, and the first non-regulated seeds were planted in 2011.

    The main downsides of glyphosate, according to an interview with Dr. Don Huber in December of 2011, is that glyphosate, like many other herbicides and pesticides is a metal chelator (Mercola, D., 2011).  Chelation is the formation of a coordinated compound, which is essentially a larger multiple bonded molecule (glyphosate), wrapped around a central metal (micronutrient). Plants have been shown to have difficulty taking up chelated form of the micronutrient (Huber, D. W. 2007). This poses a threat because the transition metal cations that serve as micronutrients (Fe, Mn, Cu, Zn) will show up in the soil test but are unavailable to plants (Huber, D. W. 2007). Though this initial problem with glyphosate is a large one, it is not the entire story.

    When plants are suffering from a micronutrient deficiency, and in some cases plants showed 80-90% reduction in Mn and Zn, they are more susceptible to pests and disease. According to Johl and Huber’s research in the European Journal of Agronomy, “Extended use of glyphosate can significantly increase the severity of various diseases by impacting all four of the interacting components of the “plant disease diamond” comprised of the plant, abiotic and biotic environments, and pathogens. Reduced growth, impaired defenses, impaired uptake and translocation of nutrients, and altered physiology of plants by glyphosate can affect susceptibility or tolerance to various diseases (Johal, G. S., Huber, D. W. 2009). Glyphosate not only affects plants, but also soil biota. It is detrimental to the health of bacteria and has been shown to be playing a major roll in the microbial population shifts seen today. For example, toxic botulism was rarely seen in dairy cows, and today through selection pressure from glyphosate, is a favored bacterium that is having negative effects on the dairy industry (Mercola, D., 2011). Overall there are apparent positives and negatives to the use of glyphosate, but is it really sustainable?


    Based on the research reviewed, it is clear that the data can go both ways. The issue of RR alfalfa, like other GE crops, quickly becomes a philosophical debate based on one’s ideals of conservation, biodiversity, and human health. There are obvious are pros and cons to RR alfalfa and glyphosate. But the truth is, from an Ecological and Social Equity standpoint (66% of the sustainability triangle) the cons far outweigh the pros. There are a number of studies that have linked glyphosate to the development of “Super Weeds”, resistant to the herbicide (Orloff, S., et al., 2003). There are also a number of studies that link Roundup (the mixture of glyphosate and other chemical stabilizers to aid in cellular delivery of the herbicide) to cancers, and irregular livery and kidney function. In research glyphosate actually shows little damage to animals; it is the “stabilizing” compounds that are in Roundup® that are truly the issue (Seralini, G.E., et al., 2011).   One final issue is the risk of transgenic gene flow, and it’s impact on Organic producers or other farmers that choose not to plant RR alfalfa. The Supreme Court has recently ruled in favor of Monsanto; any farmer possessing a plant with the patented genes will be held accountable. With an environmental impact study that showed gene flow from RR alfalfa to other varieties as being possible, this is an atrocity and a violation of civil liberties. The only real sense that RR alfalfa makes is economic, and it is a fairly one-sided economic benefit. So what happens now?

    Assume that half of the 22 million acres (8.9 ha) of alfalfa in the U.S. are planted to Monsanto’s patented RR variety, and that 1, 50-lb bag of seed, under proper planting, will
    cover 2.5 acres. At a price of 4$/lb. of seed, one bag equals $200.00 U.S. dollars (this price will fluctuate depending on state). So 11-million acres divided by 2.5/acres/bag is 4.4 million acres at $200.00/bag is an 880 million dollar a year industry, with the majority of the profits funneling into the pocket of Monsanto Company. So the next time someone asks why the U.S. is planting so many acres of GE crops, it will be obvious why. Until the economics fail or the employees of Monsanto Company and otherlarge agribusiness firms become less integrated with the U.S. regulatory system(Figure 3.0), RR alfalfa and other crops will continue to be planted at the expense of ecological integrity and social equity. No herbicide or pesticide can ever replace good management; so it’s time to put down the crutch, and start using the brain.


    APHIS History. (2012) http://www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology/alfalfa_history.shtml

    Johal, G. S., & Huber, D. W. (2009). Glyphosate effects on diseases of plants. European Journal of Agronomy, 144-152.

    Kendrick, D., et al., (2005). Biogeographic survey of feral alfalfa populations in the U.S. during 2001 and 2002 as a component of an ecological risk assessment of roundup      ready alfalfa®. Proceedings, The ASA-CSSA-SSSA International Annual Meetings.

    FAOSTAT Faostat.fao.org. FAO, 2006.

    Hall, M. H., et al., (2004). Alfalfa establishment guide. Plant Management Network International.

    Huber, D. W. (2007). What about glyphosate-induced manganese deficiency? Fluid Journal, 20-22.

    Mercola, D., (2011). The hidden epidemic killing your gut flora [Television series episode]. In Mercola, D. (Executive Producer), Mercola: Take Control of Your Health. etrieved   from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/12/10/dr-don-huber-interview-part-1.aspx.

    Monsanto. (2005). Safety assessment of roundup ready alfalfa events J101 and J163. Executive Summary, 1-32.

    Orloff, S., et al., (2003). Progress in roundup ready alfalfa. Proceedings, California Alfalfa Symposium, 18-26.

    Shipitalo, M.J., et al. (2008). Impact of Glyphosate-Tolerant Soybean and Glufosinate-Tolerant Corn Production on Herbicide Losses in Surface Runoff. Journal of Environment Quality 37 (2): 401–8.

    Seralini, G.E., et al., (2011). Genetically modified crops safety assessments; present limits and possible improvements. Environmental Sciences Europe, 23 (10).
    Van Deynze, A., et al., (2004). Roundup ready alfalfa: an emerging technology. University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, 8153, 1-13.
  • April20th

    by  Dan Kiprop Kibet

    Statistics reveal that, of the over one billion undernourished people in the world today, 265 million live in sub-Saharan Africa. Three-quarters of the hungry live in rural areas and include farming families.  There are many known causes of hunger, which hinder the successful production of agriculture and directly impact the small-scale farmer in particular.  Climate change, environmental degradation, inadequate rainfall, floods, deficient infrastructure, economic hardships and government policies are some of the many factors that contribute to hunger in Kenya.

    Recently, lack of seeds for planting is posing another threat to the small-scale farmer.  Last year, many small-scale farmers in rural areas of Kenya were unable to access seeds of their choosing, especially maize, which is the staple crop of the region.  Maize is an important crop to many Kenyans, and is mainly used to cook ugali, a delicacy enjoyed across the nation.  As a result, when hunger strikes in Kenya, it often means that ugali will be missing from our dinner plates.  

    According to Dr. Vandana Shiva, seed is key.  Both food supply and democracy are threatened when farmers are denied access to seed.  If farmers do not have their own seeds, or access to open pollinated varieties that they can save, improve and exchange, they have no “seed sovereignty.”  Seed sovereignty includes the farmer’s right to save, breed and exchange seeds.  A farmer who has seed sovereignty has access to diverse open source seeds, which can be saved and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by emerging seed giants. It is a way based on reclaiming seeds and biodiversity as common and public good.

    In Kenya, there is a marked dependence on large seed companies, cartels and distributors to provide hybrid seeds of staple crops such as, maize seeds. Buying from these larger organizations can negatively impact the small-scale farmer, as he is forced to rely on someone else to obtain choice seeds when he needs them. Furthermore, seeds aren’t always available, due to scarcity, cost, distance and the logistics inherent to purchasing seed.  Many of the cartels also sell fake seeds. Yet, studies of indigenous seed saving practices have revealed that many African women posses agricultural knowledge that has helped them to maintain food security in times of drought and famine (Ericksen, 2005; Ramphele, 2004). Oftentimes, these women rely on indigenous plants that are more tolerant to drought and pests, providing reserve for extended periods of economic hardships. In Southern Sudan, for example, women are directly responsible for selection of sorghum seeds saved for planting each year (Easton and Roland 2000). They preserve a variety of seeds, which are resistant to the unpredictable weather conditions common to this region. In spite of this knowledge, however, many continue to rely on corporations for their seed.

    In response to the growing unavailability of seed, a small-scale farmer from the rural area of Kimoso, Kerio-valley, Kenya has created a method of seed selection, seed saving and storage utilizing his own harvests. Meet Mr. Toroitich, the small-scale mixed farmer. His farm is decorated with many crops, livestock, and poultry and fruit trees. The crops are mostly from his own saved seeds, such as Maize, finger millet, sorghum, beans, groundnuts, cow-peas, and indigenous vegetables. He grows cotton as a cash crop and there is a ginnery a few kilometers away. Like many other Kenyans, having enough maize to feed a family throughout the year is important, as the crop serves as an everyday meal. In order to ensure that he has enough, Mr. Toroitich practices cultural methods of farming, such as early cultivation, early planting, crop rotation, diversification and inter-cropping. He regularly spreads animal manure to his farm to boost fertility, believing that respect for biodiversity should be a priority.

    When I asked Mr. Toroitch about his experience purchasing seeds from larger conglomerates, he shared that his dependence on seed companies and stores had been hectic, time consuming, unreliable, and expensive. Saving his own seeds and planting them early has enabled him instead to harvest well each season, feed his family, and be self-sufficient, even in times of hunger.  In addition, since Kenyan politicians have been pushing for the introduction of genetically modified crops to fight hunger, Mr. Toroitch has doubled his efforts to save more local seeds of his own.

    This initiative has helped him to earn an income by selling the surplus seeds to other small-scale farmers in the area.  Mr. Toroitich sells a kilo of maize seeds for Kshs. 80; a price that is much more affordable than the cost of hybrid seeds from large companies that charge up to Kshs. 120 for a kilo.  While Mr. Toroitich’s price is stable, the cost of maize seeds from larger companies may also increase depending on market supply and demand.
    Mr. Toroitich’s farm lies in Kimoso, Kerio-Valley, which is located within the larger Rift-Valley province.  These are lowlands areas, and are considered to be arid and semi-arid lands (Asal). Rainfall is minimal, between 900-950mm per annum, and falls solely between the months of May and August.  Planting early is crucial in order to utilize the rains. There after, dry spells may be experienced; however, rain occasionally falls in October. Due to recent climate change, the rain patterns have shifted tremendously and even the metrological station has a difficult time predicting the rains.

    Soils in the area are dark-brown and sandy loamy. The land lies flat and soils are naturally fertile, which Toroitich attributes to the hilly sides surrounding the valley.  Toroitich says that, when it rains, mostly top soils from the hilly sides are washed down to the farms. Crops are grown without application of synthetic fertilizers, and chemical spraying is only applied to cotton when pests invade for pure grade of the cash crop. According to Toroitich, this land is the “blessed valley,” and “it is pure abuse for any farmer to apply said fertilizers to natural fertile soils given by God.” Using the same land he inherited from his parents, Toroitich has managed to grow and produce diverse, nutritious crops successfully—a sizeable feat given the unpredictable climate of the Kimoso, Kerio-Valley.   Additionally, Toroitich says that, although the soils are fertile and many crops can be grown, the ground is loose and vulnerable to severe soil erosion.

    To save his seeds, Toroitich uses simple, locally available and naturally growing plant equipment as a seed bank, the gourd or calabash. It is a plant from the Curcubitaceae family, and is characterized by climbing tendrils. A seed bank functions as a storage container for seeds in case seed reserves elsewhere are destroyed. Most often, the seed stored is that of food crops or those of rare species to protect biodiversity Storing seeds guards against any catastrophic events like natural disasters, outbreaks of disease, and war.

    The gourds must be prepared prior to use as a storage facility. A mature and ripe gourd is picked and an opening is made on top. Water is poured inside, and a stick is used for easy removal of seeds and other pulpy substances.  The gourd is then left for 2 weeks, while closed tightly and covered with grass to facilitate hardening. Meanwhile, the outer layer of the gourd can be scrapped. After the seeds and the pulpy substance are poured out, a special indigenous tree bark is crushed, placed inside the gourd, and in mixed with water. Toroitich says that the bark comes from a tree called “simotwo” in his local dialect.  The bark acts as a stabilizing agent and helps suppress the foul smell. However, this process must be repeated several times to fully remove the smell.  Finally, in order to disinfect the gourd, fresh cow dung is placed inside, and the gourd must again be left for a number of days. A special palm tree from the Hypaene Compressa family is used to clean the gourd, which is then hung upside down to dry completely until it’s ready for use.

    According to Toroitich, gourds (calabash) are integral to the entire community.  Before the introduction of plastic containers, gourds were used to fetch and store water from streams.  Additionally, water inside a gourd could remain cold even in hot temperatures common to the area. Nowadays, gourds are used to prepare sour milk in many households, a treat for many families and a delicacy that is often used as part of various important ceremonies. Gourds also serve as decorations in many the home and as a gifts of appreciation. Most importantly, however, gourds are central to successful seed saving.  With the help of his wife, Toroitich has managed to prepare and save diverse seeds.

    Toroitich also hangs seeds in his kitchen as another tool for seed saving.  He says that it’s an effective way to store seed, as smoke from cooking repels most pests and reduces moisture content to a suitable level.   Also, seeds like these of maize and sorghum can last long when hung.  That being said, Toroitich says that it may be difficult for the hungry farmer to resist temptation when seeds are hanging in the home. “When food is scarce, a farmer can decide to sacrifice the seeds for a meal.’’

    When choosing seeds to store, Toroitich relies mostly on his observational skills and keen monitoring of plants.  Toroitich pays particular attention to the growth of the crop, resistance to pests and disease, production, and physical appearance. He marks the chosen crop by tying a polythene paper to the plant in order to distinguish it from the rest.  When harvesting comes, Toroitich harvests the seed’s crops and stores them separately. For maize seeds, he chooses only the middle seeds on a maize cob for its physical Purity. Before saving seeds, Toroitich treats them by drying them in the sun for a number of days.  The gourds are sprinkled with cow dung ash, neem ash or wood ash. Ash works to fill up spaces around the seeds and hinders the movement of insects. Also, the closed gourds reduce the volume of air available to insects for respiration. The most common destructive insect is the weevil. Toroitich admits that weevils have been a frequent enemy, destroying their seeds and food grains more than any other pest.  He says that ash can dehydrate the insects and have a detrimental effect on egg development. After placing the seed and ash mixture in the gourd, Toroitich adds an additional 3 cm layer of ash on top.  Then it is closed tightly using a maize cob which fits the opening of the gourd to prevent pest from entering inside to destroy the seeds “see- no- weevil idea”.

    According to Toroitich, before the advent of large seed companies, small-scale farmers had to save their own seeds to maintain an annual cycle of crop and food production.  Although this practice may seem antiquated, Toroitich’s case teaches us that saving seeds from harvests continues to be cheaper and more reliable than buying hybrid seeds each year.  Toroitich is a clear example of how combining practiced skill with agricultural wisdom and indigenous knowledge can help the small-scale farmer to become self-sufficient and autonomous.  With the help of a gourd—a common household object in rural Kenya that is both affordable and easy to use—Toroitich was able to create a seed bank and save seeds for planting rather than relying on large seed companies. In my opinion, the act of a small- scale farmer saving own seeds will enable them be self sufficient, save time during planting season and plant their favorable seed crops. With such initiatives, they are able to produce their own food. Therefore, hunger can be tamed in their households.

  • April4th

    Sectors of Production
    Pig production is one of the most accessible enterprises for a beginning farmer or an established operation to get underway. Given the proper approach, the infrastructure required is minimal and pigs can adapt to many environments. Growing out purchased feeder pigs on pasture for direct market sale has a relatively quick turnaround time and good profit margin. While a farrow-to-finish operation is likely the most profitable, this production method is far more demanding. A brood sow operation that sells pasture raised feeder pigs can be quite profitable as well. The sector of production that interests you should be carefully considered. Your production model should be determined by your resource base and goals.

    Farrow to finish, requires maintaining a herd of sows and at least one boar year around. Farrowing can be scheduled to provide an ideal marketing time for the finished hogs. The greatest profit lies in having your own breeding operation and finishing most of your hogs to sell the meat directly to customers, restaurants, or a pasture pork cooperative. This type of production requires an array of skills, and farm infrastructure. It is a method for the full time producer. You must have knowledge of the genetics that you are pursuing and how genetics, feed and other factors affect meat quality. Consistency is important, answering customer questions is important as well. Marketing skills are a must. One potential drawback is year around production and maintenance. Farrow to finish is a big vision that can be worked up to.  

    A less rigorous production model is a sow operation that sells weaned pasture raised feeder pigs. While this still requires year around attention, breeding can be arranged to produce litters at times of year that work for your system and ability to sell weaned feeders. Selling feeder pigs to other farmers is potentially more accessible to the average farmer than marketing meat to restaurants. It depends on the community that you are linked into and the available markets. Selling meat, even a quality wholesome product does not always come easy; this is why some feeder growers stick to selling live animals.

    Growing feeders, from the ground up
    From here on we will focus on an operation, which purchases weaned pigs and grows them out for direct market sale. This is amongst the most forgiving sector to get in on. One great advantage is that this can be a seasonal enterprise. Feeder pigs are purchased in the early spring and grown out and slaughtered hopefully by early winter. Minimal infrastructure is required, but creative use of your resource base is critical.

    If you have not kept pigs before, you will need to determine where the pigs will best fit into your system. There is a niche that the pigs can fill. This may be turning compost, mobbing down vegetable crops, pasture renovation, and more. You will need to find feeder pigs that are not produced for confinement production. Visit the farms where you have interest in purchasing pigs. If the operation is heavily based on concrete and infrastructure, take a look elsewhere for your pigs. There are many breeds that will succeed on pasture. There will be a lot of variation within a breed as well. This largely stems from the production method that they have adapted to, and localized genetics. When you visit a farm looking for feeders, look at the pasture space, inspect the fencing, water system, and housing. Is there anything growing in the pastures that has feed value for the pigs? Inquire about the feed ration, medication, worming, availability of pigs, and any other points that you feel are relevant. Do some extra research and make a choice of pigs that will fit your production cycle.

    What you must have:
    Pigs can be trained to move through most any system that one can conceive. Ideally pigs can be rotated from one area to the next by simply walking them. My pigs load easily onto a skeptical landscape trailer that was converted for agricultural use. The pigs will adapt to your movement schedule and method. I believe that some rotation is a must over the production cycle. The more you move them, the easier and more relaxed they will be to collect and haul on processing day. More importantly the more you move them, the more you will save on supplemental feed. Moving pigs through natural areas is time well spent. Trimming down the feed bill is important for the financial structure of this enterprise; furthermore meat character and health benefits will likely be enhanced. You must be able evaluate the dietary needs of your pigs throughout the season and be able to provide a balanced diet.

    Have these ready when your pigs arrive:

    Water - can be as simple as a 50 gallon HDPE barrel with hog nipples; this is the $15 option. Any method that provides sanitary water and is reliable will do.

    Shade - In the warm months shelter from the sun is an absolute must. Trees, buildings, and mobile structures are all options.

    Non-supplemented food – This may be forage, fortified compost, fruit, mast/acorns, etc., something for the pigs to obtain feed value, minerals, and enjoyment from.

    Supplemental feed – Energy and protein will be necessary in some form to achieve a finished pig in a single growing season. If you are not familiar seek out information on the requirements of swine throughout their lifecycle.

    Minerals - Everything that your pigs need to be healthy is probably not available to them directly in their feed or forage. I am evaluating: Sea minerals, Kelp, Redmond minerals, and Fertrell products to strengthen our mineral program.

    Fence - Evaluate your resource base. Initially having no existing fence for swine we use portable electric fence. Two strands of temporary polywire was used along with portable step in posts until the pigs were 5 months old, at this point they graduated to one strand of wire.

    Market - Have some notion of how you are going to sell your pork before you start. You cannot truly market a product that you are not yet growing, but you can do research and decide where you are going to start.

    There are market options such as, selling frozen meat in bulk to families, individuals, independent grocers, and restaurants. There are many options to evaluate. It will take time to determine who is your ideal customer, and what is required of you to regularly satisfy their demand. Growing purchased feeders allows for seasonal downtime when there are no swine to look after. During the seasonal downtime the entire enterprise can be evaluated, for improvements on feed, fencing, transportation, marketing and processing. This is an extremely valuable time for the new producer. You can decide whether you want to do it again or not, and should be able to get out without loosing any money if that is your choice.

    Recap of a First Season
    During the first trial with pigs on my farm, it took a few weeks to find a stable routine. With a little bit of planning I was able to put the pigs to good work, and get some work done myself in-between pig chores. As time went on the pigs demanded less field management time, but more time toward marketing the rapidly finishing product.

    The pigs rotated through early succession natural areas throughout the summer. As these areas were rooted up, annuals were broadcast as the pigs left an area. The bare soil was quickly covered, and something palatable was established for the next rotation. Water, feed trough and fence were portable and moved along with the pigs. The pigs were rotated to new ground every 2-3 days. Good shade was always provided, as well as cool clean water, and some wallowing access when it was hot. Our pigs were fed uncracked shell corn at approximately ½ daily ration (3.5% body weight / 2). They were hand feed twice daily from a wooden trough. The rest they foraged on their own. The supplement of solid corn worked surprisingly well, this provided energy for the pigs so that they could graze the remainder of their required protein from forage, rooting, and acorns.

    Fully evaluate your feed resources. Various versions of bagged swine grower ration are widely available from your local feed stores and farm supplies, consider these as a last resort. Ordering in bulk from a feed producer such as one that provides the bagged feed at your local stores makes better economic sense. Do your best to evaluate the quality of the feed, and run some numbers of how much it will cost you over the course of the production cycle. The amount of feed concentrate needed to grow a feeder pig to slaughter weight will vary widely. This factor hinges on how much quality forage you can provide and the ability of the pig to make use of the forage. Factors such as plant and animal growth stage come into play, and the forage to concentrate ratio. Your feeding method will affect feed intake as well. You can ration with hand feeding, but not so well with a self-feeder. Make sure your pigs are getting enough to eat; if their access to forage is not the best they will need more feed concentrate. In a pasture-based system, feed concentrate may range from 400-800 lbs to get a hog to 250lbs live weight.

    For better quality we have arranged to have a custom ration ground by a local dairy that produces all of their own feed. We are planning on obtaining a feeder to use during the grower phase, but will continue to hand feed during the finishing phase when hogs will be in the woods for acorn finishing.

    In the Woods
    Finishing hogs in the fall works well. If you have hardwood forest available with oaks and hickory, there is arguably no better finishing feed in the world for hogs. The human diet has embraced the seasonality of pig production as well. Pork consumption peaks sometime in the fall and early winter.

    With the first group of pigs, the whole month of October and most of Nov. required very little supplemental feeding. During this time the pigs rejected much of the grain ration in preference to acorns. However, the acorn crop will vary from one year to the next depending on growing conditions, and is said to be cyclical. Management in the woods posed a few obstacles, which we quickly overcame. Give the pigs more space in the woods, than you would on pasture if possible, and move more frequently. This is to reduce the impact upon the forest. The harder the pigs are on an area, the longer you will need to wait before returning to forage that area. Treat the woods much different than an annual crop that the pigs basically demolish with one grazing. Fencing in the woods was accomplished with a single strand of poly-wire that was tensioned from one small tree to the next with twine. Care must be taken to clear the fence line of limbs which the pigs tend to push up against the wire.

    Ideally woods foraging would conclude around the time the last leaves fall to the ground. The areas that were foraged before the leaves fell look the best, as the leaves cover most of the bare soil that the pigs left exposed. In areas that the pigs worked through after leaf-fall more soil was left exposed to the heavy winter rains. Monitor closely the areas where the pigs forage the woods, the impact on the under story can be significant. It will take time to determine a sustainable rotation. Whether annually, every two-three years or even a longer rest period will vary widely from one site and situation to the next. Whether pigs are on pasture or forest, the intensity of rooting, grazing, and trampling, is affected by animal density (number of animals per acreage), the size of animals, the duration of time that they are on a given area. Soil moisture also play a big part in the intensity of the rooting.

    The Numbers
    Feeders were approximately 40 lbs at purchase, and the average finisher in the first group ran around 210lbs. The pigs under this management method produced 170 lbs in 178 days, that is a gain of approximately 0.96lbs./day. That figure walks the line between productivity and affordability, for this system anyhow. The feed bill came in at $82 per pig for the first group of finishers and amounted to 420 lbs of supplement per pig. This is about half of the feed required to produce a pig in a conventional setting.

    The total investment was close to $300 per pig. With meat priced at $4.75/lb the net profit is about $200/ pig. This margin can be improved upon. Improving the forage quality and getting the pigs closer to 250lbs before slaughter will help. Feed efficiency could be improved by cracking the corn or adding soy protein to the supplement. Mineral uptake could be improved as well. These factors should increase weight gain, and profitability as well. Selling individual cuts and marking up the price per pound on the higher end cuts is a good option for increasing the profit margin as well.

    There are many factors to get in line for successful pork production. Growing out feeders and finding a way to sell them is far from easy. Start small and direct market your pigs with a minimum order of ½ hog. Sell to friends, family, local stores and restaurants or pasture pork cooperative. If you have done the best that you can do, have confidence in your product, and remember you are marketing yourself as much as your meat.

  • March20th

    For coffee production in Vietnam, we strongly recommend the establishment of the perennial peanut or Arachis pintoi.  Perennial peanut is used throughout Vietnam mostly as an ornamental plant along roads or highways and in city landscapes.  Originating in Brazil, this tropical legume is well adapted to low fertility soils.  It is a stoloniferous plant, which means it is a creeping horizontal plant that takes root along its length to form new plants.  This persistent plant has an impressive list of advantages to any other tropical groundcovers, such as shade tolerance (requires only 20% sunlight), drought resistance, high growth rate, high nutrient value/protein content, and low sward height.  The perennial peanut helps to control erosion and flowers, acts as a heavy nitrogen fixer, and spreads like a blanket, making it an ample ground cover.  Although its growth rate is not as high as it’s temperate counterparts, such as clover or alfalfa, the perennial peanut has one of the highest growth rates for tropical leguminous grasses.  

    Two-month-old cuttings of perennial peanut in a greenhouse.

    There are, however, disadvantages to using the perennial peanut.  For example, it produces little biomass, lacks deep, penetrating roots to break up soil, and takes about 4-6 months to completely establish a ground cover.  Given its prolonged initial growth period, weeding will be a necessity initially. It is said that perennial peanut responds best to seed planting; however, it is most commonly planted using the stolons for vegetative propagation since the seed is so difficult to harvest.

    It is fairly easy to take clippings to cultivate your own plants, or you can order them at most nurseries for a reasonable price. To establish your own plants, you will need to locate an existing stand. It will be fairly obvious as you see that perrennial peanut establishes ‘runners’ or stolons to spread out.  Simply cut the runners into 4 to 6 inch pieces and trim the majority of leaves.  Use a rooting stimulant or rooting aid and plant the peanut in soil blocks.  The trimming of excess existing leaves will fasten the rooting of the shoot ensuring a stronger and healthier plant in the long term.  Thicker runners are more desirable for propagation because there is more energy in the clipping.  This means that the clipping is more likely to cope with the shock of transplanting. It is recommended to treat the freshly planted stolons with some type of fertilizer application, organic or non-organic, and to keep them in the shade.  You can water them with natural stimulants, like fish emulsion, EM, or seaweed extracts to speed up plant development. In approximately 1 to 2 months, the soil blocks or bags will become harder, which is a sign of ample root development.  At this point, they are ready to transplant in the field.

    A freshly planted perennial peanut plant.

    A stand two months after transplanting.

    Due to its impressive perseverance, the peanut is a perfect choice for ground covers in orchard or silviculture systems. It is tolerant to many soil types in addition to moderate salinity, hydration, and soils with high levels of magnesium and aluminum. Once established, it is great forage with high nutritional value, exhibiting a 13-25% crude protein content, a 60-70% dry matter digestibility and low levels of condensed tannins.  The peanut is tolerant of heavy grazing due to its persistent stolons, making it optimal forage for chickens, ducks, rabbits, sheep, cows, and even pigs.  In fact levels of fixed NH4 are increased in well managed grazing systems, further reducing fertilizer needs. For best results in grazing operations, one should plant competitive sward grasses with the perennial peanut.  However, it is not recommended to plant the peanut with other legumes, as it will out compete them. Due to its low sward height, it is not favored for cut and carry applications.  In an orchard setting, the peanut may creep towards the base of the tree, thereby competing for nutrients.  Cutting the peanut back from the base of the tree to the edge of the coffee’s shallow roots is recommended to reduce nutrient competition while still allowing the exchange of nitrogen from the peanut to the tree.  How far one decides to cut back the peanut may vary depending on the species of tree.  Other leguminous plants such as Gliricidia can be chipped or manually trimmed to mulch directly under coffee trees to control weeds and retain moisture and nutrients.

    Cows grazing a pasture with perennial peanut.

    Biodiversity and polyculture are key factors to any sustainable agricultural system because they aid in pest control, cut environmental impacts and can provide different means of income.  Yet, it is often a struggle to convert an existing monoculture into a functioning polyculture. It can be difficult convincing a farmer to pull trees from their orchard to allow space for intercropping.  It is equally difficult to try and convince a farmer to plant their cash crop farther apart. These concepts are not practical for struggling farmers.  Nor should NGO’s or extension services waste their time in promoting such futile concepts.  Therefore, perennial peanut provides a solution to orchards, plantations, and siliviculture. If capital raised by organizations went towards the planting of legumes and green manures, the impact would be tremendous with permanent results.

    For Coffee production, the perennial peanut provides an excellent ground cover and can completely eradicate the need for herbicide applications once established.  It will reduce the farmers’ needs for synthetic fertilizers while aiding in the control of erosion.  Animals can freely graze the ground cover, and their manure will add to the available nitrogen for coffee production. Another advantage is that the peanut flower provides nectar for the introduction of honeybees. Coffee produces a wonderful flower for beekeeping and the combination of both coffee and perennial peanut enables the bees to have nectar all year around.

    A ground cover for coffee.

    A groundcover for an organic orchard.

    A ground cover for an organic orchard.




    We at AGC believe that introducing the perennial peanut may be the first step to converting Vietnam’s densely planted coffee plantations into a functioning polyculture.  Furthermore, the additional income generated from livestock can play a vital role in improving the livelihoods of coffee farmers. The perennial peanut can be seen as one step in the process of creating an environmentally and economically sustainable coffee plantation in the tropics.   Again, farmers must understand that the initial six months will require additional labor or costs, such as planting and weeding.  Yet, once established, the peanut is very hard to eradicate.  Furthermore, since this crop is permanent, it ensures NGO’s of its continual presence and benefits far after these organizations have left.

    Essay by Loren Cardeli and William Rutherford


  • March15th

    PerakInitially established as a permaculture project in 2008, we are now growing to be an educational center that teaches people about ways they can incorporate sustainability into their everyday lives wherever they live.  Our farm has become the playground and laboratory where we experiment with new techniques, learn from our mistakes, and try until we succeed.  Along the path of mistakes and subsequent successes, our passion lies in sharing our knowledge and experience with everyone we encounter, from urban folks to local farmers.   Beyond farming, we greatly emphasize living well—from the collection of indigenous tropical medicinal herbs to the principles of eating well and fostering an intentional community with common values towards the aim of living more harmoniously on earth.  After all, we are made from the dust of the earth.  

    The land is situated on a hill, 500m above sea level, and is surrounded by dense primary forest.  Being next to the rainforest provides us with ample mountain water for our crops, livestock, and daily living.  As the land is located 6kms from the nearest town, which is only populated by 2000 people, the environment is clean with unpolluted air and minimal urban disturbances.  Being in a rainforest surrounding provides strong biodiversity in the area, which keeps the soil fertile and natural.   Despite occasional visits from the wild boars that can be destructive to crops, our neighbors include a rich variety of wildlife such as gibbons, wild elephants, eagles, hornbills, and snakes.

    One example of the ways we are building soil fertility is planting sorghum.  It is a fast-growing crop and is the grain we feed our livestock.  Sorghum byproduct constitutes a large volume of biomass that is returned to the soil.  As it decomposes, sorghum becomes organic matter that conditions and enriches the soil.  The soil on our land has high clay content and doesn’t hold moisture well, so organic matter improves the soil structure, moisture holding capacity, and aeration.

    Our farming principle is to grow with zero negative effects to the soil and environment.  Because of our unique location in the rainforest, it is extremely crucial not to disturb the complex natural biodiversity and ecosystem that has been established for hundreds of thousands of years.  Instead of planting using monoculture methods, we mix our crops and create forest gardens where a variety of vegetables, herbs, and fruits can coexist and assist each other.  The farm’s policy is to remain 100% chemical free.  By creating a network of relationships, we are able to effectively stay away from using pesticides and chemicals.  Our livestock of goats, chickens, and ducks are not kept for their meat, but as part of the sustainable system.  The grazing goats become our assistants in preventing the dense jungle from aggressively growing and creeping into our land.  Their manure becomes the main ingredient for composting and later turns into fertilizer for our crops.  Our livestock is fed with purely organic food such as organic kitchen waste and desiccated coconut thrown away as waste at the local market.  The grain we feed to the livestock is also grown on the land using the same principles.  On our farm, plants, animals, and humans are of equal importance and we feed others as well as we would like to feed ourselves.   Attention to this constant cycle is key to our chemical-free concept.

    With the lack of organic seeds in Malaysia, we have begun an organic seed bank in hopes to supply local farmers with organic seeds to reduce their reliance on genetically-modified seeds for their crops.

    As our land is located on a 25 degree hill slope, we create terraces to minimize any exposed soil for vegetable-growing and in between planted ground creepers such as pumpkins, squash, and winter melons.  In our tropical climate, rain showers are frequent and the fertile topsoil can be easily washed off with one big rain, not only affecting the soil fertility but exposing the land gradient to possible erosion.

    Our biggest challenge is keeping the surrounding environment pristine and preventing the loss of rainforest through logging and commercial planting developments.  The local authorities do not provide any form of support for sustainable agriculture.  Our neighboring land and hills, which had been secondary rainforest, were completely cleared and logged by timber companies who were doing joint-venture projects with the local governmental economic development agency.  Up to 300 acres of forest were planted with hybrid eucalyptus as a source of fast-growing timber.   We encounter a daily struggle, attempting to prevent our crops from being cleared and sprayed with herbicide, and constantly monitor our water source to ensure no chemical wastes are diverted into the streams.

    Sustainably grown crops fetch lower than market prices in the local wholesalers, as they are judged on their shape and size irregularities.   Thus, our income is irregular and uncertain, making it necessary to rely on guests to keep afloat.   Local community awareness of the importance of sustainable agriculture is poor.   Our activities are seen as too labor intensive.  For our neighbors, it is easier to buy ready-made chemical fertilizers to obtain a decent harvest despite its higher costs.

    Our long-term goal is to be fully self-sufficient in respect to both food and energy.  More importantly, we want to be living proof that it is possible to practice natural farming with zero chemicals, even in a dense rainforest. We hope to share our knowledge and experience with anyone who wishes to follow a similar path.  We also aim to expand to a community-supported system in which our farm can provide food for a limited number of families.

    Our farming and agriculture techniques are developed and designed through prioritizing the constant observation of nature.  We keep things simple to find the easiest solutions. If we allow ourselves to observe and learn from plants, animals, and nature, the answers are often given to us.  Therefore, in the systems that we design, we are mostly replicating natural occurrences and behavior.  As these systems are implemented, they are highly effective, low in cost, and extremely simple. You can almost say that it is just common sense.

    As long as we keep everyone and everything happy and well fed, they feed us well in return.

  • March7th

    Maintaining a garden has its various setbacks especially when pests overrun your garden. Your instant reaction is to reach out immediately for the commercially produced chemical pesticides. While they are instantly effective, these harsh chemicals are harmful for us in the long run. Keeping in tune with organic living, there are natural remedies for pests that you can easily concoct at home.

    The material required for creating home remedies can be found in your kitchen cupboard and you can always make do with what you have. These remedies are very safe to use and will not have an adverse effect on your kids, pets or even yourself. Besides, you will be contributing greatly to the environment by using these natural products. Here are 3 simple home remedies for pests.  

    1. Garlic oil spray

    600 ml water
    10 to 15 cloves minced garlic
    tsp of mineral oil
    1 tsp of liquid dish soap

    Soak the garlic for 24 hours before use in mineral oil
    Add water to the garlic
    Add the liquid dish soap
    Mix thoroughly and store in a spray bottle and apply to plants

    This solution is very effective for controlling spider mites, aphids and white flies.

    2. Simple soap solution

    2 liters of warm water
    2 tbsp of soap flakes

    Dissolve the soap flakes in the warm water
    Store in a spray bottle and apply once every 5 to 7 days

    The use of too much soap can burn the plants but this solution deals effectively with white flies, aphids and spider mites.

    3. Fungicide for mildew and black spot

    1 liter of water
    1 tsp of soap flakes
    1 tsp of baking soda

    Dissolve the baking soda into the water
    Add the soap flakes which will enable the solution to cling to the leaves
    Store the solution in a spray bottle
    Remove all the infected leaves on the plant
    Spray the plant from top to bottom and on the new leaves area so as to curb the spread of the disease.

    This can be applied once in a while and keep checking the fungi attack on the plants.

    These remedies are safe, effective and a healthy way of protecting your garden and they are not even expensive. The added bonus is that, even when you apply these remedies they will only superficially control the particular disease or problem. It will not have a penetrating effect upon the plants, which means that you are not going to consume anything unhealthy. The vegetable plants which get the natural treatment are safer for consumption, as they can be easily washed out.

    You can also discourage insects and pests from creeping into your garden, if you use these preventive remedies every once in a while. Apart from that, you need to keep your garden well maintained so that pests are discouraged in your garden.

    About the author:  Diana Maria is a blogger by profession. She loves writing on technology and is fond of gadgets. Recently an article on electricity generation attracted her attention. These days she is busy in writing an article on designer table lamps.

  • February29th

    The Lord’s Acre is a not for profit 501(c)3 garden in western North Carolina. All the organic produce grown is given away to our local food pantries, Welcome Table, and individuals in need. Last year we grew 8 tons of produce on 1/2 acre using a combination of raised beds, field cropping, wide rows and by demonstrating various methods that can be used by backyard gardeners. We are currently in three-season production of a wide variety of mixed vegetables with cover cropping used as a crop rotation as well as being standard winter practice. This year, 2012, will be our fourth growing season and the progress we’ve made in such a short time is a testament to the community’s involvement. Along with volunteering in the garden, the community has provided such things as a tractor trailer load of compost, an irrigation pump, a site plan by civil engineers, a used barn, construction of a shed, financial support and so much more. During the growing season, there are regular volunteer work times as well as group volunteer times. We also house and train up to three interns per growing season.  

    The garden manager is keen to eventually move away from actually cultivating or turning the soil by using deep mulch, hugelculture, the cutting and laying down of cover crops, etc. We are experimenting with these each year. This will take some time but she is convinced it is the solution to many issues that challenge growers, both organic and non organic while also making the growing of food more affordable and accessible.

    Last year the property owner wished to sell the land we were on and we were unable to find similar, affordable property anywhere nearby. That is when we agreed to take out a 3-year mortgage on the property. Many have been generous in helping us toward the goal of land security but we still have a way to go. As we slowly expand onto the acreage we’re purchasing, we intend to add small livestock, fruit and nut trees and small fruits, the goal being to provide a variety of food and educational experiences. We see this property as public space where neighbors can enjoy learning about ways to take more control of their own food production while getting to know each other and building community ties.

    We see the garden as a hub for the community that just happens to revolve around agriculture and food. It’s our goal to use the strengths we have in this community to create and share models that can work for other small towns similar to ours. The goals are to build real community, using the garden as a vehicle. We provide garden and food skills training to anyone and everyone, raise awareness of both local and global food-related issues and inspire by as much beauty as we can possibly create. The organization is run by a board of thirteen committed folks with one paid garden manager position — the garden manager also being the executive director and visionary. The goals of the garden go way beyond food issues, however. We realize there are many types of hunger and that the model of those that ‘have’ giving to those that ‘do not’ is a false model. Yes, hunger for food exists but hunger for knowledge, community, and friendship also exist and are no respecter of socio-economic status. Perhaps our truest goal is to find and connect every person’s abundance with the hunger that exists in others and we believe a garden, with all its beauty and common ground, is one of the best places to do that.

    To this end The Lord’s Acre is now part of a unique triad consisting of our local food pantries, the garden and our Welcome Table. Welcome Tables are a concept where all people in a community are welcome to come once a week for a fresh, home cooked meal on a “pay as you can, if you can” basis. This brings together people from all ages and walks of life to get to know one another over a meal. This garden, Welcome Table, and pantry triad creates a unique relationship whereby the very best produce from the garden is donated to the pantries while ‘seconds’ can be used to prepare wholesome food at the The Welcome Table. In addition, the Welcome Table allows people the opportunity to taste vegetables they would not otherwise try, thus expanding people’s taste for a variety of fresh foods.

    This year we are also conducting a community food survey to better understand where our community is when it comes to liking, using, understanding, growing, purchasing and eating fresh foods. This knowledge not only shows us how to grow our organization, it shows the entire community how we can bring together our strengths to put healthy food on everyone’s table. It tells us what will inspire our community to grow as much of its food as possible and to get to know our farmers and their needs in the process.


    The Lord’s Acre
    PO Box 271
Fairview, NC 28730

  • February22nd

    Nestled in a holler in the Hominy Valley, a few miles outside of the mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina, is a small family farm. Though it is surrounded by many similar plots, this farm is one of the most unique in the area. This is the home of Smoking J’s Fiery Foods and Farm. Owned by Joel and Tara Mowrey, who live on the property with their two daughters, the farm is set apart from its Western North Carolina neighbors by many things, but one most of all: the crops grown here. Smoking J’s is not only a farm, where some of the hottest and rarest chili peppers in the world are cultivated, but also a small company that uses those peppers to make hot sauces, salsas and more. The story of Smoking J’s is not unlike those of other similar companies. It is, however, one that could not be recounted if it were it not for the extensive local network of resources, outlets and community support for local food and products, among other factors. This article, then, will serve to expound on just how these things were brought together in a comprehensive farm-and-business plan to create what is now Smoking J’s Fiery Foods and Farm.  

    I should share with the reader here that I spent the last two growing seasons working for Smoking J’s in every facet from planting to labeling the bottles. My job description would be hard to describe succinctly due to the varied nature of the work involved. This is part of what makes Smoking J’s so special. The peppers that are contained in a bottle of say, the Smoky Mango Habanero sauce, were first seeded by one or two people in the small hand-built greenhouse on the back lot of the property. They were brought from that early stage all the way to the finished product by relatively few hands. Very few hot sauce companies out there can make that claim, but more on that later.

    The Mowreys purchased their farm in 2003 to start a rare tree and shrub business that marketed its products to the wholesale nursery industry. Over the next five years, this company was built up year by year, and it is still a part of the daily operations on the farm. All the while, however, the Mowreys cultivated a large garden for their own consumption. Joel has always had a passion for spicy foods, and so it followed to grow peppers in the garden plots. Season after season, more pepper varieties were added to the rows until they eventually had some 20 varieties in the mix. Somewhere along the way, Joel decided to make his own hot sauce, which he then shared with his family and friends. This proved to be the crucial moment in the formation of what would become Smoking J’s. When asked what pushed them in the direction of a commercial enterprise, Joel said “After receiving a lot of positive feedback the wheels started turning and being an entrepreneur at heart I started wondering if there could be a business opportunity in producing hot sauces”.  In 2008, with a business name thrown out by a friend who loved our Smoked Habanero Hot Sauce, Smoking J’s Fiery Foods was formed. So, as you can see, our Fiery Foods business, unlike the nursery business, began more as a hobby versus a grand business vision with firm ideas and well thought out plan. I have learned over the years and it’s my belief that to be a successful first generation farmer in today’s world your have to be willing to try new things and be willing to diversify in order to find a niche and somehow differentiate yourself and your farm from so many others looking to pursue and a similar way of life.” The niche that Smoking J’s fills is one that is relatively unknown in the Western North Carolina area and is a big part of what makes them unique.

    As I said above, Smoking J’s is composed of two parts: the farm and the company. The Mowrey’s farm is comprised of 10 acres, nearly all of it arable bottom land hewn out by the millennial meanderings of the adjacent river. Though the soil is mostly Carolina red clay, one can quickly see the striated bands of crushed river rock when the fields have been turned. The peppers are grown on your average raised bed covered in black plastic mulch (this greatly aids in creating a warm soil base, which the peppers love) and irrigated with drip tape which is fed by the property’s well. Aside from the use of the tractor in the spring months for tillage, there is nearly no mechanization in the production of the crops here. Most work, including planting, stringing and harvesting, is done by hand. The work force includes one or two full time employees with some supplemental labor in the harvest periods. Peppers are the star crop to be sure, but there are cut flower fields, blueberry plots and a lath/greenhouse filled with ornamental nursery species as well. Additional crops are grown for local restaurants, florists, and nurseries. Smoking J’s Fiery Foods, the hot sauce company, is administered and marketed solely by Joel and Tara. As for the production of the sauces themselves, that work is done by many of the same folks that work in the fields.

    It takes a lot of work and time to get from the fields to the kitchen though. It all starts early in the calendar year, when the seeds are planted in the greenhouse and later potted. In the spring, the beds are prepped and the seedlings are planted. Over the course of the early summer, the plants and beds are tended until ready for harvest. Harvests are bunched together as much as possible which leads to massive loads (often in the 30 bushel range), making it easier to ship wholesale orders and process fruit while still fresh. The peppers that are used for the production of Smoking J’s foodstuffs are graded and de-stemmed at the farm and then taken to cold storage. In the kitchen the peppers are either dried for rubs, pureed into mash for wholesale or used in the company’s sauces and salsas. Once these products are finished, they are bottled hot and labelled by hand upon cooling. From there, they are sold in the various retail outlets partnering with Smoking J’s.

    In the last season, Smoking J’s farm grew around 20 different varieties of hot and sweet peppers, most of them hot and nearly all of them rare. Among their number were some familiar names like jalapeno and serrano, multiple varietals of the same type (there were 6 different types of habanero alone), and, of course, the hottest peppers out there, including the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T 6, which is the hottest pepper in the world weighing in at 1,463,700 Scoville heat units (an average jalapeno has a heat index of about 3,000 SHU). These peppers make Smoking J’s crops that much more marketable for wholesale which in turn allows the business room for experimentation and product expansion at a rate that would not be achievable otherwise. Smoking J’s is in a rare echelon of hot sauce producers because it grows all the peppers that it uses in its sauces, a practice which is relatively unknown in the industry. Add to that the fact that the Smoking J’s products are distinguished in a market flooded with choices due to the uncommon nature of their ingredients. At a glance, one may think that this is what most makes Smoking J’s unique. While this is true, it is only in part. As we will see, it is really the location of the farm and the company that truly sets it apart.

    Asheville, NC is a small city in a third of the state that has a smaller population in 23 counties than the Raliegh-Durham-Chapel Hill area alone. That fact may lead some to think of this as a substandard market for a value added product such as hot sauce. Here in the heart of Appalachia though, the spirit of community and supporting your neighbor is alive and well. The recent national trend towards local and sustainable agriculture has only served to bolster this sense of community. Asheville is a very progressive town with a strong commitment to its farmers and entrepreneurs. Nearly every grocery outlet and many local restaurants sell or serve food and other items produced locally, and a large number of those are made organically or sustainably. This is something that allows small companies and farms like Smoking J’s to make a name for themselves. “Without the support of these people and businesses it’s difficult to predict where our business would be,” Joel mused when asked about the local market.

    There are several local organizations and non-profits that help make this community of support possible as well. The Appalachian Sustainable Food Project helps promote, among other endeavors, local sustainably grown food and crops in the Western North Carolina area. Their yearly catalog of member farms creates for consumers a simple and highly accessible guide detailing what local farmers have on offer and where it can be purchased. This publication creates invaluable exposure for Smoking J’s and so many others free of charge. ASAP, along with the Mountain Tailgate Market Association, coordinate and promote twenty local tailgate farmers’ markets.  Just down the road from the Mowrey’s farm on the campus of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College is a small shared-use kitchen and small business incubator called Blue Ridge Food Ventures. This is the kitchen where Smoking J’s processes and packages all of its products. There are commercial grade steam kettles, convection ovens, dehydrators, bottlers and more available to use. This facility is utilized by nearly 30 small, local businesses, most of whom would not exist were it not for the service provided by BRFV. As Joel put it, “If we did not have access to this facility we would not have been able to even launch the value added part of our business due to the incredible expense of commercial equipment.” As far as retail outlets are concerned, Smoking J’s suffers no lack of options. As I mentioned previously, many grocery stores and restaurants offer local products and Smoking J’s has capitalized on this opportunity. Four different grocers sell Smoking J’s products and when in season, produce from Smoking J’s farm can be eaten at six different local restaurants. The Mowreys are also vendors in two of the Tailgate Farmers’ markets referenced above. Not only is this another opportunity to promote and sell fresh and value added product but provides them with an opportunity to get contact with the consumers. They are also active in promoting their product in various events like the Weekend of Fire, a partnership with a local restaurant that highlights the company’s sauces, as well as festivals in the immediate area and beyond. In the future, Smoking J’s hopes to expand this facet of the business by creating partnerships with more local restaurants, breweries and businesses.

    Wholesale of fresh and dried fruit as well as pureed concentrates are a large part of the business, as it provides a steady and reliable source of income that can be garnered twelve months of the year. Joel stated that “[m]ost farms operate seasonally depending on what crops there is a market for also depending on what region the farm is located in. Our business is unique in that although we are not actively producing fresh peppers year-round we are selling peppers and pepper related products all year.” Direct marketing to the consumer through the internet is another way that the business can earn additional income. Often, Smoking J’s products are sold only to people in the local area and as such the name gets little recognition outside of Western NC. By selling on the website and offering shipping to anywhere in the US, Smoking J’s increases their publicity in other markets where it most likely would never have any impact.

    So, as you can see, it is through a synthesis of many parts that the whole that is Smoking J’s emerges. Though it is impossible to say where or even what Smoking J’s would be without the resources and support at its disposal, it is likely that it would not enjoy the success that it has thus far.  The specialization in rare varieties of an already uncommon crop allows for greater marketability in the wholesale market. The value added product aspect is the main method through which the company reaches its customer base and represents the most public face of the company’s future. Smoking J’s certainly could not have reached the point it’s at today, though, without the availability of Blue Ridge Food Ventures’ kitchen space or the publicity it has gained from partnerships with local non-profits and businesses alike. Asheville and the Western NC area’s appetite for all things local has made the daunting task of marketing a far more manageable task for the fledgling company. It is not to say that these factors do all the work for the Mowrey’s, but instead helps them realize a passion that might otherwise have foundered. What results is a hobby-cum-company that has the emotional investment of its owners and the commercial support of a customer base with a conscience.

    Submitted by Dan Hughes

    About the author:
    Dan Hughes was raised in the farm country outside of Greensboro in the North Carolina Piedmont. The son of an avid gardener, he has always had an interest in growing food. His first real exposure to agriculture on a large scale was on the Farm at Warren Wilson College where he worked for two years while studying Political Science and History. It was there that he learned the value of a hard days work in the outdoors and the joys of seeing the fruits of your labor so readily presented. He has since worked on several different farms around the Asheville, NC area where he currently lives. Always an environmentalist at heart, it was through sustainable agriculture that he found a way to affect change for a better future with his own hands. Recognizing the growing need for ecologically minded folks on the policy and consulting end of farming, Dan hopes to study sustainable agricultural development in the coming year. He is fully committed to the mission of AGC and relishes the opportunity to put his knowledge on agriculture to good use with the organization.

  • February15th

    As many NGO’s, governments and outreach programs strive to aid developing world farmers, the real struggle is to implement low cost, long term solutions to environmental degradation. In developing countries, farmers plant permanent cash crops, close together to maximize their production and thus increase their income.  This is often the case in Vietnam where coffee, tea, and fruit plantations cover the rolling hills of the central highlands.  The environmental and economic problems associated with these mono-crop systems are tremendous, leading to erosion, nutrient loss, loss of topsoil, polluted water sources and compacted soils. Most of these environmental issues increase the dependence on the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which can have severe consequences to human health and the earth’s future food productivity.  Several organizations focused on outreach recognize these issues and search to find practical solutions for farmers. When creating realistic answers to these problems we need to break the common monoculture mold and create low cost, low-labor, permanent solutions to restore soils.  

    Many organizations come to the developing world with high hopes of making a positive impact on the environment and humanity.  This is an extremely admirable quality that we can only hope becomes more widespread.  However, these gracious efforts sometimes fizzle out when the projects are prematurely considered “complete.”  Due to little or no follow up, things quickly go back to the way they once were.   As a result, we must instead ask ourselves, what are some ways that we can maximize our efforts?   How can NGO’s create solutions that will last longer than their stay?

    Oftentimes, scientists and environmental consultants fail to recognize that they weigh the benefits of certain applications or changes differently than farmers.  Struggling farmers often overlook long-term benefits or ecological benefits because of more pressing issues, such as feeding their families. Sustainable methods promoted in the developing world are extremely important for the future of both farmers and the environment.  Yet, it may be difficult for farmers to follow through with these practices because, with each technology or idea presented, there are practical restrictions, such as management, education, finance, time and even storage space. Organizations should strive to make farmers lives easier. Therefore, if there is initial labor and costs needed, it is our belief that the bill should be covered by the organizations themselves.

    We are currently working in Vietnam and have been observing and implementing different agriculture techniques.  Thus far, we have mainly been working with coffee farmers.  Many people are unaware that Vietnam is one of the world’s largest producers of coffee.  Since coffee’s more recent introduction into the agricultural landscape of Vietnam, the crop has been widely planted throughout the highlands, making it one of the fastest growing agricultural commodities in the world.  This quick change has led to wide range deforestation of the mountain slopes, leading to countless environmental problems.  Specifically, the coffee monoculture has led to the wide scale use of herbicides, and commercial fertilizers.  In Vietnam, we believe there is a need to promote practical solutions to the current environmental problems posed by coffee production.  The solutions explained in this essay may also be applicable to several other permanent agriculture or orchard systems around the world.

    First, let us focus on nutrient loss.  Soil nutrient depletion is a large problem in Vietnam, as it is in many other countries across the globe.  We need to focus on building not only the soil’s nutrients, but also the soil’s ability to absorb nutrients.  There are two favored ways of introducing natural nutrients: animal manures and green manures/legumes.  The current debate is that there is simply not enough land or feedstuffs to raise enough animals to restore the soil using strictly composted manure.  Therefore, there has been a huge NGO push advocating the introduction of specialized leguminous species into agricultural systems.

    Legumes are in the family Fabaceae or Leguminosea and make up the third largest plant family in the world.  There are over 19,000 varieties and can be found almost everywhere except the extreme arctic.  Most leguminous plants have specialized bacteria on their roots called rhizobia.  These rhizobia can be seen as little pods along the roots called root nodules.  Rhizobia are crucial to agricultural systems as they pull N2 or nitrogen gas out of the atmosphere and then convert it into NH4; with proper management this can help minimize fertilizer needs. Nitrogen fixation is the result of a crucial symbiotic relationship that should be maximized by incorporating legumes into the system.

    AGC contributor and Co- Author, William Rutherford, planting leguminous perennial peanut in a coffee orchard.

    Legumes come in many varieties, as some are grass or groundcovers, while others can be large trees.  Some are annuals, but the majority are perennial varieties.  Not unlike the layers of a healthy forest, there is a canopy where tall trees strive to absorb full sun.  The understory, composed of smaller trees that don’t need as much sun, thrive as well.  Underneath this layer are the shrubs and groundcovers that lie close to the forest floor.  There are species of legumes that fit into theses layers of a forest making them applicable in virtually all settings and environments.  However, it is important to select the right legume or combination of legumes for every farm.  While some grow fast and need constant trimming or can be invasive, other varieties, such as ground covers, are low labor.  All have individual advantages additional to nitrogen fixing, such as mulching, fodder, intercropping, weed control, hedgerows, and loosening soils.

    For example, Gliricidia, a medium sized tree that can grow up to 12 meters high, is one of the most nutrient rich legumes.  It can be planted in or around a fruit orchard and is even used in some areas to provide shade for coffee trees. The resilient and fast growing Gliricidia can be cut back aggressively; leaving the branches to be chipped and blown directly into the orchard as nutrient rich mulching.   Pigeon pea is a multi use leguminous shrub that can also be planted in orchards to serve as a living-mulch or used as a cover crop.  It is extremely helpful in loosening soils and increasing the circulation between trees.  In many areas of the world, pigeon pea is grown for human consumption.  One of the most favored tropical legumes is Leucaena, a tree species used for fodder, human consumption and firewood production.

    Above are the following legumes Gliricidia, Pigeon Pea, and Leucena respectively.

    This is the first part of a two part essay written by Loren Cardeli and WIlliam Rutherford.

  • January30th


    by Ross Mittleman

    Coffee is one of those crops that seem to defy traditional categorization. It has taken on a life and purpose above and beyond that of nourishment or delight that we associate with most food and beverage products. Throughout all corners of the world it has established itself as a venerable staple of countless cultures. Coffee’s heightened status may be due to that mild stimulating effect appreciated by so many, its association with individual ritual and routine, or its ability to connect people through a reunion between friends or a first date between strangers. Beyond that, its warmth, flavor, and aroma speak to the human senses in a manner representative of utter comfort. Perhaps it is no surprise that the coffee trade accounts for a large percentage of international commerce, but few would believe that it is second only to petroleum as the most traded product in the world. Despite its widespread consumption, the coffee plant is cultivated only in certain areas accommodating to its distinctive climatic preferences, which are generally tropical and between 1200 to 1600 meters above sea level. Much of the final product is consumed far from its origins but both the producer and consumer are linked through socio-economic factors and dependent upon one another. The relationship invites investigation and here we will examine one particular source of The Bean.  

    In recent years Brazil and Vietnam have surpassed it as the top two coffee growing nations, but in the hearts and minds of many there remains only one country synonymous with a quality cup of Joe, and that would be Colombia. The first seeds arrived there around the mid 19th century and commercial production commenced shortly thereafter. Though consolidation and corporate pressures have created many large scale plantations, the independent farmer has always occupied a crucial role in the industry, culture, and national history of Colombia and one man who takes a great sense of pride in that fact is Pedro Burgos. An agricultural engineer by trade and a naturalist at heart, Pedro learned soon after finishing his education that commercial coffee farming was in his blood, but not his future. With the support of his wife, Maryori, and their two daughters, he set forth on a course different from the traditional trajectory followed by many of his peers. The couple acquired about 14 acres of land near the town of Salento in the Quindio river valley, historically and currently a major center of coffee production. They purchased the land from an elderly man that had grown coffee for nearly half a century and they called it Reserva Café Sachamama, or “Mother Forest Coffee Reserve.”

    Pedro and Maryori are passionate about the natural world and have adopted the practice of managing their land as stewards rather than owners. To walk with them through Sachamama can be a slow process because of their desire to stop and identify every plant species or pause to observe any sort of animal or insect activity. Their eyes come alive with a child like exuberance when they are in their forest. And this forest is truly theirs. Immediately after acquiring the property they set about a slow process of reforestation through transplanting and culling of many native plant species, a deliberate effort that continues through present day.  They have blended this restoration operation with small-scale cultivation of Coffea arabica, a variety prized for its flavor and adaptability. Some of the coffee shrubs on their property are close to 60 years old, with epiphytes and mosses growing on the branches and the plants themselves sprawling nearly 15 feet both vertically and horizontally. The standard commercial plant is pruned, fertilized, and stripped of its beans intensively with an average life expectancy of eight years and often grown in rolling green acres of perfectly straight rows as far as the eye can see. The problem with that approach is that the coffee plant is best suited to a tropical climate with significant altitude. The regions where the plant thrives are usually some of the most bio-diverse on the planet yet the modern day tactic is to clear-cut areas that would otherwise host a plethora of different plant species supporting a widely varied ecosystem.  That is why the term “shade grown” coffee is becoming increasingly important in marketing and consumer preference. The term could likely be contested by many agencies or experts and the true adherence of those companies or growers to their claim of “shade grown” may have some gray area.

    Pedro harvests his own variety of “forest-grown” coffee and an amble around his property proves it. On 14 acres he has about 500 coffee plants versus 3,000-4,000 per acre on a commercial plantation. Though Pedro had the chance to enter the industrial side of the field, he gravitated towards a different approach. He was less focused on instantaneous profit and long term damage. He became more interested in ecology and natural systems than monoculture. His approach was largely untested and completely unheard of in the region. At first, he claims, even he had doubts about his own alternative mindset and theories, but when an Italian couple came for a visit a few years back they told him about Terra Madre (an Italian organization behind Slow Food) and Pedro said the network gave him hope. “It proved to me that I was on the right path,” he says, “and validated a lot of what I was trying to do.”

    Pedro’s commitment to the environment and unwillingness to compromise his integrity has created a product of supreme quality. His ecologically sensitively grown coffee may have inadvertently caused subtle benefits. Coffee beans are considered hydroscopic, meaning they take up water in the surrounding atmosphere in greater concentrations than most plants. With water comes aroma and flavor captured in the immediate vicinity. Maryori will gleefully inform any visitor that coffee harvested when a nearby fragrant orchid is in full bloom will absorb those floral notes and taste (perhaps by that same token, when a true connoisseur drinks cheap industrial coffee that person could detect faint hints of pesticide and farm workers’ misery). Additionally, Sachamama differs from “conventional” coffee farms in that Pedro and Maryori bring the process full circle by hand roasting and packaging all of their beans. Most large scale operations ship the dried bean to processing facilities far from the plantation. At Sachamama, the berry is first harvested, and then the skin and fruit surrounding the seed is removed by a manual crank apparatus. Next, the seed is fermented in tightly sealed buckets for a little less than a day and sun dried for several weeks. The final stage involves roasting in small batches. Not only does the whole process require patience and diligence, but the time from flower to mature fruit requires an additional 9 month wait.

    In general, the cultivation and preparation of coffee is an exercise in discipline and, for Pedro and his family, a labor of love. He is not merely selling a product, and the customer is not just buying it. He speaks with conviction when he explains that the exchange of goods between people can represent a deeper cultural interaction, especially with food and beverage. Every product can have a history that explains a bit about its origins and the path it travelled to eventually end up before the consumer. When asked if he would like to distribute his product more widely throughout the country or internationally to perhaps engage in a distant cultural exchange of his own he scoffs at the question. “Why would I want to do that? I sell my product here in the community where I live and that is the way I like it.” His response demonstrates a man committed to focusing on improvement and quality of life in his own world, a message from which we could all benefit.

  • January24th

    By Doug Decandia, Food Growing Project Coordinator

    The Food Growing Program is a project initiated by the Food Bank for Westchester, of Westchester County, NY. The Food Bank is the supply and support center for over 200 hunger relief agencies (soup kitchens, shelters, food pantries, etc.) throughout the county. These agencies that directly distribute food and supplies to individuals and families experiencing hunger.  

    The goal of the Food Growing Program is to contribute to the supply of healthy food and education for county residents. To meet this goal, the program has two main objectives:

    1. a production operation – to grow healthy food for local distribution, free of charge
    2. vocational program – for students, inmates, and community volunteers

    The land on which food is grown is located on five gardens throughout the county:

    • Leake & Watts – school and residential support center for teenagers – Yonkers, NY
    • Edenwald – school for teenagers – Pleasantville, NY
    • Woodfield Cottage – school and juvenile correction facility – Valhalla, NY
    • Westchester County Penitentiary – penitentiary – Valhalla, NY
    • Westchester Land Trust – private residence – Bedford Hills, NY

    The students (from the schools), inmates (from the penitentiary), and volunteers (from the community) are the source of labor at each garden—providing the labor for seed starting, transplanting, harvesting, field work, and soil care. The Food Growing Program Coordinator oversees, manages, and provides education for the program. While working in the gardens and engaging in discussion, lessons are observed, felt, and taught, an experiential and hands on education for the students, inmates, and volunteers.

    In total, there are 2.5 acres in production during the growing season. Each season, approximately 20-25 main food crops are grown, with each of the gardens “specializing” in about five of these food crops (which are familial or culturally similar). These food crop groups are rotated between gardens each season.

    The 2011 season was the first time the Food Growing Program gardens were organized and operated as one functioning food production (in years past, each garden was overseen as an individual space by a different person). This season was also the first that the Food Growing Program Coordinator was a full-time position—allowing for one person to provide oversight, management, and education to all of the gardens and to all of the students. The total harvest of the 2011 season contributed to over 18,000 individual servings of organically-produced and locally-grown vegetables for county residents experiencing hunger.

    In reflection of this first season, strengths and weaknesses of the Food Growing Program include:


    • Non-profit backing (the Food Bank) provides financial support for the program
    • One full-time paid employee acts as Food Growing Program Coordinator
    • Supply of organically-produced and locally-grown produce
    • Experiential education provided to incarcerated adults and youth with emotional issues
    • Cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships between Food Growing Program and Garden Sites
    • Food Bank gets growing space and food harvested
    • Garden Sites get education
    • Food is not sold, but instead brought directly to Food Bank where it is distributed throughout the county—no marketing involved in distribution
    • Other Food Bank employees help with grant writing, site relationships, and volunteer coordination
    • Non-profit recognition of Food Bank allows donations (seeds, tools, etc.) and tax-deduction purchases


    • Unpredictable supply of labor—we do not know how many students will be able to work each day
    • Garden sites are located in geographically different places throughout the county—a lot of driving
    • Each garden is physically, chemically, and biologically unique—but adds to complexity of coordinator’s experience (a good thing)

    This program does have potential to be replicated in other areas of the county or world. The most important characteristics of this program that allow it to function as it does are:

    • An agriculturally-experienced coordinator
    • Full-time employment of coordinator
    • Including salary,  health benefits, etc.
    • Funding for program budget (in this case, through the Food Bank)
    • Mutually beneficial relationship between the growing source (in this case, the Food Bank) and the site (the garden sites)
    • Sources of labor (in this case, the students, inmates, and volunteers)
    • Ability to distribute harvest (in this case, through the Food Bank)
    • Warehouse, storage, transporation, etc.
    • People/sources to distribute food to (in this case, the hunger-relief agencies)
    • Greenhouse space
    • To start plants and to grow food in
    • Storage space
    • For food (until distribution), supplies, and tools

    A program like the Food Growing Program has the ability to act as an asset for the funder and other parties involved. The ability to contribute to the funder and other parties can sustain and promote the program and allow its influence and contributions to continue successfully.

    The Food Growing Program is a source of locally-grown, nutritious food for individuals experiencing hunger. It is also a source of education for adults and young adults to learn, through experience, about hard work, responsibility, science, and agriculture. It allows the coordinator to engage with their hands, their mind, and their spirit in the practice of an ecological agriculture, and to “make a living” from it. The Food Growing Program is a source of sustenance through the food, education, and life experience it provides.

  • January13th

    Larry JacobsA statement from Larry Jacobs:

    The New York Times recently published an article that erroneously implied organic farmers in Los Cabos are growing unsustainably. The article included many statements about both water use and the impacts of organic farming in the area that are just plain wrong. The Del Cabo cooperative is recognized internationally as a model for organic farming and sustainable development. Given the tremendous population and tourism growth in Los Cabos in recent decades, the small family farms supported through the Del Cabo cooperative are arguably an environmental bright spot in the area.  

    In her recent article about water scarcity and agriculture in Mexico, Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in broad strokes about the availability of water throughout the Baja Peninsula. The article blamed organic farming for over-taxing aquifers in the region. While it is true that – as in much of the world – demand for water outstrips supply in Los Cabos, the demand comes from many sources, and organic farming is not the biggest user by a long stretch. The best data we could find shows that the urban/tourist sector accounts for 69% of water use in Los Cabos, compared to agriculture at 28%. (Source: CNA, Gerencial Estatal, Baja California Sur, México.  Prepared by Alva R. Valez A.)

    The tourism industry has boomed in Los Cabos since 1990. What was once a sleepy community with pristine beaches and a population of 10,000 is now home to more than 200,000 residents, including many who live in shanty towns, working at luxury hotels that cater to foreign tourists. These resorts have more hotel rooms combined than there are organic farmers in the whole of the United States.  Twenty lush green golf courses and dozens of swimming pools sit where sand dunes and cactus once watched the ocean tides rise and fall.

    With regard to water use in organic farming, the author lumped the Los Cabos region in with the rest of the Baja Peninsula and California when she was discussing water shortages. Water is a huge issue from San Francisco to the tip of the Baja. Los Cabos (at the southern end of the Baja Peninsula) relies on a different aquifer than does regions to the north. While some of what was reported about agriculture over-using groundwater in the northern peninsula is accurate, the majority of produce in that area is grown conventionally. In Los Cabos, where organic agriculture dominates, small farmers like Del Cabo cooperative members use less than the water allotted to them and get the most out of every drop through advanced irrigation equipment and a holistic approach to soil management. Water shortages are not a major issue for these farmers.

    Rosenthal’s  article dismisses the enormous benefits of organic agriculture and implies that organic practices are not sustainable. Organic agriculture builds soil fertility and manages crops without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic chemical fertilizers. The article touts the benefits of eating locally, which is a sentiment I support. But it oversimplifies an incredibly complex issue in a way that is likely to leave readers misinformed about how to consume produce in a conscious and responsible way.

    Buying local produce has its benefits but local fare may not be organic. The use of persistent toxic chemicals and chemical fertilizers have far-reaching health and environmental consequences. Anyone truly concerned with the environment must weigh the costs and benefits of not only where but how their food is grown before making broad statements about the unsustainability of organic agriculture.

    Del Cabo farmers plant cover crops to replenish soils; practice crop rotation; encourage insect habitats; use micro-irrigation to reduce water consumption; reuse field containers for harvest; pack in the most recycled plastic in the world; and consolidate their produce to minimize transport impacts, whether in the belly of planes returning from dropping off tourists or by maximizing truck loads. In addition, in Los Cabos, families are lifted out of poverty by participating in a company they own.

    We celebrate that organics have spread from the White House garden to Patagonia and that we can now enjoy off season treats and non-local fare like coffee, chocolate, avocados and even cherry tomatoes.  We applaud eating close to home but in the middle of winter, it’s a lot more sustainable to enjoy a Del Cabo cherry tomato and support small-scale Mexican farmers than it is to fly to Cabo for a winter reprieve.

    I worked with local farmers to establish the Del Cabo cooperative in 1985 with the goal of improving their quality of life while establishing sustainable farming practices. More than 25 years later, we’ve seen hundreds of farming families achieve economic security without placing undue stress on the environment. While their counterparts toil for poverty wages in neighboring hotels, our farmers earn enough to live a comfortable lifestyle in an area where their parents and grandparents once survived on subsistence farming.

    These small farms have transformed the lives of thousands of people who today make a decent living, grow and eat their own organic food, and no longer feel compelled to make the dangerous trek across the border to support their families far from home. At Del Cabo, we believe these farmers are the picture of sustainability. It’s true that our world is facing a growing water crisis in which supplies are dwindling due to climate change and populations are booming. As we begin to make the hard choices about where to dedicate our limited water supply, organic farming should remain a priority. It’s one of the most sustainable investments we can make for the long-term health of people and our planet.


    *The New York Times article entitled “Organic Agriculture May Be Outgrowing Its Ideals” was published Dec. 30th, 2011

    To learn about Del Cabo farmers and their products CLICK HERE

  • December25th

    Hickory Nut Gap Farm – The family that owns and operates our farm has history on this land that dates back to the 19th century. A wealth of agricultural enterprises have been born here, including the Farmers Federation by James G.K. McClure in 1920. This land once hosted a dairy, and it was the long time home place of former North Carolina Senator James McClure Clarke, who worked passionately in his life to establish a number of orchards around his home. In it’s current state, Hickory Nut Gap Farm is a very diverse family farm that produces everything from grass-fed beef and pastured pork to a successful agri-tourism business, and most recently we have ventured into producing certified organic fruit such as blueberries, blackberries, and apples. Organic orchard management poses a great challenge, especially in the south where disease and insects are more prevalent than the northern climates particularly well known for growing apples. Organic orcharding has even been called “the last frontier in organic agriculture” by Michael Phillips, an experienced holistic apple grower out of New England.

    In navigating the challenges that we face in managing our organic orchards, we also must circumvent concerns related to the family history of our farm. The oldest apples trees growing in our orchards are 60 years old, and some could even be older. The productive maturity of an apple tree is said to be upwards of 20 years, so the age of these oldest trees provides yet another road block to maintaining not only a healthy but also an economically viable organic orchard system. The problem though is that the oldest trees were planted and cared for by a beloved man, Senator Clarke. Family and community members alike have expressed misgivings about the removal of these old trees. In the first few years of organic management we incorporated the existing trees into our management plan. Though, with the best interest of our business in mind, we have decided to move forward at a slow pace, removing only the most unproductive trees. These will be replaced with newly planted young trees. In the coming years we’ll be able to get a good grip on the true value of the remaining old trees, while caring for new saplings that will be the future of the apple production on our farm. In this process we have come to another hurdle in orchard management.

    An organic orchard system is very sensitive to cultural practices. One such example is the intensified need to remove all dead fruit, prunings, and dead wood from the orchard. Dead apple wood harbors insects and disease, so its removal is critical. One is presented with the opportunity to turn prunings into mulch and use them to your benefit on the orchard floor, but that is a conversation for another day. In addition, the volume of wood and size of the trees we are taking down in the orchards isn’t ideal for using in a wood chipper. We are now at the point where we have a bunch of trees lying on the ground, and although there is a lot of emotional attachment to them, they are of seemingly little worth. In other words, we’ll have to put a lot of labor into getting them out of the way, and they don’t provide much use value other than firewood that’s hard to split.

    I am a budding permaculturist, so I often like to challenge the work that we are currently engaged in, hoping to increase efficiency or to decrease waste. If anything, those challenges sometimes lead to an interesting conversation. The permaculture mentality provides a framework for coming up with solutions that work harmoniously with the system in which they are employed. How can we better serve ourselves with the work we are doing to remove these old apple trees? So, just the other day I had a moment of inspiration when I realized that we could use the apple trees that we cut down as the hosts for our next round of mushroom log inoculation.

    We happen to have a small side project growing mushrooms on logs under the canopy of a hemlock forest between two of our pastures. Early in 2011 we inoculated our first shiitake and oyster mushrooms on oak and poplar logs respectively. We spent countless hours cutting wood for the sole purpose of using it to propagate mushrooms. During that process our whole crew identified that we were spending a lot of time to get wood for a project that constitutes a negligible part of our operation. By using the currently available apple trees as our source of mushroom logs we are performing multiple tasks in one: cleaning the downed trees out of the orchard and cutting logs sized perfectly for use in growing mushrooms. Growing mushrooms is quickly gaining interest as an agricultural pursuit because it is so easy and inexpensive to begin. In addition to producing a great food, there is potential for amazing economic returns in this perennial system.

    The satisfaction that came from our new focus on this project was visible. The work crew was feeding on the excitement of expanding our mushroom growing while performing what could have been viewed as a mundane task, cutting up old trees. Albeit a small one, this opportunity to instill a creative spark in our farm work proved invaluable. Also, we will be benefitting the bottom line of our business, diversifying our local food supply, and learning about the cultivation of different varieties of mushrooms using apple wood as the growing medium. Along the way we’ve come up with another way extend the use of the old apple trees in yet another dimension. I briefly spoke of organic and holistic orchard management, and this final side note is of that accord. The smallest branches from the apple trees that are too small for mushroom logs or firewood will still be put to use. We will have a lot of trim piles in the orchard that need to be dealt with. While we will remove most of this old dead wood, we aim to experiment with using some of these piles as a pest control measure. In the summer, when certain apple insect pests are at their height, we will have a number of small evening bonfires in the orchard, burning the old scraps. One of our most formidable orchard insect pests is the coddling moth. Like most moths, they are attracted to light when it’s dark outside. These bonfires should attract a large number of our resident coddling moths and eliminate at least some of them from our orchard when they reach the flames.

    I relish the fact that this application of systems thinking comes from only a few days’ work on the farm. Each and every project that we undertake is yet another opportunity for creative diversification. Again, this mentality compounds the value of our labor. Specifically, the renovation of an old orchard should prove to be a boon to our business. Maybe even more importantly, it has provided an opportunity to reignite our passion for working as farmers of a new age.

    Essay by Ryan Sitler

  • December12th

    One of the easiest and most effective ways to improve and build soil fertility in any gardening situation is to use a method known as sheet mulching.  Thick layers of mulch are placed directly on the soil, simulating the thick leaf litter and humus found in natural forest systems.  Sheet mulch provides multiple benefits, including water retention, weed suppression, slow release of nutrients and increase of beneficial soil organisms.  

    I first was introduced to this method through a sweet old lady called Esther Deans.  She had written a book called ‘Growing without digging’, and was one of the first people in Australia to promote this type of garden.  Her simple method enabled anyone to quickly create an extremely productive garden in any soil, even directly over weeds or lawn.  The somewhat chaotic garden in illustration 1 is one of my early mulch gardens, made on shallow sandy soil over solid rock!

    I later came across the method again at Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Institute.  Big areas of tough and mostly useless bladey grass (Imperata cylindrica) were just trampled, covered with cardboard and lightly mulched with straw.  Cuttings of sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) were pushed under the cardboard, with their growing tips exposed to the light.  In the rich soils of northern New South Wales, rampant sweet potato runners soon covered the mulch, and produced enough tubers to feed an army.  Sometimes fruit or nut trees were planted at the same time. They thrived with sweet potato as a groundcover.

    The materials listed below are not always available and can be expensive, so it becomes important to identify locally available material which can be substituted.  Various materials can be used, applying the same principles. Some suggestions are given, but be resourceful with what is available to you.

    To make a sheet mulch garden, first knock over any tall weeds or woody plants with a brushcutter, or just trample them; don’t remove them, as they will quickly decompose under the mulch and add nutrients.  A light sprinkle of organic fertiliser or manure is applied to the ground to kick-start microbial activity.  A little lime or dolomite may be helpful if the soil is a bit acidic.  Overlapping layers of newspaper or cardboard are placed on top to create a barrier that prevents weeds from regrowing. Banana or other large leaves can be used as a weed barrier in place of paper. So can old clothes, blankets, carpet or underlay.

    Follow the weed barrier layer with a good layer of lucerne hay [editor: also known as alfalfa - Medicago sativa], which is a rich source of nitrogen (for a deluxe version use mushroom compost as well). Then top this off with a thick layer of straw.  Part of the beauty of using straw and hay is that they are very easy to handle and quick to apply (one of Esther Deans’ goals was to encourage gardening amongst the elderly and less mobile). However, for these layers I have also used woodchips, lawn clippings, seaweed, autumn leaves, peanut shells and sugar cane waste, just to name a few.  Any weed material which doesn’t have ripe seeds or persistent tubers can be used.  Here in Chiang Mai, Thailand we have made good use of water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), an abundant aquatic weed.

    Of course, with different materials the results will vary.  Sometimes the straw will be full of weed seeds.  Sometimes termites will take the place of worms.  Sometimes there is not enough nitrogen.  But I can confidently say that with this method, soil fertility and structure will always benefit and water needs will be reduced.

    The garden needs a really good watering to get it started, but once wet it conserves moisture.  To plant in the garden, make a hole in the mulch, down to the paper, and make a little rip in the paper so that roots can easily find the soil.  Fill the hole with a couple handfuls of good compost or soil and then plant seeds or seedlings.

    Organic matter will improve the fertility, structure and water holding capacity of any soil.  Sheet mulch gardens quickly provide bulk organic matter and create an instant humus-rich layer on top of the soil.

    The soil is never exposed to sun or the impact of rain, so it develops excellent structure, especially in the top layer where the feeder roots are.  Even with regular watering, the top layer of soil in an unmulched garden goes through wet and dry cycles.  In sheet mulched gardens, though, the moisture, humidity and temperature at the surface remain constant.  This creates a microclimate conducive to worms and a rich variety of soil organisms, including fungi, which are very important to the nutrient cycle.  These microbes convert the straw, lucerne and paper to humus and colloids (dispersed particles), and to readily available plant foods.  They also eventually incorporate the organic matter into the soil, effectively doing your digging for you.

    The important thing to get right is the appropriate mix of rough fibrous (high carbon) material to nitrogen rich material.  With not enough nitrogen, materials will take a long time to break down and will borrow nitrogen from the soil in the process.  It is a lot like a compost heap, except that you do not want it to get hot [Editor: Heat, such as generated in compost heaps, could be harmful to garden plants.  Fortunately, materials used in sheet mulched gardens are not piled to the extent that damaging heat is generated]. The other difference between sheet mulching and a compost heap is that when you have made your compost in a heap, you have to spread it around your garden.  But with this method, your compost heap is your garden!

    I have been making paper and mulch gardens for more than twenty years.  I have made them in suburbia, deserts, rainforests, swamps, sandy and clay soils.  I have made them over thick lawn, weeds, even rock. The method has been successful for establishing trees, perennial gardens, groundcovers and vegetable gardens. I hope you will find it useful in your situation.

    Editor: Les is from Australia and has long been involved with horticulture, especially with nurseries and tropical plants. He was a senior horticulturist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney before becoming involved with permaculture, after which he worked on many community garden projects in remote Australia. For the past year he has been involved with Fair Earth Farm in Chiang Mai and will soon be returning to Australia where he manages a property for biodiversity and wildlife habitat as well as food production. Les can be reached at didjcripey@yahoo.com.

  • November22nd

    When we think of air pollution, we normally think of outdoor air pollution in heavily populated urban areas. However some of the worst air pollution occurs indoors in rural areas. The burning of biomass such as wood, coconut coir and other crop residues as a source of fuel generates smoke, particulates, carbon monoxide, methane and hundreds of organic compounds including many carcinogens. As a result, thousands of people in Vietnam die each year.

    According to World Health Organization estimates, more people in the developing world die each year from conditions related to indoor air pollution—mostly from inefficient, solid-wood-burning stoves—than tuberculosis or malaria.[1]  

    But the use of cook stoves is not limited to rural areas. Throughout Vietnam, streets are often filled with smoke coming from small outdoor kitchens and restaurants. Low-grade biomass is often burned in the preparation of fresh noodles and in other applications where a lot of boiling water is required. Households, even in an urban setting, burn yard waste and other trash as a means of getting rid of it. This horrible practice continually fills the air with pollutants.

    One might argue that many people cannot afford kerosene, LPG or propane, and that little can be done to stop the burning of low-grade biomass fuels. Ultimately the answer does not lie in abandoning low-cost biomass fuels, but in extracting from them a gas that burns as cleanly as propane or any other fossil fuel. With the help of Alexis Belonio, the fabrication in Vietnam of top-lit, updraft (TLUD), forced-air gasifiers has begun. These gasifiers operate quite well on many types of fine and undensified biomass wastes such as rice hulls, coffee bean husks, coconut coir, bagasse, wood chips, sawdust, the shells of nuts and so forth.

    Some types of biomass, such as straw and pine needles, must be slightly compacted or shredded to increase their bulk density. Forestry waste should be chipped. But the costly step of pellitization (as much as $125 US/ton) is generally not required. Ideally the moisture content of the biomass should not exceed 12%. Biomass can be sundried, it can be dried thermophilically using a compost fleece, and it can be dried using residual gasifier heat.

    This gasifier is nothing more than a vertical cylinder with a removable burner on the top and a grate at the bottom. A small fan supplies air underneath the grate, and the speed of the fan is controlled by means of a speed regulator. The diameter of the reactor determines the amount of gas produced, and the height of the reactor determines the length of time that this gas is produced.

    Many types of undensified biomass, such as rice hulls and bagasse, have a negative angle of repose and have a tendency to resist movement or flow through a gasifier or any other device. In this gasifier, biomass is never in movement within the reactor during the gasification process. Other than the small fan that supplies air underneath the grate, there are no moving parts. Very little can break down. There is virtually no maintenance. The process is easy to monitor and control, and the turnaround time between batches is measured in seconds, not minutes.

    In starting the process, the burner is removed and the reactor is filled with biomass.[2] The fan is turned on, and paper is placed on the top of the biomass and lit by means of a match or cigarette lighter. Once the paper burns over the entire surface of the biomass, it only takes seconds for the biomass to ignite. A flame then rises up from the top of the reactor. The burner is placed on the reactor, and the flame comes through the holes of the burner. The fan speed is lowered according to the amount of heat required. Note that there is no lighting of gas.

    This is quite important from the point of view of safety, since at no time is carbon monoxide being discharged. Once the burner is placed on top of the reactor, the open flame within the reactor goes out, and true gasification begins. Soon the temperature within the reactor reaches as high as 1000C, provided of course that the biomass is sufficiently dry.

    As the burn proceeds from top to bottom, a thick layer of hot fine char is formed above the point where the gases are released. As the gas is forced through this bed of fine char, most complex hydrocarbons are broken down into hydrogen and carbon monoxide. It is this intimate and prolonged contact of gas with hot char that results in the beautiful blue flame so characteristic of this type of gasifier. This does not happen in a bottom-lit updraft gasifer or in a side-draft gasifier. Also, there is a distinct advantage in burning the gas at the top of the reactor.

    The gas does not cool down or have to be cooled down prior to combustion. There is none of the inefficiency or loss of heat associated with remote burners. This is why, in many cases, the bottom-lit downdraft design is not ideal. In the case of this TLUD design, if more burners are required, more gasifier are put in operation. They might be of different diameters, and their fans might all be operating at different speeds. This gives a high degree of flexibility and control.

    Someone might argue that a natural draft gasifier is simpler and therefore better than a gasifier that requires a fan. But in order to draft naturally, a TLUD gasifier must be filled with fairly large pieces of biomass that allow for the easy passage of air and gas. But if the gas can freely flow around the large pieces of char that lie above the gasification zone, there is no close contact between char and gas. Therefore very little filtration of the gas takes place, and this results in a dirty flame.

    Also a natural draft stove, filled with large chunks of biomass, takes relatively long to light, and during this lengthy start-up procedure, a lot of smoke is released that poses health risks to the operator. Perhaps a better way to proceed would be to grind or chip large chunks of woody biomass, and present this fine material to a TLUD gasifier equipped with a fan.

    Note that the electrical consumtion of the fan is negligible. No more than about 0.5 watts is needed to power the smallest gasifier featured in this paper, and about 12 watts is needed to power the largest.

    The speed regulator moves in very small increments and gives the operator a high level of control throughout the gasification process, especially in start-up when a lot of air is required. A powerful fan and good speed regulator, therefore, are two of the most important features of this type of gasifier.

    Five models are now being fabricated. The model number and the diameter of the gasifier in mm are the same:

    1. model 100 = 1.5 kW selling for for $30 USD
    2. model 150 = 3.5 kW selling for $52 USD
    3. model 250 = 10 kW selling for $90 USD
    4. model 500 = 40 kW selling for $250 USD
    5. model 800 = 100 kW selling for $500 USD

    The gasification of roughly 90 kg’s of rice hulls can deliver a gas of the same calorific value as 12 kg’s of propane. A 12 kg tank of propane costs 350,000 VND ($16.66 USD). If so, then one kg of rice hulls will produce about 3,889 VND ($0.18 USD) in gas. Also one kg of rice hulls will produce about a half kg of biochar. When mixed with compost, this biochar has a value of at least 1,050 VND ($0.05) per kg (sometimes as high as 3,000 VND per kg). Therefore one kg of rice hulls has a combined value in gas and biochar of 4,400 VND ($0.21 USD). In other words, one ton of rice hulls has a combined value in gas and biochar of 4,400,000 VND or $210 USD. Vietnam produces each year about 7,200,000 tons of rice hulls, which, if gasified, would have a value of $1.512 billion USD.

    All components in these gasifiers are fabricated out of high-quality stainless steel. These prices will drop considerably when these gasifiers are produced in large numbers. These prices include the fan, the adapter, the speed control unit and a set of motorbike cables. If there is no electricity from the mains, the speed regulator can be connected to any 12-volt battery, even the battery within a motorbike. All parts that protrude out from the reactor and burner can be unscrewed and removed for easy transport.

    Many attempts have been made to surround the reactor with a metal housing and to blow air between the two so as to prevent the housing from getting hot. But the transfer of heat to air in this case is inefficient, and the housing nonetheless becomes very hot. Very little is gained in terms of safety, and a housing in stainless steel is relatively expensive. Also if ever the reactor should corrode and develop a leak, such a dangerous situation would not be easily detected.

    It is advisable, therefore, that the reactor not be housed but that the gasifier be enclosed. An enclosure not only limits access in touching the hot reactor, but it also makes it quite difficult for someone to accidently knock over the gasifier. With an enclosure, pots and pans are not supported by the gasifier, but by the burner grate on the top of the enclosure. An enclosure can be inexpensively constructed out of brick or stone as shown on the next page.

    A reactor can also be equipped with a removable or collapsible grate. This means that this gasifier has few constraints with respect to size. Depending on the amount of gas required, diameters might range from 10 cm to 1.2 meters or more. Depending on how long this flow of gas is required, heights might range from 40 cm all the way up to 4 meters or more. With several reactors in active gasification mode at any one time, a continuous flow of gas can be assured.

    The fact that this gasifier operates in batch mode allows it to fulfill other important functions. At the end of a batch cycle, the biochar within one reactor generally contains enough heat to dry the biomass (loaded but not lit) within a second reactor. Therefore the one reactor can be designed to serve as a multi-purpose vessel: a dryer, a gasifier and a heat exchanger.

    Air devoid of oxygen is blown in at the bottom of a first reactor filled hot char. This hot air slowly rises through the char and is then routed to the bottom of a second reactor filled with moist biomass. The moist air from this drying process is routed to coils within a tank filled with water. The moisture within the air condenses out, and this dry air is routed back to the first reactor filled with hot char. This cycle repeats until the biomass in the second reactor is fully dried. In this way, warm water is also produced.

    Therefore biomass does not have to be transferred from dryer to gasifier, and char does not have to be transferred from gasifier to heat exchanger. When biomass is finally lit in a reactor that served as a dryer, it is fully dry and gasifies at maximum temperatures. When biochar is finally evacuated from a reactor that served as a heat exchanger, it is relatively cool and does not have to be sprayed with water.

    The following diagram shows two time sequences with respect to a dryer/gasifier/heat exchanger: one with 2 reactors and the other with 3 reactors. There is always a continuous flow of gas.

    Wood, branches and other waste of a high cellulosic content can be shredded by means of low-cost shredders, as designed, for example, by the SPIN organization in Hanoi. One model of shredder costs about $35 US or 735,000 VND, and can process up to 600 kg’s of chips per hour. These chips can be dried thermophilically down to about 23% moisture under a compost fleece located outdoors.[3] The final drying down to 12% moisture can be accomplished using residual gasifier heat, as explained above.

    Municipal waste of a high cellulosic content can be shredded by means of low-cost shredders in a small-scale, decentralized manner. The shredded material can be used as mulch, or it can be composted or gasified. There are significant advantages, as we shall soon see, of mixing compost and biochar.

    Thousands of years ago Amazon Indians incorporated charcoal into the soil to enhance its fertility, and surprisingly a lot of this charcoal still remains fixed in the soil to this day. If we want to combat global warming and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we can also incorporate biochar into the soil:

    AL GORE – “One of the most exciting new strategies for restoring carbon to depleted soils, and sequestering significant amounts of CO2 for 1,000 years and more, is the use of biochar.”

    BILL MCKIBBEN – “If you could continually turn a lot of organic material into biochar, you could, over time, reverse the history of the last two hundred years…”

    DR. TIM FLANNERY – “Biochar may represent the single most important initiative for humanity’s environmental future….”

    DR. JAMES LOVELOCK – “There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal.”

    Adding biochar to the soil also increases the water and air holding capacity of the soil, and it promotes the proliferation of mycorrhizal fungi and other beneficial soil microbes. Biochar improves the cation exchange capacity of the soil and prevents nutrients from being washed away. When biochar is incorporated into the soil, we see a 50% to 80% reduction in nitrous oxide emissions, as well as a reduced runoff of phosphorus into surface waters and leaching of nitrogen into groundwater.

    Biochar reduces the amount of methane released from the soil. It adsorbs dissolved organic matter and prevents their rapid consumption by soil microbes. This adds even more carbon to the soil. This eventually becomes stable humic matter, the most beneficial form of carbon needed for plant growth. As a soil amendment, biochar significantly increases the efficiency of, and reduces the need for, traditional chemical fertilizers, while greatly enhancing crop yields.[4]

    Dr. Boun Suy Tan of Cambodia recently did a study on the benefits of rice hull biochar and compost added to the soil in growing rice. He set up four plots:

    plot 1 = no biochar and no compost

    plot 2 = 5 tons compost/ha

    plot 3 = 5 tons compost/ha + 20 tons biochar/ha

    plot 4 = 5 tons compost/ha + 40 tons biochar/ha

    The yield in kg’s per hectare:

    plot 1 = 1,252

    plot 2 = 1,504 (a 20% increase in yield)

    plot 3 = 1,817 (a 45% increase in yield)

    plot 4 = 3,756 (a 300% increase in yield)

    As we compare plot 1 with plot 4, we should keep in mind that adding rice hull biochar not only yielded 3 times the rice, but also 3 times the rice hulls, hulls that can produce 3 times the biochar. Here we see a very positive amplification of effects.

    Water spinach grown in soil amended with rice hull biochar does exceedingly well, as indicated in a recent study in Laos (April, 2011). In the first treatment on the left (see picture), a nutrient-rich bio-digester effluent was added to the soil. This first treatment represents what most farmers consider to be good growing conditions. In the second treatment in the middle, there was the same bio-digester effluent added, plus rice hull biochar from a 250 gasifier (Biochar). In the third treatment on the right, there was the same bio-digester effluent added, plus wood charcoal (Charcoal). It is easy to spot the winner in this experiment.

    Biochar, and especially rice hull biochar, is easily activated or functionalized. Activated carbon currently sells from $500 to $ 2,000 per ton. But it is not always necessary to activate it.

    Biochar derived from cow manure, for example, can be used to sorb from wastewater both metals and organics. It can sorb awful pollutants such as lead and atrazine (an herbicide). This cow manure biochar is six times more effective in sorbing lead from wastewater than activated carbon.[5] It eliminates 99.5% of lead in wastewater.

    Biochar produced from pine needles is quite effective in removing naphthalene, nitrobenzene and m-dinitrobenzine from water. Another study indicates that pine needle biochar is quite effective in removing some of the same polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from the soil. PAHs are ubiquitous pollutants in agricultural soils in China and Vietnam.[6] Soil amended with biochar derived from rice or wheat straw neutralizes herbicides such as duiron and atrazine.

    The biochar produced in the gasification of biomass has a much greater value in general than the biomass utilized to produce it (including its delivery to the site). In other words, a high-quality gas can be produced at a negative cost or profit. Each household or small business operating a gasifier can sell bio-char and, in so doing, completely offset the cost of gathering or purchasing the biomass it needs.

    Scavengers could buy biochar from households and businesses. They might sell it to companies who would activate or functionalize it, or they might sell it to companies who would utilize it for soil remediation, or for water and gas filtration. An entire industry centered in the buying and selling of biochar could be created. If revenue from carbon credits is added to this strategy, then it is hard to imagine a cheaper form of energy that could be made available to the people of Vietnam.

    The gasification of roughly 90 kg’s of rice hulls can deliver a gas of the same calorific value as 12 kg’s of propane. 12 kg’s of propane cost 350,000 VND ($16.66 USD). If so, then one kg of rice hulls will produce about 3,889 VND ($0.18 USD) in gas. One kg of rice hulls will also produce about a half kg of biochar. At a value of 1,050 VND ($0.05 USD)/kg, this half kg of biochar has a value of 525 VND or ($0.025 USD). Therefore one kg of rice hulls has a combined value in gas and biochar of 4,400 VND ($0.21 USD). Likewise one ton of rice hulls has a combined value of 4.4 M VND or $210 USD. Vietnam produces yearly about 7,900,000 tons of rice hulls, which, if gasified, would have a value of $1.659 billion USD.

    If we apply this same logic to rice straw, the numbers are even more impressive. Vietnam produces more than 75 million tons of rice straw each year, which, if gasified, would have a value in gas and biochar of over $15.5 billion USD.

    A gasifier cook stove, manufactured in stainless steel, can be situated on the market for less money than a propane/butane stove top which also includes a deposit for gas tank. Many industries that could never exist due to the high cost of energy could arise.

    Food waste can be cook and pasteurized with gasifier heat and fed to pigs. The feces of the pig is then fed to BSF larvae, and the residue of the larvae is fed to red worms. Some report that biochar added to the substrate fed to red worms results in acceleration of the vermi-composting process and a higher yield of worms. Gasifier heat initiates the process, and gasifier char comes in at the end.

    Many soil scientists believe that the agricultural benefits of biochar can be enhanced even more by combining biochar with vermiculture.[7] Both BSF residue and biochar enhance red worm growth, and when both are mixed together and fed to worms, the end result is a worm casting of superior qualities. Here we see several technologies coming together and mutually supporting one another.

    This same gasification technology can be used to generate electricity. Normally the gas from a gasifier has to be cooled and filtered before it can be fed to an internal combustion engine within a gen-set. Perhaps a better option is to route gasifier heat to an organic Rankine cycle. In this case, the gas does have to be cooled and filtered.

    David Trahan of Louisiana, together with his team at 3R Sciences, has developed a small methanol synthesis plant capable of producing from symthesis gas about 100 liters of methanol per day. The R3 GTL Methanol process converts the biomass-generated synthesis gas into methanol. The modular system is designed to allow placement at remote locations to meet supply availability of biomass feedstock.[8]

    Methanol can be utilized directly in motorbikes and automobiles,[9] and it can be dehydrated into a type of diesel fuel called dimethyl ether or DME (CH3OCH3).[10] The small-scale production of bio-methanol for local transportation needs is truly an exciting possibility.

    Prof. Dr. Le Chi Hiep, chairman of the Energy Council and head of the Dept. of Heat &amp; Refrigeration at University of Technology in Ho Chi Minh City, is now designing small adsorption refrigeration units to make ice from gasifier heat. Such units are easily manufactured in Vietnam. This is one of the most efficient ways of making ice. Here electricity is not needed – only heat.

    The cost of propane and butane will continue to rise. So will the cost of electricity, petrol, diesel and ice. At the same time Vietnam has hundreds of millions of tons each year of residential bio-waste, of agricultural and forestry bio-waste that for the most part are being dumped or uselessly burned. This simple gasification technology allows someone to utilize bio-waste in the place of fossil fuels and to actually earn money in doing so. We have definitively entered a new era in fuel production and consumption.


    1 See: http://www.newsweek.com/id/226941/page/1

    2 The start-up procedure is clearly shown in a video clip at: http://www.esrla.com/pdf/gasifier.mpg

    3 See: http://www.tencate.com/smartsite.dws?ch=&amp;id=1185 as well as http://www.angliawoodfuels.co.uk/_Attachments/Resources/12_S4.pdf

    4 See: International Biochar Initiative (IBI)

    5 See: lqma.ifas.ufl.edu/Publication/Cao-09a.pdf

    6 See also http://www.springerlink.com/content/8p413624j3n0440x/ as well as http://pubs.rsc.org/en/Content/ArticleLanding/2008/EM/b712809f

    7 See: http://www.scribd.com/doc/30909297/Biochar-Article

    8 See: http://www.r3sciences.com/biomass.html

    9 “The methanol gasoline can reduce emissions of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxides, with comparable or better performance, especially at high loads.” See page 14 of http://www.afdc.energy.gov/afdc/progs/view_citation.php?10828/METH/print

    10 “Only moderate modification are needed to convert a diesel engine to burn DME.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimethyl_ether

  • November7th

    Reclaiming and Reconciling with the Ecosystem

    ‘’It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.’’ - The late Prof. Wangari Maathai

    I came across an advert reading, “CHEBOR AGRI-FOREST NURSERIES,” with a list of indigenous tree seedlings, fruit trees, flowers, and seeds available as well as quantity, price, and planting season. It conveyed a message to everyone that planting a tree will plan the future. This is a timely and appealing message to all at a time when Kenya is in dire need to plant more trees. This year, 2011, is the International Year of Forests, so we are considering:

    • the role of indigenous trees and sustainable agriculture in Kenya
    • inadequate rainfall, soil erosion, poor yields, and diminishing indigenous forests in Kenya
    • Kenyan governmental policy to advocating allocation of 10% of land to planting indigenous trees
    • the issue of global warming/climate change  

    Microsoft Encarta defines an ecosystem as a collection of living components—microbes, plants, animals, and fungi as well as non-living components—climate and chemicals connected by energy flow. Removing just one component from the ecosystem damages the flow of energy in the system. One vital component we have abused, yet a key player in the ecosystem, is the tree. More often, our social, economic, and agricultural practices have neglected how important a tree is.

    What will Trees Do?
    According to Forestry.about.com, trees are important, valuable, and necessary to our existence. It is not too hard to believe that without trees, we humans would not exist on this beautiful planet. It describes trees as the lungs of the environment, as they take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis with sunlight for the leaves to produce energy and release oxygen for breathing. Trees act as carbon sinks by locking carbon dioxide in the woods, trunks, roots, and leaves. Carbon dioxide is a key global warming suspect. Trees are also able to clean the air by intercepting airborne particles which pollute the air, such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. They clean soil by absorbing dangerous chemicals and pollutants that have entered it—they either store or change toxins into less harmful forms. Trees help to mitigate the effects of climate change and global warming.

    As an important resource in ecological functions, trees attract rainfall and intercept and re-distribute precipitation as well as store water reserves that act as buffers for the ecosystem during drought. The root system acts as a filter for the water we use and protects the land from erosion during heavy rainfall. The roots help in firmly holding soil. Trees act as windbreakers in arid and semi-arid areas. Therefore, trees protect grass-thatched structures such as the traditional granary and houses and acts as shade where temperatures are hot. Trees act as habitat to wildlife and insects, and are a source of food, medicine, firewood, and beautification. Land planted with trees appreciates in value and sells more.

    The leaf fall from deciduous trees decomposes and assists in building the organic content of top soil, adding nutrients and improving soil texture. The leaf matter attracts beneficial micro-organisms and insects like earthworms and bees which aid in decomposition and pollination.

    Root systems improve drainage and aeration and fix nitrogen so that trees are able to convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into nitrogen in the soil. Some plants have certain types of bacteria which cause nodules to form on the roots. These bacteria can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that the plant can use to build proteins. The ability of trees to recycle nutrients that may be not available to crops helps to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers in our farms. Cutting of trees causes hydrological cycles resulting in high evaporation rates in land and sea, disturbing rainfall patterns in Kenya. This has aggravated subsequent drought and desertification, having a dramatically negative impact on our socio-economic and agricultural production.

    Trees and forests are an important entity in the system. There as been concerted efforts from all quarters to create awareness to save this resource. The Kenyan Government, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), non-governmental organizations, corporate companies, environmentalists, media, institutions, farmers, and individuals have come together with the common goal of greening Kenya by planting indigenous trees and protecting existing ones to make the country hospitable and habitable.

    The initiative is advocated as an incentive mainly for farmers to establish productive and profitable sustainable farming systems in Kenya. It is also a way of reducing poverty, given that 90% of rural households engage in diversified subsistence farming (hence the diversification of rural economy).

    In this essay, I will focus on how Chebor’s Agri-forest nursery tree holds an important role in agricultural sustainability amongst other derived tree benefits considered useful to the people. Chebor has heeded the call by doing little things and joining others in greening Kenya, improving agricultural sustainability, conserving forests, and helping to mitigate climate change by initiating the indigenous tree nursery.

    Perhaps the most steadfast advocate of the answers to the future to conserve and plant trees is Christopher Chebor. A mixed small-scale farmer, Chebor is the pioneer of the nursery, together with his family. The tree project stands as unique across and beyond Kabarnet locality. The centerpiece of his work is a ¼ acre of land with a total population of 20,000 seedlings of different indigenous trees, seeds, and assorted vegetables. He started the year 2010 targeting the goal of raising two million seedlings. He has taken into account the diverse needs of different users of trees ranging from farmers to livestock keepers, beekeepers, medicine men/women, constructors, artisans, and ceremonials/rituals.

    A former worker at the ministry of forestry for over 20 years, and a keen observer of the environment, Chebor has gained first hand experience in starting the nursery project, as well as the agricultural practices done nowadays in the area, an arid and semi-arid region that gave him the urge to begin the tree nursery. His work is greatly inspired by the Late Pro. Wangari Maathai, a champion for indigenous trees in Kenya.

    Chebor recalls vividly a comparison between the farming of today to that of 40 years back. He is aware of how the land has lost its viability in producing quality yields of enough quantity to sustain the growing population that depends on land for agricultural activities. He attributes it to the lands’ pre-history farming practices and putting it to now farming as managing the natural resources in harmony. Many people have unlearned damaging practices, and it as not been business as usual!

    After doing an in-depth assessment in the area, Chebor found that people still value indigenous trees for their multi-purpose benefits such as improving agricultural growth and economic and social development. He sees agro-forestry as the answer to rehabilitating the land, improving agricultural productivity, minimizing encroachment of wild animals to farms, reaching the 100 million targets, and reclaiming and reconciling with the ecosystem.

    All indigenous trees grow naturally. Chebor’s action of mimicking nature puzzled many because nobody had attempted to raise and nurture indigenous trees before. Again, this tree nursery comes at a time when Kenya needs to plant 100 million trees a year to restore the lost and declining indigenous forests. This is urgent and every farmer has been called upon to allocate 10% of his/her land to plant indigenous trees. The nursery project has attracted many people—government officials, NGOs, and schools who come to learn or buy from him. The nursery has been his source of income, field school, a research plot, a tree rescue farm, and a hobby for Chebor’s family.

    Chebor is determined to be the change in his area where trees have been cut either to pave the way for cultivation or other purposes. This has caused erratic rainfall distribution, disturbing the planting programme of farmers. Soils are infertile and susceptible to soil erosion, promising nothing but emptiness. Chebor knows that planting indigenous trees is a step forward in giving the small-scale farmer handsome returns.

    According to the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), Kenya’s forests have always been a key factor in ensuring that rainfall patterns remain stable as they enable agricultural activities to thrive. However, due to massive deforestation and industrial farming systems, people no longer have access to these natural tree-given services. KFS is of the opinion that handing the growing of trees and protecting forests over to citizens will drive forward sustainability of forests and help achieve the 10% tree cover required by 2030.

    More so, there has been a boost by the Government by providing soft loans to small scale farmers for planting trees to increase their income as well as increase forest cover. These loans will make tree planting an attractive, agribusiness model in Asal areas.

    Tree domestication is a way of rebuilding and reconciling with the ecosystem. Integrating indigenous trees into our farms is nothing new—it only seems new because modern farming doesn’t respect biodervisity and has veered from the true practices of farming; those practices which have been occurring in traditional farming systems across Kenya.

    Chebor’s nursery is designed to be lucrative, less intensive, and suitable to be adapted by his customers. The objective is to use locally available materials and grow and supply healthy environmental-adapting seedlings of multiple economic and agricultural benefits.

    To him, successful nursery operations depend on factors like selecting and developing a suitable site, adequate planning, time, labour, availability of seeds and seedlings, and a person’s willingness. The size of the nursery depends on plant requirements, size of the containers, beds or polytubes used, amount of land, and nursery life of the plants.

    Forest soil is collected and sieved, then mixed with ready animal manure from livestock at a ratio of 1:2 wheelbarrows. The polytubes are then filled. For the beds, a little sand is mixed in to allow aeration. Seeds of indigenous trees are collected from the forest trees while seeds of fruit trees are collected from market places, avoiding the grower spending a single shilling.

    Before planting, the seeds undergo either scarification or stratification before the wildings are transplanted to the polytubes. Watering is done daily and minimal weeding and application of tea manure is done once a week to boost growth. Mulching is applied to protect beds from direct sunlight and to conserve moisture. Fencing is also erected to protect the farm from animals. Since embarking on the tree nursery project, there have been reduced cases of diseases and pest attack on Chebor’s seedlings. He gives credit to organic practices used in raising the seedlings.

    At Chebor’s agro-forest, some of the seeds and seedlings found include the following:

    Indigenous trees have the ability to maintain and improve agricultural production in the area by protecting water supplies, controlling soil erosion, improving soil fertility, and stabilizing soils. The ability of indigenous trees to recycle nutrients, build organic matter of top soil, fix nitrogen, and create habitat for beneficial micro-organisms such as earthworms is helpful in fertilizing the farm. Chebor notes that the advantage of indigenous trees is that they can be intercropped with annual crops to provide agro-forestry benefits. This type of tree includes Acacia albida, Acacia nilotica, Acacia tortilis, Burkea Africana, Comiphora eminii, Cordia Africana, Olea capensis, and Prunus africana.

    Keeping livestock is an integral part of small scale households in Kenya. Livestock, to Chebor and others, is a source of food, wealth, income, and pride. Indigenous trees are a higher-percentage source of feed for livestock when the animals are able to graze freely in fields. Chebor’s agro-forestry has managed to raise over 10,000 different species of indigenous fodder trees and other required supplements adapted to the area, including Acacia albida, Acacia mellifera, Acacia sieberana, Comiphora Africana, Caliandra, Luekenia, and Sesbania sesban.

    Many tools used in rural homes are traditionally made from indigenous trees by skilled artisans. Such tools range from those used in the kitchen to hunting and farming tools. One example is the hoe handle, widely used during most farming activities. Some trees important for this purpose include Acacia nilotica, Acacia Senegal, Acacia tortilis, Balanites aegytica, Croton mecalophus, Grewia bicolor, and Moesopsis eminii.

    Most structures, like traditional granaries, are built using indigenous trees so that they are durable and resistant to pests. These trees include Acacia mellifera, Acacia Senegal, Balanites aegyptia, Croton mecalopus, Faidabia albida, and Tamindilia brownie.

    Most people own traditional bee hives and hang them on preferred indigenous trees. Bees look for nectar in these indigenous trees as well. Honey is a source of food, medicine, income, and traditional brew. Traditional hives are made from durable species such as Acacia albida, Commiphora eminii, Ocotea usamberensis, and Tamindilia brownie. Bees look for nectar in trees like Albizia gummifera, Acacia nilotica, Acacia Senegal, Acacia tortilis, and Grewia spp. Fodder tree like Caliandra, luekenia and Sesbania sesban.

    As a source of food and income, Chebor has the following fruit trees ready to be planted: crafted mangoes, lemons, pawspaws, avocadoes, and passion fruits. He has the seeds of different fruit trees ready to be sold.

    Communities have their own traditions to be performed in the bushes or under a tree, depending on what the circumstances are. Today, forests and some trees are still regarded as the dwelling place of spirits. These trees and forests are respected. For almost every function held, a tree is planted to usher in the start of an event.

    Trees here also play a great role as a cleansing tool. As trees clean the soil and air, people believe that trees can absorb their sins. Prayers are done in shrines or under a big tree selected to appease the gods. These rituals include circumcisions, praying for rainfall, and casting away bad omens such as disease. Examples of these trees include Albizia gummifora, Cordia sinesis, Grewia vilosa, Grewia bicolor, Kigelia Africana, and Ficus thonningii.

    It is evident that environmental crimes have a connection to the frequent droughts and famines in Kenya that have caused a loss of lives and livestock, especially in arid and semi arid areas. These negative effects can be directly addressed and acted upon through all coming together over the little act of planting a tree to ensure the expansion of forest ecosystems and help support agricultural activities in the country. Therefore, Chebor’s agroforest tree nursery is a way forward, a practical antidote, and a preventive measure for the destructive ways we have learned, internalized, and practiced in a fragile environment.

    Let’s give the tree a chance, and it will do the work for us.  “Hail the Tree.’’

  • October24th


    Compost is normally populated by three general categories of microorganisms: bacteria, actinomycetes and fungi (see Figure 3.3 and Table 3.6). It is primarily the bacteria, and specifically the thermophilic bacteria, that create the heat of the compost pile.

    Although considered bacteria, actinomycetes are effectively intermediates between bacteria and fungi because they look similar to fungi and have similar nutritional preferences and growth habits. They tend to be more commonly found in the later stages of compost, and are generally thought to follow the thermophilic bacteria in succession. They, in turn, are followed predominantly by fungi during the last stages of the composting process.

    There are at least 100,000 known species of fungi, the overwhelming majority of them being microscopic. Most fungi cannot grow at 50.0C because it’s too hot, although thermophilic fungi are heat tolerant. Fungi tend to be absent in compost above 60.0C and actinomycetes tend to be absent above 70.0C. Above 82.0C biological activity effectively stops (extreme thermophiles are not found in compost).  

    To get an idea of the microbial diversity normally found in nature, consider this: a teaspoon of native grassland soil contains 600-800 million bacteria comprising 10,000 species, plus perhaps 5,000 species of fungi, the mycelia of which could be stretched out for several miles. In the same teaspoon, there may be 10,000 individual protozoa of perhaps 1,000 species, plus 20-30 different nematodes from as many as 100 species. Sounds crowded to me. Obviously, good compost will reinoculate depleted, sanitized, chemicalized soils with a
    wide variety of beneficial microorganisms (see Figures 3.4 and 3.5).


    A frequent question is, “How do you know that all parts of your compost pile have been subjected to high enough temperatures to kill all potential pathogens?” The answer should be obvious: you don’t. You never will. Unless, of course, you examine every cubic centimeter of your compost for pathogens in a laboratory. This would probably cost many thousands of dollars, which would make your compost the most expensive in history.

    It’s not only the heat of the compost that causes the destruction of human, animal and plant pathogens, it’s a combination of factors, including:

    • competition for food from compost microorganisms;
    • inhibition and antagonism by compost microorganisms;
    • consumption by compost organisms;
    • biological heat generated by compost microorganisms; and
    • antibiotics produced by compost microorganisms.

    For example, when bacteria were grown in an incubator without compost at 50.0C and separately in compost at 50.0C, they died in the compost after only seven days, but lived in the incubator for seventeen days. This indicated that it is more than just temperature that determines the fate of pathogenic bacteria. The other factors listed above undoubtedly affect the viability of non-indigenous microorganisms, such as human pathogens, in a compost pile. Those factors require as large and diverse a microbial population as possible, which is best achieved by temperatures below 60.0C (140.0F). One researcher states that, “Significant reductions in pathogen numbers have been observed in compost piles which have not exceeded 40.0C [104.0F].”

    There is no doubt that the heat produced by thermophilic bacteria kills pathogenic microorganisms, viruses, bacteria, protozoa, worms and eggs that may inhabit humanure. A temperature of 50.0C (1220 F), if maintained for twenty-four hours, is sufficient to kill all of the pathogens, according to some sources. A lower temperature will take longer to kill pathogens. A temperature of 46.0C (115.0F) may take nearly a week to kill pathogens completely; a higher temperature may take only minutes. What we have yet to determine is how low those temperatures can be and still achieve satisfactory pathogen elimination. Some researchers insist that all pathogens will die at ambient temperatures (normal air temperature) given enough time.

    When Westerberg and Wiley composted sewage sludge which had been inoculated with polio virus, Salmonella, roundworm eggs, and Candida albicans, they found that a compost temperature of 47- 55.0C (116-130.0F) maintained for three days killed all of these pathogens.35 This phenomenon has been confirmed by many other researchers, including Gotaas, who indicates that pathogenic organisms are unable to survive compost temperatures of 55-60.0C (131-140.0F) for more than thirty minutes to one hour. The first goal in composting humanure, therefore, should be to create a compost pile that will heat sufficiently to kill potential human pathogens that may be found in the manure.

    Nevertheless, the heat of the compost pile is a highly lauded characteristic of compost that can be a bit overblown at times. People may believe that it’s only the heat of the compost pile that destroys pathogens, so they want their compost to become as hot as possible. This is a mistake. In fact, compost can become too hot, and when it does, it destroys the biodiversity of the microbial community. As one scientist states, “Research has indicated that temperature is not the only mechanism involved in pathogen suppression, and that the employment of higher than necessary temperatures may actually constitute a barrier to effective sanitization under certain circumstances.”  Perhaps only one species (e.g., Bacillus stearothermophilus) may dominate the compost pile during periods of excessive heat, thereby driving out or outright killing the other inhabitants of the compost, which include fungi and actinomycetes as well as the bigger organisms that you can actually see.

    A compost pile that is too hot can destroy its own biological community and leave a mass of organic material that must be repopulated in order to continue the necessary conversion of organic matter to humus. Such sterilized compost is more likely to be colonized by unwanted microorganisms, such as Salmonella. Researchers have shown that the biodiversity of compost acts as a barrier to colonization by such unwanted microorganisms as Salmonella. In the absence of a biodiverse “indigenous flora,” such as caused by sterilization due
    to excess heat, Salmonella were able to regrow.

    The microbial biodiversity of compost is also important because it aids in the breakdown of the organic material. For example, in high-temperature compost (80.0C), only about 10% of sewage sludge solids could be decomposed in three weeks, whereas at 50-60.0C, 40% of the sludge solids were decomposed in only seven days. The lower temperatures apparently allowed for a richer diversity of living things which in turn had a greater effect on the degradation of the organic matter. One researcher indicates that optimal decomposition rates occur in the 55-59.0C (131-139.0F) temperature range, and optimal thermophilic activity occurs at 55.0C (131.0F), which are both adequate temperatures for pathogen destruction. A study conducted in 1955 at Michigan State University, however, indicated that optimal decomposition occurs at an even lower temperature of 45.0C (113.0F). Another researcher asserts that maximum biodegradation occurs at 45-55.0C (113-1310F), while maximum microbial diversity requires a temperature range of 35-45.0C (95-113.0F). Apparently, there is still some degree of flexibility in these estimates, as the science of “compost microhusbandry” is not an utterly precise one at this time. Control of excessive heat, however, is probably not a concern for the backyard composter.

    Some thermophilic actinomycetes, as well as mesophilic bacteria, produce antibiotics that display considerable potency toward other bacteria and yet exhibit low toxicity when tested on mice. Up to one half of thermophilic strains can produce antimicrobial compounds, some of which have been shown to be effective against E. coli and Salmonella. One thermophilic strain with an optimum growth temperature of 50.0C produces a substance that “significantly aided the healing of infected surface wounds in clinical tests on human subjects. The product(s) also stimulated growth of a variety of cell types, including various animal and plant tissue cultures and unicellular algae.”  The production of antibiotics by compost microorganisms theoretically assists in the destruction of human pathogens that may have existed in the organic material before composting.

    Even if every speck of the composting material is not subjected to the high internal temperatures of the compost pile, the process of thermophilic composting nevertheless contributes immensely toward the creation of a sanitary organic material. Or, in the words of one group of composting professionals, “The high temperatures achieved during composting, assisted by the competition and antagonism among the microorganisms [i.e., biodiversity], considerably reduce the number of plant and animal pathogens. While some resistant pathogenic organisms may survive and others may persist in cooler sections of the pile, the disease risk is, nevertheless, greatly reduced.”

    If a backyard composter has any doubt or concern about the existence of pathogenic organisms in his or her humanure compost, s/he can use the compost for horticultural purposes rather than for food purposes. Humanure compost can grow an amazing batch of berries, flowers, bushes, or trees. Furthermore, lingering pathogens continue to die after the compost has been applied to the soil, which is not surprising since human pathogens prefer the warm and moist environment of the human body. As the World Bank researchers put it, “even pathogens remaining in compost seem to disappear rapidly in the soil.” [Night Soil Composting, 1981] Finally, compost can be tested for pathogens by compost testing labs.

    Some say that a few pathogens in soil or compost are OK. “Another point most folks don’t realize is that no compost and no soil are completely pathogen free. You really don’t want it to be completely pathogen free, because you always want the defense mechanism to have something to practice on. So a small number of disease-causing organisms is desirable. But that’s it.” Pathogens are said to have “minimum infective doses,” which vary widely from one type of pathogen to another, meaning that a number of pathogens are necessary in order to initiate an infection. The idea, therefore, that compost must be sterile is incorrect. It must be sanitary, which means it must have a greatly weakened, reduced or destroyed pathogen population.

    In reality, the average backyard composter usually knows whether his or her family is healthy or not. Healthy families have little to be concerned about and can feel confident that their thermophilic compost can be safely returned to the soil, provided the simple instructions in this book are followed regarding compost temperatures and retention times, as discussed in Chapter Seven. On the other hand, there will always be those people who are fecophobic, and who will never be convinced that humanure compost is safe. These people are not likely to compost their humanure anyway, so who cares?


    What is one of the first things to come to mind when one thinks of compost? Turning the pile. Turn, turn, turn, has become the mantra of composters worldwide. Early researchers who wrote seminal works in the composting field, such as Gotaas, Rodale, and many others, emphasize turning compost piles, almost obsessively so.

    Much of compost’s current popularity in the West can be attributed to the work of Sir Albert Howard, who wrote An Agricultural Testament in 1943 and several other works on aspects of what has now become known as organic agriculture. Howard’s discussions of composting techniques focus on the Indore process of composting, a process developed in Indore, India, between the years of 1924 and 1931. The Indore process was first described in detail in Howard’s 1931 work, co-authored with Y. D. Wad, The Waste Products of Agriculture. The two main principles underlying the Indore composting process include: 1) mixing animal and vegetable refuse with a neutralizing base, such as agricultural lime; and 2) managing the compost pile by physically turning it. The Indore process subsequently became adopted and espoused by composting enthusiasts in the West, and today one still commonly sees people turning and liming compost piles. For example, Robert Rodale wrote in the February, 1972, issue of Organic Gardening concerning composting humanure, “We recommend turning the pile at least three times in the first few months, and then once every three months thereafter for a year.”

    A large industry has emerged from this philosophy, one which manufactures expensive compost turning equipment, and a lot of money, energy and expense go into making sure compost is turned regularly. For some compost professionals, the suggestion that compost doesn’t need to be turned at all is utter blasphemy. Of course you have to turn it — it’s a compost pile, for heaven’s sake.

    Or do you? Well, in fact, no, you don’t, especially if you’re a backyard composter, and not even if you’re a large scale composter. The perceived need to turn compost is one of the myths of composting.

    Turning compost potentially serves four basic purposes. First, turning is supposed to add oxygen to the compost pile, which is supposed to be good for the aerobic microorganisms. We are warned that if we do not turn our compost, it will become anaerobic and smell bad, attract rats and flies, and make us into social pariahs in our neighborhoods. Second, turning the compost ensures that all parts of the pile are subjected to the high internal heat, thereby ensuring total pathogen death and yielding a hygienically safe, finished compost. Third, the more we turn the compost, the more it becomes chopped and mixed, and the better it looks when finished, rendering it more marketable. Fourth, frequent turning can speed up the composting process.

    Since backyard composters don’t actually market their compost, usually don’t care if it’s finely granulated or somewhat coarse, and usually have no good reason to be in a hurry, we can eliminate the last two reasons for turning compost right off the bat. Let’s look at the first two.

    Aeration is necessary for aerobic compost, and there are numerous ways to aerate a compost pile. One is to force air into or through the pile using fans, which is common at large-scale composting operations where air is sucked from under the compost piles and out through a biofilter. The suction causes air to seep into the organic mass through the top, thereby keeping it aerated. An accelerated flow of air through a compost mass can cause it to heat up quite drastically; then the air flow also becomes a method for trying to reduce the temperature of the compost because the exhaust air draws quite a bit of heat away from the compost pile. Such mechanical aeration is never a need of the backyard composter and is limited to large scale composting operations where the piles are so big they can smother themselves if not subjected to forced aeration.

    Aeration can also be achieved by poking holes in the compost, driving pipes into it and generally impaling it. This seems to be popular among some backyard composters. A third way is to physically turn the pile. A fourth, largely ignored way, however, is to build the pile so that tiny interstitial air spaces are trapped in the compost. This is done by using coarse materials in the compost, such as hay, straw, weeds, and the like. When a compost pile is properly constructed, no additional aeration will be needed. Even the organic gardening pros admit that, “good compost can be made without turning by hand if the materials are carefully layered in the heap which is well-ventilated and has the right moisture content.”

    This is especially true for “continuous compost,” which is different from “batch compost.” Batch compost is made from a batch of material that is composted all at once. This is what commercial composters do — they get a dump truck load of garbage or sewage sludgefrom the municipality and compost it in one big pile. Backyard composters, especially humanure composters, produce organic residues daily, a little at a time and rarely, if ever, in big batches. Therefore, continuous composters add material continuously to a compost pile usually by putting the fresh material into the top. This causes the thermophilic activity to be in the upper part of the pile while the thermophilically “spent” part of the compost sinks lower and lower, to be worked on by fungi, actinomycetes, earthworms and lots of other things. Turning continuous compost dilutes the thermophilic layer with the spent layers and can quite abruptly stop all thermophilic activity.

    Researchers have measured oxygen levels in large-scale windrow composting operations (a windrow is a long, narrow pile of compost). One reported, “Oxygen concentration measurements taken within the windrows during the most active stage of the composting process, showed that within fifteen minutes after turning the windrow — supposedly aerating it — the oxygen content was already depleted.” Other researchers compared the oxygen levels of large, turned and unturned batch compost piles, and have come to the conclusion that compost piles are largely self-aerated. “The effect of pile turning was to refresh oxygen content, on average for [only] 1.5 hours (above the 10% level), afterwhich it dropped to less than 5% and in most cases to 2% during the active phase of composting . . . Even with no turning, all piles eventually resolve their oxygen tension as maturity approaches, indicating that self-aeration alone can adequately furnish the composting process . . . In other words, turning the piles has a temporal but little sustained influence on oxygen levels.” These trials compared compost that was not turned, bucket turned, turned once every two weeks and turned twice a week.

    Interestingly enough, the same trials indicated that bacterial pathogens were destroyed whether the piles were turned or unturned, stating that there was no evidence that bacterial populations were influenced by turning schemes. There were no surviving E. coli or Salmonella strains, indicating that there were “no statistically significant effects attributable to turning.” Unturned piles can benefit by the addition of extra coarse materials such as hay or straw, which trap extra air in the organic material and make additional aeration unnecessary. Furthermore, unturned compost piles can be covered with a thick insulating layer of organic material, such as hay, straw or even finished compost, which can allow the temperatures on the outer edges of the pile to grow warm enough for pathogen destruction.

    Not only can turning compost piles be an unnecessary expenditure of energy, but the above trials also showed that when batch compost piles are turned frequently, some other disadvantageous effects can result (see Figure 3.6). For example, the more frequently compost piles are turned, the more agricultural nutrients they lose. When the finished compost was analyzed for organic matter and nitrogen loss, the unturned compost showed the least loss. The more frequently the compost was turned, the greater was the loss of both nitrogen and organic matter. Also, the more the compost was turned, the more it cost. The unturned compost cost $3.05 per wet ton, while the compost turned twice a week cost $41.23 per wet ton, a 1,351% increase. The researchers concluded that “Composting methods that require intensification [frequent turning] are a curious result of modern popularity and technological development of composting as particularly evidenced in popular trade journals. They do not appear to be scientifically supportable based on these studies . . . By carefully managing composting to achieve proper mixes and limited turning, the ideal of a quality product at low economic burden can be achieved.”

    When large piles of municipal compost are turned, they give off emissions of such things as Aspergillus fumigatus fungi which can cause health problems in people. Aerosol concentrations from static (unturned) piles are relatively small when compared to mechanically turned compost. Measurements thirty meters downwind from static piles showed that aerosol concentrations of A. fumigatus were not significantly above background levels, and were “33 to 1800 times less” than those from piles that were being moved.

    Finally, turning compost piles in cold climates can cause them to lose too much heat. It is recommended that cold climate composters turn less frequently, if at all.


    No. This is perhaps one of the most astonishing aspects of composting.

    In October of 1998, I took a trip to Nova Scotia, Canada, to observe the municipal composting operations there. The Province had legislated that as of November 30, 1998, no organic materials could be disposed of in landfills. By the end of October, with the “ban date” approaching, virtually all municipal organic garbage was being collected and transported instead to composting facilities, where it was effectively being recycled and converted into humus. The municipal garbage trucks would simply back into the compost facility building (the composting was done indoors), and then dump the garbage on the floor. The material consisted of the normal household and restaurant food materials such as banana peels, coffee grounds, bones, meat, spoiled milk and paper products such as cereal boxes. The occasional clueless person would contribute a toaster oven, but these were sorted out. The organic material was then checked for other contaminants such as bottles and cans, run through a grinder, and finally shoved into a concrete compost bin. Within 24-48 hours, the temperature of the material would climb to 700C (1580F). No inoculants were required. Incredibly, the thermophilic bacteria were already there, waiting in the garbage for this moment to arrive.

    Researchers have composted materials with and without inocula and found that, “although rich in bacteria, none of the inocula accelerated the composting process or improved the final product . . . The failure of the inocula to alter the composting cycle is due to the adequacy of the indigenous microbial population already present and to the nature of the process itself . . . The success of composting operations without the use of special inocula in the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, India, China, the U.S.A, and a great many other places, is convincing evidence that inocula and other additives are not essential in the composting of [organic] materials.”  Others state, “No data in the literature indicate that the addition of inoculants, microbes, or enzymes accelerate the compost process.”


    It is not necessary to put lime (ground agricultural limestone) on your compost pile. The belief that compost piles should be limed is a common misconception. Nor are other mineral additives needed on your compost. If your soil needs lime, put the lime on your soil, not your compost. Bacteria don’t digest limestone; in fact lime is used to kill microorganisms in sewage sludge — it’s called lime-stabilized sludge.

    Aged compost is not acidic, even with the use of sawdust. The pH of finished compost should slightly exceed 7 (neutral). What is pH? It’s a measure of acidity and alkalinity which ranges from 1-14. Neutral is 7. Below seven is acidic; above seven is basic or alkaline. If the pH is too acidic or too alkaline, bacterial activity will be hindered or stopped completely. Lime and wood ashes raise the pH, but wood ashes should also go straight on the soil. The compost pile doesn’t need them. It may seem logical that one should put into one’s compost pile whatever one also wants to put into one’s garden soil, as the compost will end up in the garden eventually, but that’s not the reality of the situation. What one should put into one’s compost is what the microorganisms in the compost want or need, not what the garden soil wants or needs.

    Sir Albert Howard, one of the most well-known proponents of composting, as well as J. I. Rodale, another prominent organic agriculturist, have recommended adding lime to compost piles. They seemed to base their reasoning on the belief that the compost will become acidic during the composting process, and therefore the acidity must be neutralized by adding lime to the pile while it’s composting. It may well be that some compost becomes acidic during the process of decomposition, however, it seems to neutralize itself if left alone, yielding a neutral, or slightly alkaline end product. Therefore, it is recommended that you test your finished compost for pH before deciding that you need to neutralize any acids.

    I find it perplexing that the author who recommended liming compost piles in one book, states in another, “The control of pH in composting is seldom a problem requiring attention if the material is kept aerobic. . . the addition of alkaline material is rarely necessary in aerobic decomposition and, in fact, may do more harm than good because the loss of nitrogen by the evolution of ammonia as a gas will be greater at the higher pH.” In other words, don’t assume that you should lime your compost. Only do so if your finished compost is consistently acidic, which would be highly unlikely. Get a soil pH test kit and check it out. Researchers have indicated that maximum thermophilic composting occurs at a pH range between 7.5 to 8.5, which is slightly alkaline. But don’t be surprised if your compost is slightly acidic at the start of the process. It should turn neutral or slightly alkaline and remain so when completely cured.

    Scientists who were studying various commercial fertilizers found that agricultural plots to which composted sewage sludge had been added made better use of lime than plots without composted sludge. The lime in the composted plots changed the pH deeper in the soil indicating that organic matter assists calcium movement through the soil “better than anything else,” according to Cecil Tester, Ph.D., research chemist at USDA’s Microbial Systems Lab in Beltsville, MD. The implications are that compost should be added to the soil when lime is added to the soil.

    Perhaps Gotaas sums it up best, “Some compost operators have suggested the addition of lime to improve composting. This should be done only under rare circumstances such as when the raw material to be composted has a high acidity due to acid industrial wastes or contains materials that give rise to highly acid conditions during composting.”


    I get a bit perturbed when I see compost educators telling their students that there is a long list of things “not to be composted!” This prohibition is always presented in such an authoritative and serious manner that novice composters begin trembling in their boots at the thought of composting any of the banned materials. I can imagine naive composters armed with this misinformation carefully segregating their food scraps so that, God forbid, the wrong materials don’t end up in the compost pile. Those “banned” materials include meat, fish, milk, butter, cheese and other dairy products, bones, lard, mayonnaise, oils, peanut butter, salad dressing, sour cream, weeds with seeds, diseased plants, citrus peels, rhubarb leaves, crab grass, pet manures, and perhaps worst of all — human manure. Presumably, one must segregate half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches from the compost bucket, or any sandwich with mayonaisse or cheese, or any left-over salad with salad dressing, or spoiled milk, or orange peels, all of which must go to a landfill and be buried under tons of dirt instead of being composted. Luckily, I was never exposed to such instructions, and my family has composted every bit of food scrap it has produced, including meat, bones, butter, oils, fat, lard, citrus peels, mayonnaise and everything else on the list. We’ve done this in our backyard for 30 years with never a problem. Why would it work for us and not for anyone else? The answer, in a word, if I may hazard a guess, is humanure, another forbidden compost material.

    When compost heats up, much of the organic material is quickly degraded. This holds true for oils and fats, or in the words of scientists, “Based on evidence on the composting of grease trap wastes, lipids [fats] can be utilized rapidly by bacteria, including actinomycetes, under thermophilic conditions.” The problem with the materials on the “banned” list is that they may require thermophilic composting conditions for best results. Otherwise, they can just sit in the compost pile and only very slowly decompose. In the meantime, they can look very attractive to the wandering dog, cat, raccoon, or rat. Ironically, when the forbidden materials, including humanure, are combined with other compost ingredients, thermophilic conditions will prevail. When humanure and the other controversial organic materials aresegregated from compost, thermophilic conditions may not occur at all. This is a situation that is probably quite common in most backyard compost piles. The solution is not to segregate materials from the pile, but to add nitrogen and moisture, as are commonly found in manure.

    As such, compost educators would provide a better service to their students if they told them the truth: almost any organic material will compost — rather than give them the false impression that some common food materials will not. Granted, some things do not compost very well. Bones are one of them, but they do no harm in a compost pile.

    Nevertheless, toxic chemicals should be kept out of the backyard compost pile. Such chemicals are found, for example, in some “pressure treated” lumber that is saturated with cancer-causing chemicals such as chromated copper arsenate. What not to compost: sawdust from CCA pressure treated lumber, which is, unfortunately, a toxic material that has been readily available to the average gardener for too many years (but now largely banned by the EPA).


    Excerpt from The Humanure Handbook — Chapter Three: Microhusbandry by Joe Jenkins

  • October17th

    Submitted by Tommy Tepper

    As a part-time community gardener at the Joyner Community Garden in Asheville, North Carolina, I am writing this piece to add to A Growing Culture’s scope of global food production. Food is the essence of every culture and it is the commonality of us all, no matter who you are. This is not just in terms of large farms, but also backyard gardens and community gardens. These types of garden systems should be held in the same regard as all other food production systems. All of us are trying to simply reinforce the vital importance of knowing what’s in your soil, knowing what, in fact, is on your plate or in your hands when you are eating. The fact that many people don’t seem to know how their food got to them or all that went into making the product just makes no sense to me.

    I am very blessed to live in an American town like Asheville where there are many community gardens and so many backyard gardens. Some even have fishponds, ducks, goats, and chickens, but what really is important and good to know is that the word and the message keep on spreading from one person to the next. People walk by the Joyner Community Garden all the time, asking, “how did you grow that?” or, “what kind of vegetable is that?” Or, even, “why are you guys and girls here all the time?” The point is that people can‘t help but notice the flowers, the bees and butterflies; that for some reason on this city street filled with houses upon houses, there is this rather small parcel of land with a garden with lots of things growing. Even if it is just the neighborhood mail carrier deciding to plant 4 tomato plants at his house or a new neighbor getting her hands dirty at the community garden, all these things spread wings and that, to me, is the whole point.  

    The parcel of land that Joyner sits on was donated to a local non-profit organization focused on urban gardening called the Bountiful Cities Project (www.bountifulcitiesproject.org). They own and operate 8-9 different parcels of land throughout the city of Asheville, including an edible park downtown that grows over 30 different varieties of fruit trees. The Joyner Community Garden is managed by three individuals, Eric, Laura, and myself, Tommy Tepper. Each year, we have a small core of helpers, some who put in a lot of time, like us, and some that just come every now and again. Although the area of Joyner Community Garden is rather small, totaling less than one third of an acre, we grow very intensively and almost year round. The Project has been actively farming the land for a little over four years. We grow organically and specialize in the production of tomatoes, poblano peppers, potatoes, Swiss chard, asparagus, garlic, herbs, perennial flowers, as well as red and green Asian long beans.

    The whole garden is run very informally, as community members come together to cooperatively produce food to aid local demand. Together we strive to grow all the food, flowers, herbs, and fruit for the community who live directly on and around Joyner Avenue. We strive to help the immediate community save money, have access to high quality food, and to educate each other about the whole realm of what growing food means and looks like. We produce food consistently for three seasons out of the four, In winter, we extend the season by storing food and herbs. We will occasionally ,dry herbs, and save seed, but mostly we pickle or ferment what we grow. For example, set aside for the winter this year, I have fermenting hot peppers, carrots, and beets. In my freezer, I have frozen corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, and pumpkin puree.

    We also all have stores of garlic, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. However, despite nearly the entire garden being cover-cropped all winter (usually in winter rye), there are two rows still in production. One row is for the garlic planted in October; the other is the winter production row. This row consists of one long hoop house bed with a large sheet of found plastic tarp (and whatever else we have lying around, come winter time) to mimic a greenhouse. We usually grow greens, small root veggies, and onions under the hoop house. In fact, last year, we got used nylon bags from the brewery down the street (they once held barley in them) and created a cold frame to produce kale, beets, carrots, and turnips during the cold winter.

    Another aspect of the Joyner community garden educating our neighbors and volunteers to grow food on their own. Although, at first, this was possibly an indirect aim, now it seems to be at the forefront of why we choose to spend our time at Joyner. We educate just by being a neighbor: we talk to people and share stories about growing food. We don‘t educate in a formal way. For example, we have never held a workshop, but instead educate through more one-on-one conversations or walking tours of the garden.

    Usually the education involves one specific topic at a time. For instance, one neighbor down the street from Joyner wanted to know how he should dig up his grass so that he could have a garden at his house. We told him about resources we use for materials, such as free cow manure and reasonably priced quality topsoil, and we offered our assistance and any tools he needed to get the job done. Another time, a neighbor wanted to add some type of greens to her morning Vitamix breakfast drink and we had an abundance of sorrel. She just harvests some whenever she wants.

    The community garden sells directly to a local independent grocery store and, occasionally, to local restaurants. Primarily, we produce food not for a particular market, but instead to give to those who volunteer and to feed the community members who are in need. I love regional and small-scale systems, so we try to have a direct impact on the community that surrounds the garden itself. Of course, we would not turn our heads to someone who lived across town, but I believe our thinking is that the word “community” in our name should focus on our direct community. I believe that in the future, once our soil is really built up and once our young fruit trees really produce, we can have even more impact , but for now, this small space helps feed about six people every week, sometimes 6-12 people, depending on volunteers and requests from our direct community.

    Due to the local impact of Joyner Community Garden, my fellow managers and I feel very lucky to be a part of its development. Since the garden has only been in use for four years, we have spent most of that time building up the soil. When we arrived, the soil was mainly made up of mountain clay, which is very restrictive for the roots of things to grow. The land was prepared for a developed house to go there; there is even a waterspout. We have had the soil tested and it appears there are no pollutants or, at least, no more than in your average urban land in the area where we live. The land is located on a large hill, so we have no runoff problem. However, there is a nearby driveway that connects to one side of the garden.

    The soil here in the mountains of North Carolina is clay; therefore, it does not easily drain. From this clay, we have over 3-4 years of added leaves (from when the city delivers these to us once a year and from bags of leaves we collect from people’s yards), aged cow manure (a free source from local livestock), and cover cropping every winter. We have been focusing on building organic matter through mixing the soil with these amendments. I feel that all three have really helped, and we seem to add one to three inches of quality topsoil from this three-step process.

    One of our other approaches to building a successful garden involves thinking as a  group. We try to balance the short-term goals and long-term goals of the community garden, meaning that we focus on growing food each year for that year, but, at the same time, we constantly try to foresee where we could be 3-5 years from now. For instance, if we want to grow potatoes, onions, and sweet potatoes this growing season, we will also be thinking about and looking at space to try to figure out where we could possibly put more Asian pear trees or a low-lying, fruit-bearing bush.

    Our approach helps minimize tillage and labor by putting in more perennials and more fruit-bearing plants. For example, this year, we created new garden space in a little corner that was unused prior. We also planted 60 strawberry plants and, this fall, we will be planting additional blueberry plants and planting into other spaces we cleared out. Also, we have been getting into more specialty crops, like perennial garlic chives, which gives us an onion flavor nearly all year long. Beneficial insects love them as well.

    As we maintain strict organic practices, our main struggles are dealing with harlequin bugs, Bermuda grass, and excessive heat during certain days of the summer. We have taken some drastic measures to control some of these, including plugging in a vacuum and just going to town on the nasty harlequins! We try to create low-cost practices, since none of us have tons of leftover income to spend on the garden. One of the most successful low-cost techniques seems to be boiling down a bunch of hot peppers in one of our kitchens, mixing it with ivory soap, and using it as a spray to keep the majority of pests away. It seems to work especially well on things like kale and collards. Some things we have just decided not to grow because they attract so many pests. We decided last year not to grow kale or collard greens and instead just focus on other greens like Swiss chard and sorrel because nothing seems to eat them.

    An important thing to take away from community gardening (and farming) is that it is just like one’s life⎯you make mistakes and you learn from them along the way. As long as you keep trying, success in the garden can be found. Plus, you get to meet tons of cool folks and share meals with each other. Lastly, thank you AGC for helping us all share our stories and out our “secrets” so that we may all have a better handle on growing our own food!

  • October11th

    A Growing Culture is excited to announce our first essay from guest author Rick Burnette, director of the ECHO Asia Impact center. This is an excellent piece for all types of  farmers, and  with a little creativity could be adapted to most systems, especially those situated on steep land with rainy climates. 


    During the late rainy season, the permanent hill fields that surround a cluster of hilltribe villages in the Chiang Dao district of northern Thailand radiate various hues of green.  These verdant fields, belonging to ethnic Lisu, Lahu, Akha, Palaung and Karen farmers, are covered in a patchwork of green manure/cover crops (gm/ccs) that include rice bean (Vigna umbellata), cowpea/black bean (Vigna unguiculata), lablab bean (Lablab purpureus), peanut (Arachis hypogaea) and jack bean (Canavalia ensiformis).  

    Northern Thai gm/cc production

    The extensive plantings of gm/ccs are part of a legume-maize relay cropping system that local farmers developed in the early 1980s.  Relay cropping is a type of intercropping with two or more crops grown simultaneously during part of their life cycles.  The second crop is often planted after the first crop has reached its reproductive phase, but before it is ready to harvest (Van Keer, et al.).Through the years, this system of relay cropping gm/ccs has caught the attention of outside agriculture development agencies and farmers.  The ECHO Asia Impact Center often takes visitors to meet the hilltribe farmers and observe their approach of growing gm/ccs.  This article will describe these farmers’ efforts, weigh strengths and weaknesses of the system and explore opportunities for others to possibly adopt and adapt similar approaches elsewhere.

    Farming transitions in the Sri Lanna Park
    The complex of hilltribe villages where relay cropped gm/ccs are grown is located within the borders of the Sri Lanna National Park.  Each community was established before the announcement of the reserve in 1989.  Previously, the hilltribe farmers practiced shifting cultivation, primarily of upland rice.  The rice was grown in association with other field crops that included sesame, sunflower, chili pepper, crawling legume varieties, pigeon pea, sorghum and various species of cucurbits.

    Traditionally, hill fields are returned to a forest fallow for at least a few years to allow the soil to recover fertility.  Once soil fertility is adequately restored, another cycle of field cropping takes place.  Although park authorities currently allow an informal degree of land tenure for farm families living within Sri Lanna, agricultural activity is restricted to fields that have been cleared for decades.  The farmers of Sri Lanna are now forbidden from clearing land for rotational farming.

    The soil within the permanent hill fields (elevation 450-600 m asl) is of two main types: productive limestone soils and easily degraded quartz schist soils.  Although some fields are relatively level, most cultivated areas are quite steep.

    Based on informal community land management systems, families lay claim to undeeded tracts of land; most household acreage is less than 1-2 hectares (1 ha equals 6.25 rai; the standard land unit in Thailand).  With such limited access to farmland and with shifting cultivation prohibited, traditional forest fallows (typically 3 to 10 years) are no longer possible.

    The shift to relay cropping began in the early 1980s when local farmers began growing lablab bean in corn fields using seed found in unhusked rice brought in from another village.  Two years later, they began growing rice bean from seed obtained from the Land Development Department (LDD).  During the early 1990s, a productive bush type of cowpea (black bean) was introduced by a market middleman, followed a few years later by peanut.   Finally, jack bean was introduced around the mid 2000s (though overall acreage remains limited).

    Gm/ccs for accelerated seasonal fallow
    The widespread system of relay cropping corn and legumes over the Sri Lanna village cluster has been described by Somchai and Prinz as being an accelerated seasonal fallow management system.  By establishing gm/ccs within a mature stand of corn (sowing approximately one month before the corn is harvested), a significant amount of nitrogen fixation and biomass production takes place between corn crops.  Therefore, the aims of a natural fallow (i.e. improved soil condition and better crop production) can take place within a shorter period of time over a smaller area.

    International gm/cc promoter Roland Bunch states that to keep farmland productive, a minimum of 10 to 25 tons of organic matter (fresh weight) is needed per hectare per year.  Fortunately, most of the gm/ccs planted by the Sri Lanna farmers are capable of adding these levels and more.  For example, lablab can produce 25 to 40 tons of biomass per hectare, and jack bean can supply 40 to 50 tons.  All of the legume crops that are used can fix at least 80 kg N/ha per year (see Table 1).

    Unlike gm/cc systems for farms in temperate climates, the legumes produced in the Sri Lanna complex are not cut down at flowering stage and incorporated into the soil.  Instead, they grow through their full life cycle and seeds are harvested.  Residues are allowed to cover or partially cover the soil surface and slowly decompose.

    Multifunctional gm/ccs
    The adoption and long term usage of gm/ccs among the Sri Lanna farmers can be attributed largely to the multifunctional benefits of these legumes.  Some of the advantages include:

    • Application as green manure cover crops, which: 1) control weeds over a period of 4 to 8 months; 2) cover and protect the soil; 3) contribute considerable amounts of organic matter to the soil; and 4) fix significant amounts of nitrogen.
    • Household food value; particularly the tender pods of rice beans and black beans (though the dried seeds of rice beans and black beans are consumed by local farm families only on a limited basis).  Peanut is readily consumed.  Only the tender pods of jack bean are eaten (mature seeds are somewhat toxic).
    • The marketability of each legume; this is probably the most attractive benefit of the legume crops.

    Table 1 – Comparison of weed control, nitrogen fixing rate, biomass production, marketability and consumption of green manure cover crops produced in the permanent hill fields of Sri Lanna

    Green manure cover crop variety Controls weeds Nitrogen fixation rate (kg/ha) Reports of biomass produced (t/ha) fresh weight Marketability in northern Thailand Consumption
    cowpea/black bean(Vigna unguiculata) Good 73-354 (Silva and Uchida); ~ 80 (Bunch) ≤ 35 (PROTA) Marketable in various locations Edible tender pods and dried beans
    rice bean(Vigna umbellata) Good ~ 80 (Bunch) ≤ 33 (Ecocrop) Marketable in various locations Edible tender pods and dried beans
    jack bean(Canavalia ensiformis) Good 240 (Bunch) 40-50 can be obtained (Ecocrop) Limited market Edible tender pods; dried beans are toxic
    lablab bean(Lablab purpureum) Good 220 (FAO); 130 (Bunch) Yields of 25-40 (Ecocrop) Marketable in various locations Edible tender pods for garden varieties; edible dried beans for field varieties.
    peanut/groundnut(Arachis hypogaea) Fair 72-124 (Silva and Uchida) 13.17 (Weerasinghe and Lathiff) Widespread market Seeds readily consumed

    Compiled from various sources

    Cropping schedule and production methods
    The Sri Lanna farmers follow an informal annual relay cropping schedule.  Much of the following description of the cropping schedule and associated production practices is described by Somchai and Prinz in Voices from the Forest

    With March and April field work (the last portion of the dry season), weeds are hoed out with crop and weed residues often piled and burned.  However, since the late 1990s, many farmers in the area have begun to implement a no-burn approach, as they better understand the value of crop biomass conversion into soil organic matter.  As a result, prior to rainy season crop production, plant residues are often arranged into contour strips.  Increased crop diversity in the permanent hill fields, including fruit trees, has also caused farmers to restrict dry season burning.

    Lablab bean planted within corn

    Another factor that has led to decreased burning of residues is the widespread use of herbicides.  According to the Palaung, initially only hoeing was used to control weeds prior to establishing the corn crop in May and the gm/cc crops in August.  But around 1990, labor challenges and local availability of farm chemicals led the Palaung farmers to adopt herbicides such as glyphosate and paraquat dichloride.   With herbicide use prior to the establishment of both corn and legumes, considerably less hoeing is required to eradicate the weeds.  Therefore, a minimum tillage approach has evolved.

    When the rains begin, hybrid corn (adopted in the late 1990s) is often planted along with secondary crops such as wax gourd and pumpkin.  The planting distance for the corn is 70 cm by 50 cm (28 in. x 20 in.).

    Farmers also often plant two crops of peanut per rainy season.  Long term peanut seed storage is difficult, so a small early crop is established at the beginning of the rainy season, primarily for seed production.  This helps to ensure enough fresh peanut seed for the main crop, which is established approximately four months later.

    In August through September, weeds are eradicated and legumes are then planted between the corn rows.  Lisu farmers plant rice bean and lablab bean at a spacing of 70 cm x 50 cm, and use a planting distance of 70 cm x 30 cm (28 in. x 12 in.) for cowpea (Table 2).  Nam Saeng Loongmuang reports that the Palaung plant several seeds per hill; peanut hills are spaced 25 cm (10 in.) apart, and rice bean and black bean approximately 30 to 40 cm (12 to 15.8 in.) apart.  Lablab bean hills are spaced 1 m apart.

    Table 2 – Reported and recommended planting distances and seeding rates for green manure/cover crops in the permanent hill fields of Sri Lanna

    Green manure/cover crop variety Approximate planting distances(reported and/or recommended*) Calculated Seeding Rates** kg/rai (1600 m²)
    cowpea/black bean(Vigna unguiculata) 70 cm x 30 cm (Lisu)40 cm x 30 cm (Palaung)30 cm x 25 cm (recommended) 3.05 (Lisu)5.33 (Palaung)8.53 (recommended)
    rice bean(Vigna umbellata) 70 cm x 50 cm (Lisu)40 cm x 30 cm (Palaung)40 cm x 30 cm (recommended) 1.83 (Lisu)5.33 (Palaung)5.33 (recommended)
    jack bean(Canavalia ensiformis) 50 cm x 50 cm (recommended) 42.5 (recommended)
    lablab bean(Lablab purpureum) 70 x 50 (Lisu)1 m x 1 m (Palaung)70 cm x 50 cm (recommended) 7.31 (Lisu)2.56 (Palaung)7.31 (recommended)
    peanut/ground nut(Arachis hypogaea) 25 cm x 25 cm (Palaung)50 cm x 20 cm (recommended) 50.18 (Palaung)31.36 (recommended)

    * Recommended planting distances (for optimum ground cover and nitrogen fixation) from various sources.

    **Planting rates were determined using 4 seeds per hill at either farmer or recommended planting distances.

    In September, the dried stalks are pushed down as the corn crop is harvested.  Farmers also step on the young bean vines, which stimulates more branching and inflorescence.  By October, the bean vines usually provide full soil coverage.

    Legumes are harvested at different times. The main peanut crop is ready for harvest in November and December.    Cowpea (black bean) is harvested from December through January, and rice bean from January through February.  Lablab is harvested from late February through March.

    Harvest and yields
    Individual pods of black bean (20 cm/8 in. long), lablab (4 to 5 cm/2 in. long) and jack bean (up to 30 cm/1 ft. long) are collected when the mature pods are dry.  Harvested pods are spread out for further drying before being placed in sacks and beaten or trod upon to release the seeds.

    Threshing rice bean in the field

    Rice bean is harvested differently. The 10 cm (4 in) long pods are produced in small clusters and are difficult to collect individually.  Instead, farmers use sickles to cut the entire mass of mature vine.  After adequate drying, the vines are beaten with long sticks over a large canvas to thresh the seed.  The released seeds are then gathered, dried and cleaned.  Threshed vines are usually left in the field to decompose.

    Peanut pods are produced underground, so roots and pods are dug at harvest.  Uprooted pod clusters are dried in the field.  Individual pods are dislodged from the root system by beating them against the edge of baskets.  After further drying, the peanuts are sold (either shelled or unshelled; most farmers market unshelled peanuts).

    Yawt Loongmuang (in Pang Dang Nai community) estimates, that one rai of productive permanent hill field can yield approximately 15 tang of dried black bean seed, 25 tang of rice bean seed, 15 tang of lablab bean seed, or 50-100 tang of peanut pods.

    Corn yields in the relay-cropped fields are higher than the average. During the late 1990s, Somchai and Prinz reported that the average yield of non-hybrid corn produced in the relay-cropped fields of Huai Nam Rin was 3.05 tons/ha.  This yield, obtained without the use of chemical fertilizers, was almost 50% above the national average.  Except for tender roasting ears consumed by households and small amounts saved as animal feed, practically all the corn crop is sold to middle men.  Corn recently sold for 6 to 8 baht per kg and is the main source of farm income.

    However, with continual crop production, relay cropping with gm/ccs has not been adequate to maintain satisfactory corn and upland rice yields in many of the steep, permanent fields, especially those comprised of quartz schist soils.  Over time a large number of these tracts have become degraded to the point where they are no longer useable for annual field cropping.  As a result, many of these fields are being converted into mixed orchard/agroforestry plots.

    The gm/cc market
    All five types of gm/ccs used as relay intercrops are marketed through middlemen who purchase crops in each village.  Depending on the market, farm gate prices for lablab, black beans and rice beans vary.  According to Yawt Loongmuang, 2011 prices for all three beans were attractive, with black bean selling for 19 baht ($0.63 US)/kg; rice bean for 24 baht ($0.80 US)/kg; and lablab bean for 25 baht ($0.83 US)/kg.

    Due to oversupply, bean prices can also drop to less profitable levels.  Farmers generally hedge by planting two or more types of gm/ccs each growing season.  Should prices be too low to make the sale of the beans worthwhile, cooked rice bean, lablab and cowpea could possibly be used to supplement pig feed rations.

    A small number of farmers in the area produce jack bean, even though marketing opportunities for jack bean are much more limited.  Alea Santya, who farms in Chiang Dao’s Na Wai community, reports that in 2011 jack bean was purchased by a Chiang Mai middleman for 20-25 baht per kg.

    Black cowpea and rice bean are used in various foods such as bean paste, so they are both consumed domestically and exported.  Lablab bean is processed regionally into a cheap, salty snack and is also exported.  However, the only known regional use of the jack bean crop is for use as gm/cc seed.

    Peanuts produced in Thailand are marketed both domestically and internationally.  With a reliable market, the acreage of production in Chiang Dao has increased significantly over recent years.

    Chemical inputs

    Herbicides applied to relay cropped fields

    Despite the agroecological benefits of employing gm/ccs to fix nitrogen, produce soil organic matter and smother weeds, the relay cropping farmers of Sri Lanna have applied agricultural chemicals for many years to produce their gm/ccs.  These mainly include herbicides, pesticides and hormones; chemical fertilizers have generally not been used for relay cropping.

    Prior to the establishment of both corn and gm/cc crops, a wide spectrum of weeds are killed back by glyphosate and paraquat dichloride.   To ensure adequate die-back, farmers admit to applying rates higher than recommended.  Costs are increasing (the 2011 cost of 5 liters of paraquat dichloride was 750 baht, compared to 500 baht a few years ago), but the present cost is still considered affordable.

    I asked farmers what they would do if the cost of paraquat was to rise closer to 1000 baht. They replied that they would have to cut back on the use of the herbicides, perhaps focusing only on areas where weeds are most problematic.

    In addition to their herbicide use, farmers are also spraying hormone on each type of bean to boost flower and pod production. They generally use three applications during the period from early flowering to early pod production.  Additionally, a caterpillar (possibly the bean pod-borer, Maruca testulalis) infests cowpea and rice bean, requiring application of pesticides such as synthetic pyrethroid.  Jack bean is also affected by a pod borer, but lablab bean and peanut are not.  Alea Santya reports that some growers use a chemical insecticide to control the jack bean pod borers, while others apply neem and other natural sprays.

    Despite considerable reliance upon farm chemicals for gm/cc production, many farmers expressed health and environmental concerns.

    Long term rotational cropping strategies with gm/ccs

    Relay-cropped peanuts

    In addition to relay cropping corn and legumes, many of the Sri Lanna farmers continue to produce upland rice on a limited basis in their permanent hill fields.  Most would prefer to grow upland rice continually as the main staple crop, but the grain requires fertile soil.  Also, farmers report that long term production of upland rice on the same land leads to pest problems such as rice stem borers.

    Fortunately, the use of gm/ccs in the accelerated improved seasonal fallow system enables ongoing maintenance of permanent hill field soils.  This allows for occasional production of upland rice (every two to three years), particularly on less-degraded land.

    Peanut is another crop that farmers avoid planting every year. They prefer to rotate peanut with relay-cropped corn and gm/ccs at least every other year. If peanut is continually cropped on the same plot of land, yields decline due to increased levels of disease and loss of soil fertility.  And despite being a legume, peanut is not considered a very effective gm/cc due to modest amounts of biomass production as well as soil disturbance during harvest.  For long term production of peanut on the same plot of land, farmers insist that additional inputs and expenses would be necessary to maintain adequate soil fertility and disease control.

    Can gm/cc relay cropping be adopted everywhere?
    Chemical fertilizers remain out of reach of many who cultivate marginal lands, due to the expense and limited availability.  Production and application of natural fertilizers and soil amendments, such as compost, is impractical for large fields where manual labor is required.  Gm/ccs are probably the most feasible option to supply adequate amounts of biomass and nitrogen to permanent fields and rice paddy where traditional fallows are not an option.

    However, despite the Sri Lanna farmers’ success with relay cropping gm/ccs, introducing similar approaches to other communities may be challenging.  For example, as long as traditional farming practices remain an option for farmers who practice shifting cultivation, widespread adoption of gm/cc-based accelerated improved fallows is unlikely.   Pest issues and the lack of markets may be other obstacles toward promoting gm/cc relay cropping systems.

    A summary of strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for promoting gm/cc relay cropping systems

    Rice bean

    Strengths associated with the use of gm/ccs in the Sri Lanna relay cropping system include:

    • Gm/cc seed sources are self-sustaining, as they are produced by the farmers themselves.
    • Each type of gm/cc is multifunctional, maintaining soil fertility but also providing supplemental food and significant household income.
    • The gm/cc relay cropping system has spread farmer-to-farmer with little outside technical intervention.
    • Available market channels have been instrumental in the spread of relay cropping gm/ccs.

    Weaknesses related to relay cropping gm/ccs in Sri Lanna and elsewhere:

    • Considerable amounts of petroleum-based agricultural chemicals are being incorporated into the relay cropping system (especially labor-saving herbicides), adding to production costs and creating significant health and environmental risks.
    • The use of gm/ccs alone is not enough to prevent steep quartz schist soils from degrading.
    • Farmers use varied planting distances and seeding rates, often resulting in inefficient use of seed and space.
    • The Sri Lanna gm/cc relay cropping system only provides beneficial soil coverage during the late rainy season and early to mid dry season.
    • Unlike in Chiang Dao, markets for gm/ccs are not widespread, limiting the opportunity for introduction of similar production systems elsewhere.
    • In places where gm/ccs have been introduced on a limited basis, rodents can reportedly target small plantings of legumes.

    Opportunities to help overcome the gm/cc relay cropping challenges in Sri Lanna and elsewhere:

    • Technical/development agencies and farmers should research how to extend the period of gm/cc cropping so that it will include the beginning of the rainy season.  This could improve the effect of natural weed control by keeping the soil surface covered longer.  One approach might be to intercrop non-climbing, somewhat shade-tolerant jack bean with corn, prior to relay cropping other gm/ccs.
    • Agencies and farmers should test the effectiveness of locally available natural pesticides (e.g. neem, wood vinegar) to determine safe and low-cost controls of various gm/cc pests, such as pod borers.
    • Effective soil conservation measures (e.g. contoured vegetative strips) should be employed along with gm/cc production, to prevent or slow the degradation of soil on sloping land.
    • Additional regional gm/cc evaluations are needed to identify multi-functional gm/ccs that could potentially occupy local market niches and be compatible with local food preferences.
    • Opportunities for expanding gm/cc market channels must be studied, to make gm/cc production profitable to farmers throughout the region.


    A fully illustrated pdf slide presentation about gm/cc relay cropping in northern Thailand can be accessed via this link: Green Manure Cover Crops

    Limited quantities of lablab bean, black bean (cowpea), rice bean and jack bean seed can be requested from the ECHO Asia Seed Bank

    (AsiaSeedBank@gmail.com )


    Adebisi, A.A. & Bosch, C.H., 2004. Lablab purpureus (L.) Sweet. [Internet] Record from Protabase. Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <http://database.prota.org/search.htm>. Accessed 3 June 2011.

    Bunch, Roland.  Changing our Understanding of the Fertility of Tropical Soils:  Nutrient Banks for Nutrient Access?  Paper developed during a regional technical workshop on Shifting Cultivation for Sustainability and Resource Conservation in Asia. Cavite (Philippines), August 2000.

    Bunch, Roland.  Scaling Conservation Agriculture to Confront the Upcoming Famine.  Paper offered during the ECHO East Africa Symposium, Arusha, Tanzania, February 8-10, 2011.

    Bunch, Roland. Adoption of Green Manure and Cover Crops. LEISA Magazine, Volume 19 Issue 4 – Reversing Degradation (2003): 16-18. http://www.fao.org/prods/gap/database/gap/files/609_GREEN_MANURE_AND_COVER_CROPS.PDF

    Ecocrop.  Canavalia ensiformis.  2007.  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  http://ecocrop.fao.org/ecocrop/srv/en/cropView?id=609 .  Accessed June 5, 2011.

    Ecocrop.  Lablab purpureus.  2007.  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  http://ecocrop.fao.org/ecocrop/srv/en/cropView?id=1311 .  Accessed June 5, 2011.

    Ecocrop. Vigna umbellata. 2007.  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  http://ecocrop.fao.org/ecocrop/srv/en/cropView?id=2152.  Accessed June 5, 2011.

    FAO.  Grassland Species Profiles. Vigna unguiculata (L.) Walp.  http://www.fao.org/ag/AGP/AGPC/doc/Gbase/data/pf000090.htm .  Accessed June 3, 2011.

    FAO.  Grassland Species Profiles. Lablab purpureus (L.) Sweet.   http://www.fao.org/ag/AGP/AGPC/doc/GBASE/DATA/PF000047.HTM .  Accessed June 3, 2011.

    Rajerison, R., 2006. Vigna umbellata (Thunb.) Ohwi & H.Ohashi. [Internet] Record from Protabase. Brink, M. & Belay, G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <http://database.prota.org/search.htm>.  Accessed 3 June 2011.

    Silva, J.A. and R. Uchida, eds.  2000.  Plant Nutrition Management in Hawaii’s Soils, Approaches for Tropical and Subtropical Agriculture.  College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

    Somchai Ongprasert and Klaus Prinz.  2001.  Relay Cropping as an Improved Fallow Practice in Northern Thailand.  Shifting Cultivation:  Towards Sustainability and Resource Conservation in Asia. International Institute of Rural Reconstruction, Cavite, Philippines: 205-209.

    Somchai Ongprasert and Klaus Prinz.  2007.  Viny Legumes as Accelerated Seasonal Fallows: Intensifying Shifting Cultivation in Northern Thailand.   Voices from the Forest: Integrating Indigenous Knowledge into sustainable upland farming. Resources for the Future Press: 263-271.

    Van Keer, K., J.D. Comtois, F. Turkelboom and Somchai Ongprasert.  1998.  Options for Soil and Farmer Friendly Agriculture in the Highlands of Northern Thailand.  Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH, Eschborn.

    Weerasinghe, P. and M, A. Lathiff.  Influence of groundnut residue on the growth and yield of subsequent rice crop in non-calcic brown soils.  Regional Agricultural and Research and Development Centre, Aralaganwila. http://www.goviya.lk/agri_learning/Paddy/Paddy_Research/Paddy_pdf/A18.pdf .  Accessed June 3, 2011.

  • October3rd

    mid-season bluesFeeling a little overwhelmed? Is the needle on the stress-o-meter topped out?  Need one more thing to do in August?

    It’s been a busy season up until now, and yet there is still the second half of the season to finish up before work slows down. Mid season blues are common this time of year- here are some thoughts on the subject.

    It may be hard to think of January right now, but that’s where the farmer’s story usually starts. Having rested from the previous growing season, seed catalogs appear in the mail and thoughts of Spring instill hope that this year will be a banner year. Excitement centers on new varieties to trial, and new ideas, systems or tools to test out. Optimism prevails on every front. Lots of new things to experiment with. Spring is a fresh beginning.  

    Seeds are ordered, greenhouses fired up, plants started. Fields dry out and crops are planted in the ground.  Warm weather and the long days of Spring coincide perfectly to get the myriad of farm tasks accomplished. With some good weather, the farm is off and running.

    But around July and August here in Vermont, the reality of earlier optimistic planning finds most farmers without enough time, juggling a few too many balls at once. The chaos level rises, and a ball or two get dropped. The farm moves at full bore- planted acreage is at the max. To boot, multiple plantings of succession crops (like greens) require preparing beds, planting, cultivation, harvesting and tilling in of crops all within a week’s time frame. And these different succession crops stand next to long-season crops that have another one to three months in the ground. Besides being fully planted with crops, fields may be overridden with of a bonus crop of weeds. Knowing that the end of the season is closer than it once was, desire for weed free fields wanes. Focus changes to getting crops out of the ground and sold- and putting money in the bank. Weedy fields contribute to the overall chaos that mid summer can bring. Projects that were planned for this year fall hopelessly to the bottom of the To-Do list. Farm stress can be at an all time high.

    In the fall, fields begin empty out, cover crops sown, and the hectic-ness of farm management lessens. There is still no shortage of farm work to do, for crops need to be harvested, packed and marketed. But the end of the season is in sight.  Once everything is harvested and fields are put to bed for the winter, farmers can finally EXHALE, as their slower winter season begins.

    For those of you readers that are familiar with my writings, you know that I keep a farm crop journal. This journal details inputs and yields on crops I grow so I can figure out how profitable they are. But another aspect of the crop journal is to record events and the pulse of farm life during the course of the year, much like the familiar daily diary. I may write,” Four frosts in late May” or for last year, “ Rained for 8 weeks solid.” I review these notes in January before I plan for the next season, to refresh my memory which tends be habitually short. By January, it seems my mind has been reformatted by winter’s amnesiatic effect and I forget how hectic the preceding season was (just a few months earlier!) or what things went drastically wrong. It took me a couple of decades to realize this pattern, hence the diary entries in the crop journal as a reminder. One year, I thumbed through the previous season’s crop journal, and there was a page that had big letters in magic marker scrawled across it saying,” OMG! Never do THIS again!” I paused, and wondered where it came from. It kind of looks like my handwriting…

    Obviously, I need help remembering, and I need help to change habits so I don’t find myself in the exact same frustrated and chaotic situation during the next growing season.  Because plans that are made in January manifest themselves mid season, now is the time to think about plans for next season. It seems counterintuitive at first, but now is when you clearly see the need for changes. You are surrounded by your work. Although the slower pace of winter makes it a good time to plan, it is easy to forget the feeling of mid season.

    Ask yourself, is everything the way you want it to be on your farm? Do you want to be in this situation next year at this time?  If so, great. You can duplicate your current strategy for next year. But if you see the need for changes, then now is the perfect time to take 10 minutes and write them down. It need not be detailed or lengthy, just a rough sketch of what would be different next year. Put it in a place with other papers to review next winter, like your seed order file, or tax documents. It may be as simple as: “reduce escarole by half, no summer spinach (but maybe more in fall), step up mechanical weed control, need to reduce overall workload in May (fall fertilize? buy in transplants?), weeds and deer out of control, need more help in June.”

    Another way to plan for future changes is by listing all the crops you now grow and commenting next to each crop, such as “more” “less” “OK” or naming varieties that work better than others.  Keep it short and simple.

    Change is hard. The path of least resistance is doing what is familiar and what you have done for years. But if you recognize that something is amiss now, and you want to make positive changes, action needs to be taken to make those changes real. What will change? Who will make the changes? When will the changes take place? Besides being hard, change can be scary- but remember, you can always change back the following year to the way things are now. That’s not a lot of downside for the prospect of some real positive steps forward.

    Besides quickly pencilling out some plans for next year, another useful task to do right now is take a field inventory.  Since most crops for the season are in the ground (or have been harvested) you can roughly project what your yearend sales will be. Grab the page of crop yields from the front of a Johnny’s Seeds catalog and walk your fields with a pad of paper and a pen. Estimate the row feet of each crop and figure what the yield may be. Next, figure what the anticipated price you’ll receive for the crop, and write down the result. You’ll end up with a total field inventory that you hope to sell, but also get a feel for which crops are worth more per row foot than other crops. Taking field inventory isn’t too time consuming, maybe an hour or so, but it will help you decide where to put your efforts if your time is spread thin.

    And for just a little more time invested, you can project what expenses you will have until the end of the year, resulting in a projected net profit for the year. Payroll will probably the biggest expense: estimate how many workers and workweeks are needed to finish out the season. Look at last year’s books as a gauge for other projected expenses. You can get a pretty good idea where you’re your net profit will be at the end of the year.

    My last piece of advice is to take a break. Go on a mini vacation, even a day. And give your employees some time off as well. Getting out of Dodge for a little R&R is refreshing for all, and gives needed distance from the farm. Working too hard for too long creates tunnel vision, and lack of perspective. You’ll return to work fresh and see things differently. Life is short, take time to enjoy it.

    by Richard Wiswall, Cate Farm, East Montpelier, VT

  • September27th

    Integrated Pig FarmingSadly most pig farms in Vietnam are far from being integrated. Feces and urine are allowed to flow together, and this slurry is discharged into nearby black-water lagoons where at times nothing grows but a slimy scum, not even duckweed. Water from these lagoons is often used to wash and cool down pigs. Disease is rampant. Antibiotics proliferate. The stench is unbearable.

    In spite of the enormous pollution that the pig farmer generates, he makes little money. The price of soy bean meal, fish meal, and rice bran (main ingredients in pig feed) has risen dramatically in recent times, while the price of pork has declined. The main cost in raising pigs is the cost of feed (up to 70%). The pig farmer in Vietnam has simply become the means by which large feed companies make money.

    Pigs, like humans, have inefficient digestive systems compared to many simpler organisms. A fair percentage of the nutrients eaten by the pig remain in its feces. Of course methanogens can convert fecal nutrients into methane, but in this case, a lot of nutrients are not returned to the food chain.

    What we propose here is that pig waste be processed in the same manner as human waste: that the feces of the pig be collected and processed by the combined action of BSF larvae and red worms, and that the urine of the pig be flushed to a duckweed pond. The larvae, red worms and duckweed can be processed and fed back to the pig. In the picture above, we see BSF larvae grown in the Mekong on nothing other than pig feces. Below we see the biopods in which they were cultivated.

    Many pig farmers in Vietnam make rice wine, and the mash from this process is fed to pigs to offset the cost of feed. Gasifier heat can now be used in the distillation of rice wine. This eliminates the environmental and health problems associated with the burning of low-grade biomass. Gasifier heat can also be used to blanch or cook unprocessed vegetable matter such as fresh taro leaves, sweet potato vines and banana stems.

    Pig FoodAlso many pig farmers search for different types of waste to feed to their pigs. However they are reluctant to feed these wastes directly to their pigs for fear of the transmission of disease. But with gasification and fermentation technologies, the pig farmer is free to cook or ferment many types of waste. Large quantities of restaurant and institutional food waste are available, as well many types of market waste such as vegetable waste, fish and chicken offal, and so forth. Those pig farmers who operate just outside the city in proximity to large sources of waste enjoy a distinct advantage over those who do not.

    After the pig farmer prepares and cooks his own feed, he does not have to dry and store it, as in the case of a feed company. He can feed the freshly cooked or fermented material immediately to his pigs. This eliminates a costly drying step and results in a substantial savings in the cost of feed.

    So we see that the pig farmer in Vietnam is in an entirely different position than before:

    1. By making use of BSF larvae, red worms and duckweed, the pig farmer eliminates the odor and pollution associated with pig waste.
    2. In so doing he recycles a substantial portion of the nutrients in pig waste, and he feeds these nutrients back to pigs, poultry or fish.
    3. He locates his farm as closely as possible to urban areas to take advantage of the large amounts of waste generated there.
    4. He employs the pig as a scavenger to dispose of many different types of waste nutrients.
    5. He cooks wastes with gasifier heat, or he ferments it with lactic acid bacteria.
    6. With gasifier heat he also distills rice wine in a smokeless and pollution-free manner.
    7. He grows taro and other fast-growing plants to feed to his pigs, and at times he blanches, cooks or ferments these plants prior to feeding.
    8. He composts with a fleece most of the non-putrescent biomass that he generates.
    9. He blends biochar, worm castings and compost, and he forms a co-op with other pig farmers to export high-value soil amendments.
    10. Only with the sale of soil amendment products, he covers a large portion of his costs.
    11. He buys virtually nothing from feed companies, and for the first time in his life, he is in a position to make money.
    12. On the one site, he produces food, fuel, feed and fertilizer, as we see in the diagram below:

    It is easy to make similar diagrams involving chickens, rabbits, goats, cows, fish and so forth. The following features fish and chickens:

    All too often in waste management we forget the importance of the pig, who prior to its domestication, was a forager and scavenger. The pig’s ability to consume and digest many different types of waste, prepared in many different ways, makes him a key player in sustainable waste management.

  • September19th

    recycling human wasteOn a yearly basis a human produces roughly 500 liters of urine and 50 liters of feces. These two products contain enough nutrients to grow most of the plants that this person needs as food. But instead of utilizing these 550 liters as a resource, we mix it with roughly 15,000 liters of water, and all goes down the drain. Before it reaches the sewage plant, if there is one, this slurry gets mixed with hundreds of pollutants along the way.

    The conventional sewage plant rarely retains or destroys all bacterial and viral contaminants, it produces a large amount of sludge generally unfit for agriculture, and it causes severe pollution in freshwater and seawater ecosystems. This end-of-pipe solution recycles nothing. It takes valuable resources and transforms them into pollutants. As fertilizer prices rise throughout the world, and as water becomes an increasingly scarce commodity, this unsustainable approach makes no sense.  

    Modern agriculture gets the nitrogen it needs from ammonia-producing plants that utilize fossil fuels such as natural gas, LPG or petroleum naphtha as a source of hydrogen. This energy-intensive process dumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it consumes a finite hydrocarbon resource, and it is not sustainable.

    Modern agriculture gets the phosphorous it needs from phosphorous-bearing rocks. But these reserves are rapidly dwindling and increasingly contaminated with pollutants such as cadmium. In as little as 25 years apatite reserves may no longer be economically exploitable and massive world-wide starvation is predicted to follow.

    If we are serious about achieving sustainability in this regard, our first, and perhaps most important duty, lies in not mixing urine with feces. Within the human body these two wastes are produced and stored separately, they are excreted separately, and afterwards they should be contained and processed separately. A double-outlet toilet, one for urine and the other for feces, is all that is needed.

    The feces receptacle, except for the lid, is exactly the same device used for the mesophilic storage of household biowaste, and if carefully utilized and cleaned out, the one bin could receive all bio-waste from the household, including human feces. Such a toilet is ideal, especially in an rural setting where a toilet in many cases is nothing more than a platform above a catfish pond or a hole in the ground. Quite often people in a rural setting do not even use a toilet of any kind. There are enormous environmental and health problems in Vietnam associated with outdoor urination and defecation.

    This toilet can be manufactured as a pedestal toilet or a squatting toilet. Since, in the case of a squatting toilet, the feces receptacle has to bear the entire weight of a person, it is best constructed out of brick.
    The feces storage bin is inhabited by BSF larvae within about 20 days after its construction. BSF larvae eat human feces within an hour or two after it is introduced. This is a powerful factor in eliminating odor.

    Biochar can also be added to the storage bin from time to time to further eliminate odor. Since biochar captures ammonia in gaseous form, biochar can also be added to the urine receptacle of this toilet. There is also the concept of a biochar urinal, a concept that will be explained more fully in the conclusion.

    Urine could be collected from urine-diverting toilets, diluted and directly applied to certain crops as a source of NPK. Simple soil insertion techniques prevent the volatilization of ammonia. Urine, or a mixture of biochar and urine, can be used as an important source of nitrogen in thermophilic composting operations.

    duckweedHowever, if the transport of urine is not feasible, there is another approach, and it allows for the complete processing of urine on site. This approach involves a tiny aquatic plant that is one of the fastest growing plants on earth. As it floats on the surface of the water, it extracts NPK and other nutrients from water through all surfaces of its leaf. Given sufficient sunlight, it can reduce quantities of NPK in water down to almost undetectable levels. This amazing plant, found throughout the world, is called duckweed.

    Under optimal conditions, certain duckweed can double in mass within a period of only 16 hours. Its protein content is one of the highest in the plant kingdom (sometimes as high as 45%). It is also rich in beta carotene, xanthophylls, as well as vitamins A and B. It contains very little fiber and indigestible matter.

    pondIn this approach, urine would be flushed from the urine-diverting toilet into a small duckweed pond located near the toilet. Since duckweed covers the entire surface of the pond, very little ammonia would volatilize and give rise to unpleasant smells. The duckweed harvested each day makes a wonderful feed for chickens, pigs, fish and, of course, ducks. Duckweed can be dried, ensiled, blanched or fed fresh.

    The logic of the sustainable processing of human waste has certain parallels with the logic of the sustainable processing of residential bio-waste. Both demand separation at source. Both employ mesophilic bins, BSF and red worms. Both refuse to define themselves as independent large-scale waste disposal activities, and both are intimately connected to the sustainable production of food, feed and fertilizer. Human waste, like pig waste, is far too nutrient-rich for the production of fuel by means of methanogens.

    We talk a lot about sustainability, but we will never achieve true sustainability until we learn to give back to nature in a closed loop everything that she needs to sustain us. Giving back to nature all of the nutrients within our own waste is perhaps our first and most important duty as citizens of planet Earth.

  • September5th

    Black soldier fly (BSF) adults are attracted to mesophilic storage units as an ideal site to lay eggs. Once BSF larvae reach maturity within the storage unit, they easily find a way out through the aeration holes. They then dig down into the soil where they pupate and later emerge as adults. The storage units therefore serve as ideal seeding units for the promotion of an abundant wild population of BSF. But why cultivate BSF larvae?

    BSF larvae are some of the most voracious eaters within the natural world. They can effect as much as a 20-fold reduction in the weight and volume of food waste in a period of less than 24 hours. In an area of only one square meter, they can eat up to 40 kg of fresh food waste per day. And for each 100 kg of food waste, there are roughly 20 kg of nutrients of a high protein (42%) and fat (34%) content. BSF larvae can eat just about any type of fresh putrescent waste, even meat and dairy products.  

    The functioning of a mesophilic bin is in no way comprised if BSF larvae are not present. Mesophilic decomposition is driven mainly by bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes, protozoa and rotifers – all operating at mesophilic temperatures. But when BSF larvae are present, a bin that might ordinarily handle 3 kg’s of food waste per day, becomes supercharged and can handle as much as 30 kg’s per day. The size and capacity of a bin, however, must always be rated or configured based on its functioning without BSF larvae.

    BSF larvae thrive in the presence of salt, ammonia and food toxins. They can easily digest food waste that is far too toxic to feed to pigs or other animals. It takes them roughly two hours to die when submerged in rubbing alcohol. They can be centrifuged at 2,000 g without harming them in any way. They are tough, robust and adaptable.

    BSF larvae emit a distinctive odor that drives away all other species of flies. This is a mild odor that can be sensed by humans but in no way is it offensive. BSF adults do not bite or pester humans. They do not have functional mouth parts. They do not eat, or regurgitate on human food. They do not go into houses. They have never been associated in any way with the transmission of disease.

    The picture below on the left shows BSF larvae right after eating a large pumpkin. The picture below on the right shows them eating watermelon. Both pumpkin and watermelon were eaten in less than 24 hours.

    After about two weeks of incessant eating, the larvae mature. These prepupal larvae then set out in search of a dark, dry place where they can pupate. They search the periphery of the waste, and if, within a container, they are provided with two small ramps, they easily crawl up and out of the waste. The two ramps spiral up (left and right) to the top of the container where an exit hole is provided. The larvae then fall into a bucket. This special container, called a biopod, has no moving parts. It requires no energy, no electricity, no fuel, no chemicals – nothing, not even water.

    Two sizes of biopod are now being manufactured in Vietnam: 2-foot and 4-foot. The 2-foot is ideal for household use. A household wishing to enhance the capture of larvae can operate a 2-foot unit alongside a mesophilic bin. The 4-foot is designed for small-scale commercial use. This larger unit can handle up to 40 kg’s of waste per day.

    The liquids draining from the bottom of the biopod should be allowed to flow into a bed of dry biomass. Biochar and effective micro-organisms can be added to the biomass. The drawing on the left shows a 4-foot biopod positioned on a mesophilic bin of a height of only 36 cm. The liquids that drain into the bin are never allowed to turn anaerobic. The mesophilic residue from this bin, rich in nitrogen, can later be incorporated into a thermophilic composting operation.

    From a third to a half of larval fresh weight can be processed into a dry meal that has roughly the same value as Menhaden fish meal valued at about $1,200 US dollars per ton. Of course, not all fresh weight converts into dry meal due to the moisture content of fresh larvae. Also, about 3% to 5% of the harvested larvae should not be processed and sold, or otherwise consumed. They should be stored under protected conditions until they emerge as adults. These adults should then be released into the wild so as to maintain an abundant population of egg-laying females.

    BSF technology is not in itself a total solution in the disposal of putrescent waste, due to the fact that larvae leave behind a small fraction of waste or residue. But BSF residue to the red worm is not a waste: it constitutes an ideal substrate. In fact red worms grow 2 to 3 times faster on BSF residue than on partially decomposed food waste. Professor Tran Tan Viet of the University of Forestry and Agriculture in HCMC has carefully studied the mutually beneficial relationship between BSF larvae and red worms in disposing of putrescent waste.

    BSF larvae digest fresh putrescent waste, something that red worms cannot do, and red worms digest the more recalcitrant cellulosic materials, something that larvae cannot do. Together they form a perfect partnership, recovering all possible nutrients. Red worm residue (or castings) constitutes one of the best growing mediums for plants. It effects an enormous reduction in the amount of fertilizer required to grow plants: 3
    A study in Connecticut (Lunt and Jacobson, 1944) reported worm castings increase the nutrient availability of the soil by 1.4 fold for calcium (Ca), 3.0 fold for magnesium (Mg), 11.2 fold for potassium (K), 7.4 fold for phosphorus, and 4.7 fold for nitrate-nitrogen (NO3–N).

    Red worms are commonly fed to shrimp in Vietnam to suppress disease. Chickens fed small quantities of red worms consume less feed and have a higher growth rate than chickens not receiving this supplement.3 Pigs in the wild thrive on insects and worms, and worms in the diets of pigs reduce the incidence of disease.

    Red worm castings sell in Vietnam for as much as $500 US dollars (10,000,000 VND) per ton. Therefore the contents of the mesophilic storage units acquire considerable value, if further processed by red worms. Mesophilic residue could be collected, shredded and processed by scavengers in small-scale vermi-composting facilities. Scavengers might even be forced to buy this residue from households, just as they now buy recyclables. Note that the city would not have to clean out mesophilic units or transport residue. Scavengers would do this based purely on the value of the mesophilic residue.

    Before concluding this section on BSF/red worm bioconversion, we must address doubts that some have expressed about the existence of BSF in Vietnam.
    As previously noted, BSF adults are far from being a pest, and because of their benign and unobtrusive behavior, they are not easily noticed. Most Vietnamese, when shown a picture of BSF adults or larvae, would say that they have never seen them before. Yet as any Vietnamese entomologist will readily confirm, they are present throughout Vietnam, from north to south, from hot tropical coastal areas to cool mountainous highlands.

    I have seen them in waste dumps and manure piles throughout the Mekong. They are abundant in every district of Ho Chi Minh City. I have even observed BSF larvae in a biopod set up on a second-floor patio of an apartment house in District 5. They are even present in Dalat at 1,500 meters above sea level.

    Right before Tet 2011, the Water Supply and Sanitation Project in Binh Dinh Province commissioned a study to verify the presence of BSF in Binh Dinh province. 4 Todd Hyman, who conducted the study, visited all of the dumpsites in four districts of the province. He had no problem finding and photographing BSF larvae and adults on all of these sites.

    If putrescent waste is made available to them under the right conditions, BSF larvae appear naturally from wild populations. In tropical areas, BSF larvae usually appear within 7 to 10 days. The manual seeding of a bin or pod with young larvae is normally not necessary.

    Essay by Dr. Paul Olivier

  • August27th

    We had taken hands and formed a circle around an earthen bowl of corn kernels, marvelous kernels with every color under the rainbow.  One by one, those of us in the circle, including children, spoke words directed toward the bowl before us: our hopes and blessings for the season.   Then, we each took a handful and began planting the lines of corn into the field.

    This is not a dream of what rural life once was, but a living memory of an experience I have had being part of the Granja Comunitaria Valle Pintado, where a group of families, supporting “members” of the farm, have been involved in constructing a project that hopes to renovate agriculture.  One of the members had spoken in that circle about how the corn is like us, how it needs many plants together for productive pollination, much like our efforts are enriched and fruitful when we are able work together for our common well-being.  

    This was a memory of a gathering day, like many on-farm themed days we have during the growing season, when the supporting members of the farm gather at Valle Pintado to take part in activities that correspond to the season.  Usually we share a meal together with the families who have come to the farm’s community kitchen, and perhaps stroll together through the gardens.  I, being the farmer responsible for carrying out the production on this farm, walk the families through, explaining to them challenges I might be facing, unexpected frosts that might have damaged our crops, or projects I am proud of like showing them some of the successes of propagating heirloom tomatoes of different colors and shapes… everyone licks their lips, knowing that the day those tomatoes ripen it will arrive in their weekly harvest share boxes.

    The day to day work on the farm is carried out by myself and a group of volunteers that come from all places and walks of life, who in exchange for room and board work to serve our organic farming efforts.  Together we produce for the member families that support both financially and ethically how we cultivate the land.  The families provide up front capital for our production, providing liquidity even before the season begins, entrusting that we carry out the work out of a deep respect for the land.  We all depend on farming for our food, whether we are farmers or not, and this is a way that non-farmers can shoulder the often times risky and burdening work of the farmer on whom they depend.  Once vegetables are harvestable, the members are entitled to a weekly harvest box, where we harvest the vegetables available and divide them between the boxes that then go to town to a centralized pick up point where the supporting families can get their freshly-picked vegetables.

    The project exemplifies our efforts to carry out a model called “Agricultura Asociativa” that we believe could provide much needed renewal for the diverse, small farm everywhere.  Small farms are an endangered entity in these times of growing agribusiness.  The expansion of factory-style industrial agriculture has forged the way for a tremendous desarraigo of rural communities.   Their advance has come at social and environmental costs whose scope is too wide to address in this note.  I think it is better worth these words to honor the small farms, where diversity is celebrated both in the social and ecological sense.

    Yet small farms themselves need a makeover if they are going to make sense and be competitive with the advancement of these monstrous farms.  Somewhere along the way they met challenges in the advance of industrialism because farming was converted into yet another industry, when in fact it is not.  In other industries, production is a calculable closed loop, where given a fixed means one can produce a fixed product.  But farming has been unjustly restrained within the parameters of industry because in fact it is embedded in nature and cannot produce such a calculable output.  Whats-more, given the intensive land and capital needs to begin a farming operation, most small farmers would find themselves plagued by debts and mortgages and cannot afford the risks of farming.

    Often times I believe that modern consumerism has taught us that we are passive players in creating the realities we desire.  A hidden, powerful message however of the industrial era is that we can call realities into being by putting our money where we believe.  So if we buy a tomato on the shelf of the supermarket and we are not concerned about how it was grown or who grew it, we are favoring the production of tomatoes that will be inconsiderate of the land and the workers who produced it.  Agricultura Asociativa is about challenging the classic identity of the “consumer-producer” relationship.  Those who join an associative farm are not “consumers” in the classic sense; they are “members” because they are active participants in creating the ethical societies they believe in.  If we are talking about the importance of food sovereignty, is there nothing more important than knowing the source of your food?  Of knowing that you are sustaining the welfare of a farmer?

    The establishment of small associative farms around urbanized areas is a promising alternative to the imposition of agribusiness for democratic communities that determine their own destinies.  It offers fresh, healthy food for the population and localized support for the ailing profession of farmers of ecologically diverse farms.  Sustaining diverse farms is fundamental for forging resilient communities; small farms maintain the ability to buffer dramatic changes in climate or sudden outbreaks of pests or plagues that would otherwise wipe out extensions dedicated to a single crop like industrial-style monocropping.  While an unusually cool, wet year, for example, might wipe out a crop of garlic, other crops like lettuce proliferate – there is never too much of a loss.

    Finally, the renovation of community-based agriculture offers the opportunity for the renewal of regional cultural identity.  Community interest in agriculture links people to the transformation of nature through the seasons as we live it through the farm entity, the opportunity to gather, whether it be to honor the harvest of the season of abundance, or plant our hopes as the planting season begins.  Gathering together at times that are significant for a community helps us to identify and reaffirm with what is important to us and what is unique to our region.

    The corn we were planting that spring at Granja Valle Pintado was a variety of mountain corn, resistant to the cold, offering a valuable food source for a region that can’t grow many other kinds of corn.  It is a variety I have saved seed from for nearly a decade.  Each time I select the corn I will save seed from I think of the long line of ancestors who also did the same to create the corn I greet today, and I reflect that my decisions today selecting the corn will be passed down to future generations.  Corns like these are continually being threatened by the advance of transgenic corn, which has been developed for machine and chemical agriculture.  Our corn is made up of many colors, like the social and ecological diversity we embrace on our community farm, and the hope we plant for future generations of self-determining societies.

    – Alex Edleson, Granjero Comunitario, July 2011

    Visit the website at www.granjavallepintado.org

  • August22nd

    A Growing Culture

    Dear Friends of AGC,

    This letter is marking the six-month anniversary of A Growing Culture’s online launch and seeks to update our friends and family as to the progress of AGC.  We have been growing at a steady rate with site visits totaling almost 20,000 in 6 months from people all over the world. We are actively recruiting graduate students to share their research, while encouraging global farmers and educators to share their ideas, techniques and stories.  Our posts on Facebook and Twitter have had a profound impact on AGC’s development, with new people connecting each day. What started as a grassroots initiative amongst friends and peers in North Carolina has turned into a credible source of information with writers from four continents!

    As some of you may have noticed from following our site, we do not want to limit our target audience to just farmers and professors, as we would also like to include those with a growing interest or passion for the eco agriculture movement.  Consequently, some of our content is scientific and technique based, while some is simply entertaining and educational in an effort to help those not directly connected to eco agriculture, make better decisions in support of a sustainable food system.  We have incorporated in North Carolina as a non-profit and have recently finished working with an attorney and accountant to file our federal papers, which are pending approval as we speak. Once we become a tax deductible charity, we believe that we will receive more generous donations; but in the meantime, we have been getting by with the charitable actions of our friends and family who have devoted their time through editing, writing, designing, or helping to spread the word about AGC.  It is our hope that, when we are granted 501c3 status, A Growing Culture’s public resources and global impact will greatly increase.

    Our goals over the next year include:

    •  Revamp the site layout to have a more attractive homepage that accurately depicts the mission of AGC while feeling less like a blog
    •  Launch our forum
    • Create a virtual map of ecological farms around the world, with access to pictures, contact info, and essays about each participating farm
    • Start a ‘heroes’ section highlighting figures around the world who are fighting for the progression and acceptance of ecological agriculture.
    • Develop our inspiration section to incorporate more and more books with Amazon bookstore links for easy purchase.
    • Advertising in agricultural publications and websites
    • Launch an AGC ‘projects’ section of the site where we document international AGC based projects
    • Recruit more faculty and graduate students to share their research at AGC
    • Incorporate an up-to-date instructional photo and video gallery through our site of ecological farms and practices
    • Network with teachers and educators to find out how AGC can be integrated into the classroom

    It is important to note, however, that we could not have done any of this without our friends and family, and are very grateful to those that believed in A Growing Culture as much as we did.  We want to thank you all for your help, both directly and indirectly, as you have all influenced AGC’s initiation and growth.  AGC is designed to be shared.  We believe in the free exchange of ideas, as the views of farmers and advocates are just as important as professors and scientists. We encourage anyone who wants to contribute to AGC and share their knowledge to do so! From composting to grazing, all subjects related to Eco Agriculture are accepted.  We want AGC to grow and develop into a global community that runs itself on the excitement of contributors throughout the world.  We want to increase our impact each year with the steady flow of quality contentas well as the addition of the resources listed above.  With over 60 pieces in 6 months, imagine the potential database that could be created in another year, or five years! We do hope that if you know someone who may be interested in AGC or contributing information to the growing collection that you would pass the site along

    We want those that contribute to feel as though they are an integral part of AGC. Please use the site to promote your projects, business, and beliefs. Share your knowledge, learn from others, and we will make an impact! This is a dialogue, so if you just want to stop by and read a piece on your area of interest; please do. We want A Growing Culture to be accessible to everyone, read it over breakfast or use it in the classroom. There is strength in numbers and we wholeheartedly believe that together we can push ideas that will lead to a new agricultural reform—one that closes the gap between consumer and producer, one that respects nature, one that minimizes inputs while maximizing outputs, one that provides the public with access to real, healthy, nutritional food, and most importantly, one that improves the quality of life for farmers around the world. LETS GROW.


    Loren Cardeli and Asher Wright

  • August18th

    bacteriaA wide array of microorganisms live in a compost pile. Bacteria are especially abundant and are usually divided into several classes based upon the temperatures at which they best thrive. The low temperature bacteria are the psychrophiles, which can grow at temperatures down to -100C, but whose optimum temperature is 150C (590F) or lower. The mesophiles live at medium temperatures, 20-450C (68-1130F), and include human pathogens. Thermophiles thrive above 450C (1130F), and some live at, or even above, the boiling point of water.

    Strains of thermophilic bacteria have been identified with optimum temperatures ranging from 550C to an incredible 1050C (above the boiling point of water), and many temperatures in between.20 The strains that survive at extremely high temperatures are called, appropriately enough, extreme thermophiles, or hyper- thermophiles, and have a temperature optimum of 800C (1760F) or higher. Thermophilic bacteria occur naturally in hot springs, tropical soils, compost heaps, in your excrement, in hot water heaters (both domestic and industrial), and in your garbage, to name a few places.   Thermophilic bacteria were first isolated in 1879 by Miquel, who found bacteria capable of developing at 720C (1620F). He found these bacteria in soil, dust, excrement, sewage, and river mud. It wasn’t long afterward that a variety of thermophilic bacteria were discovered in soil — bacteria that readily thrived at high temperatures, but not at room temperature. These bacteria are said to be found in the sands of the Sahara Desert, but not in the soil of cool forests. Composted or manured garden soils may contain 1-10 percent thermophilic types of bacteria, while field soils may have only 0.25% or less. Uncultivated soils may be entirely free of thermophilic bacteria.22

    Thermophiles are responsible for the spontaneous heating of hay stacks which can cause them to burst into flame. Compost itself can sometimes spontaneously combust. This occurs in larger piles (usually over 12 feet high) that become too dry (between 25% and 45% moisture) and then overheat.23 Spontaneous fires have started at two American composting plants — Schenectady and Cape May — due to excessively dry compost. According to the EPA, fires can start at surprisingly low temperatures (1940F) in too-dry compost, although this is not a problem for the backyard composter. When growing on bread, thermophiles can raise the temperature of the bread to 740C (1650F). Heat from bacteria also warms germinating seeds, as seeds in a sterile environment are found to remain cool while germinating.24

    Both mesophilic and thermophilic microorganisms are found widely distributed in nature and are commonly resident on food material, garbage and manures. This is not surprising for mesophiles because the temperatures they find to be optimum for their reproduction are commonly found in nature. These temperatures include those of warm-blooded animals, which excrete mesophiles in their stools in huge numbers.

    A mystery presents itself, on the other hand, when we consider thermophilic microorganisms, since they prefer living at temperatures not commonly found in nature, such as hot springs, water heaters and compost piles. Their preference for hot temperatures has given rise to some speculation about their evolution. One theory suggests that the thermophiles were among the first living things on this planet, developing and evolving during the primordial birthing of the Earth when surface temperatures were quite hot. They have thus been called the “Universal Ancestor.” Estimated at 3.6 billion years old, they are said to be so abundant as to “comprise as much as half of all living things on the planet.” 25 This is a rather profound concept, as it would mean that thermophilic organisms are perhaps more ancient than any other living thing. Their age would make dinosaurs look like new-born babes still wet behind the ears, however extinct. Of course, we humans, in comparison, have just shown up on Earth. Thermophiles could therefore be the common ancestral organism of all life forms on our planet.

    Just as extraordinary is the concept that thermophiles, despite their need for a hot environment, are found everywhere. They’re lingering in your garbage and in your stool and have been since we humans first began to crawl on this planet. They have quietly waited since the beginning of time, and we haven’t been aware of them until recently. Researchers insist that thermophiles do not grow at ambient or room temperatures.26 Yet, like a miracle, when we collect our organic refuse in a tidy pile, the thermophiles seem to be sparked out of their dormant slumber to work furiously toward creating the primordial heat they so desire. And they succeed — if we help them by creating compost piles. They reward us for our help by converting our garbage and other organic discards into life-sustaining earth.

    The knowledge of living creatures incomprehensibly ancient, so small as to be entirely invisible, thriving at temperatures hotter than those normally found in nature, and yet found alive everywhere, is remarkable enough. The fact that they are so willing to work for our benefit, however, is rather humbling.

    By some estimates, humanure contains up to a trillion (1,000,000,000,000) bacteria per gram.27 These are, of course, mixed species, and not by any means all thermophiles. A trillion bacteria is equivalent to the entire human population of the Earth multiplied by 166, and all squeezed into a gram of organic material. These microbiological concepts of size and number are difficult for us humans to grasp. Ten people crammed into an elevator we can understand. A trillion living organisms in a teaspoonful of crap is a bit mind-boggling.

    Has anyone identified the species of microorganism that heats up compost? Actually, a large variety of species, a biodiversity, is critical to the success of compost. However, the thermophilic stage of the process is dominated by thermophilic bacteria. One examination of compost microorganisms at two compost plants showed that most of the bacteria (87%) were of the genus Bacillus, which are bacteria that form spores,28 while another researcher found that above 650C, the organisms in the compost were almost purely Bacillus stearothermophilus.29


    There is a huge difference between a backyard humanure composter and a municipal composter. Municipal composters handle large batches of organic materials all at once, while backyard com- posters continuously produce a small amount of organic material every day. Municipal composters, therefore, are “batch” composters, while backyard composters tend to be “continuous” composters. When organic material is composted in a batch, four distinct stages of the composting process are apparent. Although the same phases occur during continuous composting, they are not as apparent as they are in a batch, and in fact they may be occurring concurrently rather than sequentially.

    The four phases include: 1) the mesophilic phase; 2) the thermophilic phase; 3) the cooling phase; and 4) the curing phase.

    Compost bacteria combine carbon with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and energy. Some of the energy is used by the microorganisms for reproduction and growth; the rest is given off as When a pile of organic refuse begins to undergo the composting process, mesophilic bacteria proliferate, raising the temperature of the composting mass up to 440C (1110F). This is the first stage of the composting process. These mesophilic bacteria can include E. coli and other bacteria from the human intestinal tract, but these soon become increasingly inhibited by the temperature, as the thermophilic bacteria take over in the transition range of 440C-520C (1110F-125.60F).

    This begins the second stage of the process, when thermophilic microorganisms are very active and produce a lot of heat. This stage can then continue to about 700C (1580F),30 although such high temperatures are neither common nor desirable in backyard compost. This heating stage takes place rather quickly and may last only a few days, weeks or months. It tends to remain localized in the upper portion of a backyard compost bin where the fresh material is being added; whereas in batch compost, the entire composting mass may be thermophilic all at once.

    After the thermophilic heating period, the humanure will appear to have been digested, but the coarser organic material will not. This is when the third stage of composting, the cooling phase, takes place. During this phase, the microorganisms that were chased away by the thermophiles migrate back into the compost and get to work digesting the more resistant organic materials. Fungi and macroorganisms such as earthworms and sowbugs also break the coarser elements down into humus.

    After the thermophilic stage has been completed, only the readily available nutrients in the organic material have been digested. There’s still a lot of food in the pile, and a lot of work to be done by the creatures in the compost. It takes many months to break down some of the more resistant organic materials in compost such as “lignin,” which comes from wood materials. Like humans, trees have evolved with a skin that is resistant to bacterial attack, and in a com- post pile these lignins resist breakdown by thermophiles. However, other organisms, such as fungi, can break down lignin, given enough time; since many fungi don’t like the heat of thermophilic compost, they simply wait for things to cool down before beginning their job.

    The final stage of the composting process is called the curing, aging or maturing stage, and it is a long and important one. Commercial composting professionals often want to make their com- post as quickly as possible, usually sacrificing the compost’s curing time. One municipal compost operator remarked that if he could shorten his compost time to four months, he could make three batches of compost a year instead of only the two he was then making, thereby increasing his output by 50%. Municipal composters see truckloads of compost coming in to their facilities daily, and they want to make sure they don’t get inundated with organic material waiting to be composted. Therefore, they feel a need to move their material through the composting process as quickly as possible to make room for the new stuff. Household composters don’t have that problem, although there seem to be plenty of backyard composters who are obsessed with making compost as quickly as possible. However, the curing of the compost is a critically important stage of the compost-making process.

    A long curing period, such as a year after the thermophilic stage, adds a safety net for pathogen destruction. Many human pathogens have only a limited period of viability in the soil, and the longer they are subjected to the microbiological competition of the compost pile, the more likely they will die a swift death.

    Immature or uncured compost can produce substances called phytotoxins that are toxic to plants. It can also rob the soil of oxygen and nitrogen and can contain high levels of organic acids. So relax, sit back, put your feet up, and let your compost reach full maturity before you even think about using it.


    Compost is normally populated by three general categories of microorganisms: bacteria, actinomycetes and fungi (see Figure 3.3 and Table 3.6). It is primarily the bacteria, and specifically the thermophilic bacteria, that create the heat of the compost pile.

    Although considered bacteria, actinomycetes are effectively intermediates between bacteria and fungi because they look similar to fungi and have similar nutritional preferences and growth habits. They tend to be more commonly found in the later stages of compost, and are generally thought to follow the thermophilic bacteria in succession. They, in turn, are followed predominantly by fungi during the last stages of the composting process.

    There are at least 100,000 known species of fungi, the over- whelming majority of them being microscopic.31 Most fungi cannot grow at 500C because it’s too hot, although thermophilic fungi are heat tolerant. Fungi tend to be absent in compost above 600C and actinomycetes tend to be absent above 700C. Above 820C biological activity effectively stops (extreme thermophiles are not found in compost).32

    To get an idea of the microbial diversity normally found in nature, consider this: a teaspoon of native grassland soil contains 600- 800 million bacteria comprising 10,000 species, plus perhaps 5,000 species of fungi, the mycelia of which could be stretched out for several miles. In the same teaspoon, there may be 10,000 individual protozoa of perhaps 1,000 species, plus 20-30 different nematodes from as many as 100 species. Sounds crowded to me. Obviously, good compost will reinoculate depleted, sanitized, chemicalized soils with a wide variety of beneficial microorganisms (see Figures 3.4 and 3.5).33

    Figure 3.3


    A frequent question is, “How do you know that all parts of your compost pile have been subjected to high enough temperatures to kill all potential pathogens?” The answer should be obvious: you don’t. You never will. Unless, of course, you examine every cubic centimeter of your compost for pathogens in a laboratory. This would probably cost many thousands of dollars, which would make your compost the most expensive in history.

    It’s not only the heat of the compost that causes the destruction of human, animal and plant pathogens, it’s a combination of factors, including:

    • competition for food from compost microorganisms;
    • inhibition and antagonism by compost microorganisms;
    • consumption by compost organisms;
    • biological heat generated by compost microorganisms; and
    • antibiotics produced by compost microorganisms.

    For example, when bacteria were grown in an incubator with- out compost at 500C and separately in compost at 500C, they died in the compost after only seven days, but lived in the incubator for seventeen days. This indicated that it is more than just temperature that determines the fate of pathogenic bacteria. The other factors listed above undoubtedly affect the viability of non-indigenous microorganisms, such as human pathogens, in a compost pile. Those factors require as large and diverse a microbial population as possible, which is best achieved by temperatures below 600C (1400F). One researcher states that, “Significant reductions in pathogen numbers have been observed in compost piles which have not exceeded 400C [1040F].” 34

    There is no doubt that the heat produced by thermophilic bacteria kills pathogenic microorganisms, viruses, bacteria, protozoa, worms and eggs that may inhabit humanure. A temperature of 500C (1220 F), if maintained for twenty-four hours, is sufficient to kill all of the pathogens, according to some sources (this issue is covered in Chapter Seven). A lower temperature will take longer to kill pathogens. A temperature of 460C (1150F) may take nearly a week to kill pathogens completely; a higher temperature may take only minutes. What we have yet to determine is how low those temperatures can be and still achieve satisfactory pathogen elimination. Some researchers insist that all pathogens will die at ambient temperatures (normal air temperature) given enough time.

    When Westerberg and Wiley composted sewage sludge which had been inoculated with polio virus, Salmonella, roundworm eggs, and Candida albicans, they found that a compost temperature of 47- 550C (116-1300F) maintained for three days killed all of these pathogens.35 This phenomenon has been confirmed by many other researchers, including Gotaas, who indicates that pathogenic organ- isms are unable to survive compost temperatures of 55-600C (131- 1400F) for more than thirty minutes to one hour.36 The first goal in composting humanure, therefore, should be to create a compost pile that will heat sufficiently to kill potential human pathogens that may be found in the manure.

    Nevertheless, the heat of the compost pile is a highly lauded characteristic of compost that can be a bit overblown at times. People may believe that it’s only the heat of the compost pile that destroys pathogens, so they want their compost to become as hot as possible. This is a mistake. In fact, compost can become too hot, and when it does, it destroys the biodiversity of the microbial community. As one scientist states, “Research has indicated that temperature is not the only mechanism involved in pathogen suppression, and that the employment of higher than necessary temperatures may actually constitute a barrier to effective sanitization under certain circumstances.” 37

    Perhaps only one species (e.g., Bacillus stearothermophilus) may dominate the compost pile during periods of excessive heat, thereby driving out or outright killing the other inhabitants of the compost, which include fungi and actinomycetes as well as the bigger organisms that you can actually see. A compost pile that is too hot can destroy its own biological community and leave a mass of organic material that must be repopulated in order to continue the necessary conversion of organic matter to humus. Such sterilized compost is more likely to be colonized by unwanted microorganisms, such as Salmonella. Researchers have shown that the biodiversity of compost acts as a barrier to colonization by such unwanted microorganisms as Salmonella. In the absence of a biodiverse “indigenous flora,” such as caused by sterilization due to excess heat, Salmonella were able to regrow.38

    The microbial biodiversity of compost is also important because it aids in the breakdown of the organic material. For example, in high-temperature compost (800C), only about 10% of sewage sludge solids could be decomposed in three weeks, whereas at 50- 600C, 40% of the sludge solids were decomposed in only seven days. The lower temperatures apparently allowed for a richer diversity of living things which in turn had a greater effect on the degradation of the organic matter. One researcher indicates that optimal decomposition rates occur in the 55-590C (131-1390F) temperature range, and optimal thermophilic activity occurs at 550C (1310F), which are both adequate temperatures for pathogen destruction.39 A study conducted in 1955 at Michigan State University, however, indicated that optimal decomposition occurs at an even lower temperature of 450C (1130F).40 Another researcher asserts that maximum biodegradation occurs at 45-550C (113-1310F), while maximum microbial diversity requires a temperature range of 35-450C (95-1130F).41 Apparently, there is still some degree of flexibility in these estimates, as the science of “compost microhusbandry” is not an utterly precise one at this time. Control of excessive heat, however, is probably not a concern for the backyard composter.

    Some thermophilic actinomycetes, as well as mesophilic bacteria, produce antibiotics that display considerable potency toward other bacteria and yet exhibit low toxicity when tested on mice. Up to one half of thermophilic strains can produce antimicrobial com- pounds, some of which have been shown to be effective against E. coli and Salmonella. One thermophilic strain with an optimum growth temperature of 500C produces a substance that “significantly aided the healing of infected surface wounds in clinical tests on human subjects. The product(s) also stimulated growth of a variety of cell types, including various animal and plant tissue cultures and unicellular algae.” 42 The production of antibiotics by compost microorganisms theoretically assists in the destruction of human pathogens that may have existed in the organic material before composting.

    Even if every speck of the composting material is not subject-ed to the high internal temperatures of the compost pile, the process of thermophilic composting nevertheless contributes immensely toward the creation of a sanitary organic material. Or, in the words of one group of composting professionals, “The high temperatures achieved during composting, assisted by the competition and antagonism among the microorganisms [i.e., biodiversity], considerably reduce the number of plant and animal pathogens. While some resistant pathogenic organ- isms may survive and others may persist in cooler sections of the pile, the dis- ease risk is, nevertheless, greatly reduced.” 43

    If a backyard composter has any doubt or concern about the existence of pathogenic organisms in his or her humanure compost, s/he can use the compost for horticultural purposes rather than for food purposes. Humanure compost can grow an amazing batch of berries, flowers, bushes, or trees. Furthermore, lingering pathogens continue to die after the compost has been applied to the soil, which is not surprising since human pathogens prefer the warm and moist environment of the human body. As the World Bank researchers put it, “even pathogens remaining in compost seem to disappear rapidly in the soil.” [Night Soil Composting, 1981] Finally, compost can be tested for pathogens by compost testing labs.

    “Another point most folks don’t realize is that no compost and no soil are completely pathogen free. You really don’t want it to be completely pathogen free, because you always want the defense mechanism to have something to practice on. So a small number of disease-causing organisms is desirable. But that’s it.” 44 Pathogens are said to have “minimum infective doses,” which vary widely from one type of pathogen to another, meaning that a number of pathogens are necessary in order to initiate an infection. The idea, therefore, that compost must be sterile is incorrect. It must be sanitary, which means it must have a greatly weakened, reduced or destroyed pathogen population.

    In reality, the average backyard composter usually knows whether his or her family is healthy or not. Healthy families have little to be concerned about and can feel confident that their thermophilic compost can be safely returned to the soil, provided the simple instructions in this book are followed regarding compost temperatures and retention times, as discussed in Chapter Seven. On the other hand, there will always be those people who are fecophobic, and who will never be convinced that humanure compost is safe. These people are not likely to compost their humanure anyway, so who cares?

  • August9th

    GranaryAfrican art is not based on a single tradition. It is influence by the traditions of many diverse cultures, all of which have their own way of doing things depending on their social, economic and geographic location.  Similarly, homesteads across the nation consist of different structures that serve divergent purposes, such as cooking, eating, sleeping, protecting animals at night and storing food. African people build homesteads in different shapes depending on the experience and culture of the people.  

    In my opinion, since its ancestral beginnings, Kenya’s art and architecture has undergone many transformations. One traditional structure still in use is the storage facility. No one knows its history, but people give credit to their forefathers for its conception.  In the remote lowlands of Kerio-Valley, Kenya, a mixed farming community of the Kalenjin tribe, a sub-tribe, known as the Tugen, still stake claim to one of the oldest granaries still in use.  It is called “The Traditional Granary,” known as “choge” in the local language.  Here are two similar granaries still owned by the community, one for food storage and seed saving; the other for sleeping.

    granariesBoth are raised, but are distinguished by the placement of the door. Sleeping granaries were designed by farmers who practice mixed farming and live with their animals near grazing fields.  In the granary for sleeping, the door is positioned on the bottom of the floor. This is to prevent mosquitoes entering inside for a bite at night, and the people believe this as an effective way to prevent malaria, a rampant, killer disease in the area. The sleeping granary is slightly higher to allow room for cooking and eating as inside the granary there is only bedding for sleeping. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus instead on the granary used as a storage facility.

    Visiting Mrs. Linah Kobilo’s homestead, it is clear that the traditional granary still plays a vital role in food storage. At 52 years old with a family of 6, and two granaries in her homestead, Mrs. Linah Kobilo is one of the leading organic farmers in the Kapchelonge village. As she climbed inside the granary to remove some millet for flour, she revealed that, since she was young, traditional granaries have been the primary means of food storage and have the capacity to keep food for more than 5 years.  The granary is revered by Kenyan communities and considered an important structure for every homestead. According to Mrs. Linah the granary is a representation of a farmer’s strength and wealth, as it indicates that a farmer is hardworking and can provide food and security for the family.  In contrast, an empty granary signifies laziness.  The granary is also advantageous to any man who wants to marry, as a full granary demonstrates his hard work and intent to provide for his family.

    A traditional granary is a round, walled shaped structure about 8ft high, raised 1 metre above the ground.  The roof is conical in shape. It is built using locally available materials such as grass, poles, rafters, mud, cow dung and ash.  Typically, the granary is located 4 metres away from the main house.  It can be scaled down and built to adapt various storage requirements, inputs and harvests.  In her 5-acre land, Mrs. Kobilo practices mixed farming; growing maize, beans, cowpeas, groundnuts, pumpkin, sorghum and millet. She has a large number of fruit trees and keeps indigenous breeds of poultry and other livestock. Maize and millet are an everyday food source, and she grinds it to produce flour for making “ugali,” a delicacy that is highly nutritious in carbohydrates and eaten with all kind of vegetables, meat, and milk.

    According to Mrs. Kobilo, construction requires “a well experienced, skilled craftsman who does not require a tool box, but needs to be guided by wisdom and experience.”  However, she added that the construction relies on both genders.  The role of a man is to assemble the building materials and spearhead construction, and a woman to prepare the inside of the granary.  The man must collect materials like poles, rafters, and rope from preferred indigenous species such as Acacia Mellifera, Dichrostachys Cinerea, Bridelia Micrantha, Dalbergia Arbutifolia, Prunus Africana, and Olea Capensis.  Once he lays the foundation and completes construction, he finishes his task by thatching the roof with a special tall grass.  To prepare the inside of the granary, the woman must collect grass, prepare mud, mix it with cow dung, and ash.  This mixture is then smeared on the inside wall and floor to smooth the surface of the granary and repel pests.

    Since they are so highly valued, granaries are also built to last.  Though the grasses used to thatch the roof are perishable, one needs only to add another layer when new produce is harvested and re-smear the floor and walls. The roofing and poles used are from dense specially selected trees, which cannot be destroyed by termites and other pests.  Communities have also established regulations to protect granaries.  For example, it is taboo to burn or destroy a granary.  Stealing from a small-scale farmer’s granary is also forbidden, and Mrs. Linah revealed that a known thief will face dire consequences.

    GranaryMore than anything, however, granaries help the small-scale farmer survive in a climate that is not always conducive to growth. With rainfall below 900 mm annually, the area is prone to severe drought and the typical small-scale farmer will face many challenges if he does not plan well.  Without adequate storage of food and seeds, hunger is inevitable. Thus, it is crucial for each homestead to store abundant food in order to prepare for future unpredictable conditions.

    According to the National Cereals and Produce Board of Kenya (NCPB), there is a deficit of 1.3 million metric tonnes of maize needed to feed the hungry in the country.  Yet, Mrs. Linah is not wary of constant reports from the media, non-governmental organizations and government, warning about the necessity of food shortage.  With her granary, Mrs. Linah has made sure that enough food is stored for her family till next harvesting season. She also saves seeds, which she hangs on the roof of the granary after a careful selection from the healthier and strongest plants. The conservation of selected seeds enhances the genetic potential of crops, saving specific varieties of millet, sorghum, pumpkin and maize favourable to harsh climatic conditions as well as being self-reliant for each planting season.

    In addition, the traditional granary significantly reduces insect infestation and mildew losses for the small-scale farmer.  Mrs. Linah says, “Though the produce is placed in the floor, it is hard for the disastrous grain weevil of Sitophilus granaries to attack the grain.” Its eggs are deposited inside the grain kernels, nicknamed “Osama” by the locals. She burns neem tree for ash and sprinkles the cereals as a preventive measure.  The granary floor and wall is also smeared with mud mixed with cow dung and ash as a repellent to insects and pests. The granary is then closed for a number of days afterwards for fumigation and disinfecting purposes.

    Drying of the harvests in a hot sunny day of 25-30° C helps not only to prevent insect attack, but also to reduce moisture content. . High moistures cause contamination of grains resulting in Aflatoxins that are highly damaging to the liver when consumed. The contamination can occur before or after harvests and when drying is delayed or not done adequately. A poor storage facility encourages contamination of stored grains mostly influenced by factors varying with the geographical conditions of a particular area. Without the aid of UV light, it is hard to detect the contamination, and small-scale farmer often doubt that their hard-earned produce is affected.

    In order to protect her granary, Mrs.Linah has created an enclosure that serves as a protection for both the granary and her sheep. While most farmers keep their harvests inside their houses for theft reasons, she says the inclusion of the sheep can act as a remedy and a signal. One of the sheep is fitted with a bell around her neck, and if there is any commotion, Mrs. Linah will be alerted. To prevent rodents, she has tamed 3 cats that keep watch over the granary (notice the white and black cat in the picture below lying beneath the granary). She sells the cereals at the price depending on the demand, 1kg of maize fetches ksh.50, while 1kg of millet earns her ksh.80 for an income.

    GranaryWhile food shortages continue to plague the country, Mrs. Linah has the answer—traditional granaries. She believes that the traditional granary can be used as a tool to fight hunger and allows farmers to save seeds.  This is particularly helpful because of the unpredictable climate conditions in Kenya today.  Mrs. Linah wants to increase small-scale farmers’ awareness of the traditional granary, as she feels that its importance should not be underestimated, because it is effective, simple, a cheap, and a way of saving food for the family, and the long term services offered by the granary storage. She advocates for the traditional granary as a solution to fighting hunger in a homestead.

    Essay by Dan Kiprop

  • August4th

    CompostOne way to understand the blend of ingredients in your compost pile is by using the C/N ratio (carbon/nitrogen ratio). Quite frankly, the chance of the average person measuring and monitoring the carbon and nitrogen quantities of her organic material is almost nil. If composting required this sort of drudgery, no one would do it.

    However, by using all of the organic refuse a family produces, including humanure, urine, food refuse, weeds from the garden, and grass clippings, with some materials from the larger agricultural community such as a little straw or hay, and maybe some rotting saw- dust or some collected leaves from the municipality, one can get a good mix of carbon and nitrogen for successful thermophilic com- posting.   

    A good C/N ratio for a compost pile is between 20/1 and 35/1.  That’s 20 parts of carbon to one part of nitrogen, up to 35 parts of carbon to one part of nitrogen. Or, for simplicity, you can figure on shooting for an optimum 30/1 ratio.

    For microorganisms, carbon is the basic building block of life and is a source of energy, but nitrogen is also necessary for such things as proteins, genetic material and cell structure. For a balanced diet, microorganisms that digest compost need about 30 parts of carbon for every part of nitrogen they consume. If there’s too much nitrogen, the microorganisms can’t use it all and the excess is lost in the form of smelly ammonia gas. Nitrogen loss due to excess nitrogen in a compost pile (a low C/N ratio) can be over 60%. At a C/N ratio of 30 or 35 to 1, only one half of one percent of the nitrogen will be lost (see Table 3.1). That’s why you don’t want too much nitrogen in your compost — the nitrogen will be lost to the air in the form of ammonia gas, and nitrogen is too valuable for plants to allow it to escape into the atmosphere.17

    That’s also why humanure and urine alone will not compost. They contain too much nitrogen and not enough carbon, and microorganisms, like humans, gag at the thought of eating it. Since there’s nothing worse than the thought of several billion gagging microorganisms, a carbon-based material must be added to the humanure in order to make it into an appealing dinner. Plant cellu- lose is a carbon-based material, and therefore plant by-products such as hay, straw, weeds or even paper products if ground to the proper consistency, will provide the needed carbon. Kitchen food scraps are generally C/N balanced, and they can be readily added to humanure compost. Sawdust (preferably not kiln-dried) is a good carbon material for balancing the nitrogen of humanure.

    Sawmill sawdust has a moisture content of 40-65%, which is good for compost.

    Lumber yard sawdust, on the other hand, is kiln- dried and is biologically inert due to dehydration. Therefore, it is not as desirable in compost unless rehydrated with water (or urine) before being added to the compost pile. Also, lumber yard sawdust nowadays can often be contaminated with wood preservatives such as chromated copper arsenate (from “pressure treated lumber”). Both chromium and arsenic are human carcinogens, so it would be wise to avoid such lumber — now banned by the EPA.

    Some backyard composters refer to organic materials as “browns” and “greens.” The browns (such as dried leaves) supply carbon, and the greens (such as fresh grass clippings) supply nitrogen. It’s recommended that two to three volumes of browns be mixed with one volume of greens in order to produce a mix with the correct C/N ratio for composting. However, since most backyard composters are not humanure composters, many have a pile of material sitting in their compost bin showing very little activity. What is usually missing is nitrogen as well as moisture, two critical ingredients to any compost pile. Both of these are provided by humanure when collected with urine and a carbon cover material. The humanure mix can be quite brown, but is also quite high in nitrogen. So the “brown/green” approach doesn’t really work, nor is it necessary, when composting humanure along with other household organic material. Let’s face it, humanure composters are in a class by themselves.

    Part Two in a series by Joe Jenkins

  • August1st

    scavengerIf bio-waste is stored and processed on site, and is not commingled with other types of residential waste, then it becomes a lot easier for scavengers to hand sort and recover recyclables. Both the quantity and quality of recyclables recovered by scavengers will greatly increase.

    Since no large company, private or public, has ever been able to compete with scavengers in the recycling of residential waste in Vietnam, it would be unwise to exclude their involvement in any proposal to dispose and recycle residential waste(1). The lady referred to in the introduction is, no doubt as you guessed, a scavenger (see here her picture). Scavengers are the only people in Vietnam who know how to make money in the initial collection of raw waste from households. Scavengers who work landfills do not have to buy waste, and therefore they can make as much as 100,000 VND or $5.00 USD per day.

    Even though local government should pay nothing to scavengers for fulfilling their task, local government can empower scavengers in a variety of ways:  

    1. by protecting them from mafia middlemen who typically exploit their labor;
    2. by encouraging them to form cooperatives free of middleman control;
    3. by helping them to negotiate and obtain the highest prices for their recyclables;
    4. by equipping them with gloves, face masks and other safety equipment;
    5. by monitoring their health, especially their exposure to toxic substances;
    6. by leveling fines on households co-mingling food waste with everything else;
    7. by granting tax incentives to companies manufacturing goods from recyclables recovered by scavengers;
    8. by restricting the import of recycled materials into Vietnam that undermine the scavenger economy;
    9. by providing scavengers with carts that would allow them to transport waste with ease and efficiency;
    10. by greatly expanding the scope of their activities;
    11. and most importantly, by continually celebrating their status as the champions and heroes of the entire recycling effort in Vietnam.

    Only by empowering scavengers, greatly expanding the scope of their activities and maximizing their profitability, will a sound micro-economic base be created that permits virtually all household waste to be recycled properly. The definition of the word “scavenger” has to be expanded to include many people who would not normally fall into this category.

    If bio-waste is source-separated and processed in mesophilic bins, scavengers should be able to recover well over half of the remaining waste. Only a small percentage of the residential waste stream remains.

    The first step in processing this remaining waste would be to shred it to a grain size less than 60 mm. Shredding is needed to liberate organics from inorganics. This would be followed by screening at about 20 mm. The accordion screen is a flexible, non-blinding screen that is ideal for such waste applications. The plus-20 mm fraction would be separated manually by scavengers into two groups: organic and inorganic.

    seperatorThe minus-20 mm fraction, too small for hand separation, can be separated by means of a dense medium separator. These waste separators employ inexpensive sand in suspension as a separating medium(2).  The grain size of the sand situates between 15 and 50 microns. These separators operate at a density of 1.6, neatly separating the minus 20 mm fraction into organic and inorganic fractions. Some of these separators are quite big and can process up to 80 tons per hour. They have been installed at some of the largest recycling centers in the world, both in Europe and the USA.

    We propose that the two inorganic fractions, plus and minus 20 mm, be crushed and screened into a low-grade aggregate, and that the two organic fractions, plus and minus 20 mm, be incinerated or routed to cement kilns.

    Some waste management authorities in Vietnam argue strongly in favor of incineration as a single grand technology targeting all waste. But why incinerate food waste and other types of bio-waste of a high moisture content? How can anyone argue in favor of incinerating water? Likewise, how can anyone argue in favor of incinerating inorganic material such as glass and porcelain that contain not a single calorie? How can anyone argue in favor of incinerating problematic materials such as polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC)?

    The incineration of PVC produces dioxin, the active ingredient in Agent Orange, correctly labeled as one of the most deadly substances known to mankind(3). Incineration without separation is a mindless waste of money. It puts at risk the health of plant workers, and it inevitably does great damage to the surrounding environment.

    Incineration makes sense, therefore, only if it targets non-biodegradable, non-recyclable and non-toxic waste of a relatively high calorific value.

    At times the organic fraction isolated from municipal solid waste by means of these sand separators has a calorific value as high a 6,500 kcal/kg, and generally it is so clean (that is, free of mercury, lead, thallium, cadmium and so forth) that it can be routed to cement kilns as an alternative fuel. These dense medium separators are also used to isolate PVC from waste-derived fuels going to cement kilns. But in this instance, separations are made at a 1.25 density. At this density, PVC sinks, and almost all other organic materials float. These separators are also used to recover copper wire from waste-derived fuels. Copper catalyzes the formation of dioxin in cement kilns, and it must be accurately isolated and eliminated.

    HOLCIM in Vietnam has set up numerous recycling programs where various types of waste are routed to cement kilns.4 Making cement is a high-temperature process, and the residence time of materials in cement kilns is far longer than in incinerators. With their high temperatures and long residence times, cement kilns are quite effective in cracking and destroying many pollutants, including dioxin. Ash within cement kilns gets vitrified, is rendered inert and harmlessly remains within the cement.

    Unfortunately cement kiln operators tend to be quite selective in the quantity and type of waste that they want, and generally they do not accept all waste. Therefore there is always a niche that incineration should occupy within a sound waste management strategy. The most obvious use for incineration heat lies in power generation. Since incinerators would only receive waste of a relatively high calorific value, they would not have to utilize natural gas as a topping fuel in order to attain high operating temperatures. Unlike owners of coal-fired power stations, incinerator owners would pay nothing for fuel – in this case, a waste-derived fuel of a calorific value similar to that of many steam coals. In other words, the incineration of waste, within a framework of source separation, scavenger separation and dense medium separation, can easily become one of the most profitable means of generating electricity.

    Hopefully we are beginning to see that in the wise management of waste, there is no type of waste (with the exception, of course, of certain hazardous substances) that should be processed at a loss, and conversely, that there is no type of waste that cannot earn a profit. This will become much clearer as we go on.

    by Dr. Paul Olivier, Todd Hyman and Loren Cardeli

    The second installment in the series Making Waste our Greatest Resource.  Read the first installment here: The Small-Scale Production of Food, Fuel, Feed and Fertilizer

    (1) On the importance of scavengers throughout the world in the recycling of waste, please see:
    (2) This dense medium process is fully described at: http://www.esrla.com/pdf/separation.pdf
    (3) “The EPA makes no bones about the chemical’s potency, saying that dioxin, a known carcinogen, is the most deadly substance known to humankind.” See: www.myhouseisyourhouse.org/new_green_pdf/revolution.pdf
    (4) See for example: http://www.adidas-group.com/en/sustainability/Environment/case_studies/2007_waste_co_processing_vietnam.aspx

  • July27th

    Granja Las OndinasGranja las Ondinas (or Farm of the Fairies) is situated just after the immense urban sprawl of Buenos Aires finally gives way to the vast expanse of the seemingly interminable flatness of the Argentinean pampas. The surrounding agricultural land consists largely of hen-houses and soy fields, and if it were not for the occasional family of four riding a moped on the highway next to Las Ondinas, one could easily mistake the location for a typical scene straight out of the American Mid-West. However, this farm is far from typical or ordinary. It seems to exist between two worlds; the urban and the rural, the modern and the ancient, the celestial and the terrestrial.  

    The land itself measures roughly 40 acres in size and was purchased in 2004 by an older Argentinean couple named Eduardo and Lydia. They had read at great lengths the works of Rudolph Steiner, the founder of biodynamic agriculture, and decided that they had reached a stage of their lives where it was time to put into practice the theories they had come to hold as their own. They sought out a parcel of land that bore the scars and damage from earlier exploitation. What they inherited after deciding upon a location was a piece of property badly degraded from previous usage as a brick factory and later a soy bean farm. Most of the nutrients in the soil had been exhausted and depleted, but their knowledge of biodynamic agriculture had developed in them an appreciation for a type of farming, when approached from a holistic standpoint, that can actually be utilized to heal the land and restore its spirit.

    Granja Las Ondinas_dairyThey began by planting a wide variety of ornamental trees and sowing a mixture of cereals and grasses, combined with nitrogen fixing legumes, throughout the open areas of the property. When there was a sufficient amount of suitable pasture crop, they introduced two female jersey cows. The cow, in biodynamic agriculture, occupies a crucial and central role, both in a practical and spiritual sense. It is believed that the cow harnesses cosmic forces concentrated in the animal’s horns. Both the horns and the manure are employed as essential ingredients in the formulation of incredibly rich compost, the foundation of the vegetable garden Eduardo and Lydia had constructed after the arrival of the first cattle.

    Ross MittlemanFast forward five years to present day and the number of cattle totals 14 (10 females, two bulls, and two calves) and the garden is flourishing. They also have incorporated about 15 pigs, 50 chickens, 80 rabbits, seven turkeys, several goats and sheep and a dozen or so ducks and geese. The garden produces a wide array of vegetables year round and several orchards have been established. Open fields on the property consist of mixed alfalfa, cereal and grassland which is rotationally grazed upon according to daily changes. Another hectare is devoted to wheat production (which nets about 4,000 pounds annually) and an acre here or there for corn. Additionally, with 8 dairy cows producing anywhere from 100 liters in the winter months to 130 liters per day in the summer, the construction of a cheese production facility stemmed more from necessity than opportunity. What they have created with all of these elements is a fully functional domesticated ecosystem. The whey, or by-product from cheese making, is used to feed the pigs, the weeds and grasses from the garden are fed to the rabbits and horses, vegetable scraps nourish the chickens, the goats and sheep eat weeds the cows pass over, pigs eat the weed roots, and the cow manure mixed with phosphate-rich chicken manure cleaned from the stables and pens constitutes the base of the compost that gives life to the plants. The land, only a few years prior devoid of life, now teems with energies existing in a harmonious and complimentary network of checks and balances. Why have we turned something inherently simple, efficient, and effective into a current agricultural system defined by waste, excess and degradation?

    Granja Las Ondinas_dairyThe answer likely lurks in the commercialization and industrialization of our current means of food production. Eduardo and Lydia made a deliberate and conscious effort to remove the “for-profit” focus at Las Ondinas and convert the farm into a model for self-sufficiency. This required an initial investment on their behalf and sustained financial support they are fortunate enough to be able to provide. As an aging couple they decided to put much of their wealth into a tangible purpose they strongly believed in. Money was certainly necessary to lay the appropriate groundwork, but over the years they have removed the financial component and replaced it with a human one. Lydia says that, “the human being is what makes all of this possible.” They have mostly looked no further that the surrounding local community in search of the human beings that may serve as the engine of the operation. The farm manager is a local man named Juan. Part gaucho, part free spirit and 100% Argentinian, Juan knows a great deal about all aspects of farming (particularly animals) and is passionately outspoken in expressing that knowledge. Another local man has been given managerial duties over the garden. Additionally, two sisters have been hired, one to handle cheese making and the other to cook for everyone at the farm. Other citizens from nearby towns have played various roles in the development and volunteers have come from all across the world.

    But perhaps the most notable human element is best exemplified in the oversight of the garden, which has been granted to the Ahura Mazda Association, a group in Buenos Aires with ties to Waldorff schools. Under their guidance, they have established one of the first community supported agriculture programs in the city. Every two weeks 15 crates are packed with fresh veggies, eggs, cheeses, and flour (a diverse model that many CSA’s in the U.S. could potentially learn from). The crates are delivered to the door of participating families and proceeds go towards the salary of the garden manager and Waldorff institutions. The association has placed heavy emphasis on the biodynamic system, and planting/harvesting schedules strongly adhere to astrological calendars. Once a month members of the association and the CSA gather at Las Ondinas to prepare compost specially constructed with a grouping of five important herbs believed to impart cosmic energies into the soil. Whether or not these blessings and ceremonies are truly effective may be difficult to prove, but it is hard to argue against the idea that these astrological connections tie the farmer to the historical implications of his or her actions as an ancient rite and instills in that person an elevated sense of purpose.

    That sentiment stands at the core of what Granja las Ondinas represents. It is built with the idea that plants, animals, and humans exist in balance with one another and each is worthy of respect. This notion might be best captured at Las Ondinas by the classical music played at milking times, but it can be felt throughout all corners of the farm. The fundamental belief remains that agriculture can serve as a healing agent. When that idea is coupled with an aim to bond people and communities, both together with one another, and with the land itself, farming begins to return to its original purpose of strengthening unity between all beings and the natural world from which we all descend.

    By Ross Mittleman

    About the Author:
    Ross MittlemanRoss Mittelman was born in Massachusetts and attended the University of Montana where he studied geography and Spanish. Since graduating, he has worked in various fields related to environmental conservation and is currently very interested in the connection it has with agriculture. At this moment, he is traveling throughout South America and working at various farms throughout the continent.

  • July21st

    WasteThe Small-Scale Production of Food, Fuel, Feed and Fertilizer

    Vietnam faces waste management problems of almost unimaginable complexity, and consequently this dynamic country must go far beyond the usual practice of burning or burying waste. In this first installment of a series, a waste management concept is proposed that involves the integration of several well proven technologies such as mesophilic and thermophilic composting, black soldier fly and red worm bioconversion, duckweed water filtration, gasification and lactic acid fermentation. These technologies will enable Vietnam not only to solve its waste management problems, but also to transform many different types of waste into resources of great value.  

    There are many options available to us in the disposal of solid waste. But one of the most problematic and dangerous ways of dealing with waste is to dig a hole and bury it. The soil which nourishes and sustains us should never become a depository for waste. Once the soil comes into contact with waste, it becomes just as toxic as the waste that it entombs. Rainfall floods this hole and washes deadly chemicals and microbes into aquifers, streams, rivers and even oceans. Anaerobic bacteria proliferate in this watery grave, emitting methane and other greenhouse gases. Instead of solving a problem, we create a problem so big that it becomes thoroughly impossible to fix. Instead of wisely managing money, we uselessly throw it away.

    Often we look outside of Vietnam to find models that make sense in dealing with waste. But Europe and America have little to offer. For many decades they have dug holes and buried waste. Only recently have they begun to understand in depth the health and environmental consequences of burying waste. They are just beginning to admit that the concept of a “sanitary” landfill is anything but sanitary. For within a few decades after the plastic sheet lining this hole is laid down, it breaks, and there is no feasible way to repair leaks underneath such a mass of rotting garbage. Over time hundreds of hectares in the vicinity of this hole, as well as thousands of kilometers of streams, rivers and aquifers, are irreversibly polluted.

    While Europe and America struggle to solve their waste problems, Vietnam and other developing countries in Asia have a completely different set of options available to them. To the extent that Vietnam views waste, not as waste, but as one of the most valuable resources it could ever possess, it puts itself in the enviable position of leaving Europe and America far behind.

    But for waste to have value, it must be dealt with in a commercial manner. As in any commercial enterprise, we need technologies and strategies that will allow us to minimize cost and maximize profit. Obviously the first big cost that we can eliminate is the huge cost of collecting, transporting and burying waste. Estimates extended out to the year 2020 situate at about $30 US dollars (600,000 VND) per household per year. To the extent that waste management authorities do not collect, transport and bury waste, they obviously save huge sums of money.

    If we seek to maximize profitability, we must understand that waste is highly variegated, and that there is no single technology, no magic bullet, that will do the job. Each type of waste quite often demands a specific technology or combination of technologies to deliver the highest profit. At times the products derived from waste might command a price as high as $500 US per ton. At other times they might have a value of no more than $25 US per ton. But one thing is certain: there is no type of waste that must be handled and processed at a loss.

    Assembling the right technology for the right kind of waste, however, is not enough. There’s a powerful socio-economic reasoning specific to a country like Vietnam that we cannot ignore. It involves tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese people who never walk away from the smallest opportunity to make money. It is this spirit that distinguishes the Vietnamese from the affluent people of the West who easily turn a blind eye to the value of waste. Let me give an example.

    I know a middle-age lady who regularly walks the streets in Dalat in search of waste. She shoulders a flexible bamboo plank, and at each end is a large basket or sack filled with waste. She does not rely on garbage trucks to assist her in carrying out her task. She does not even use a push cart. She works for no one but herself, and makes on average about 60,000 VND or $3.00 US per day, a lot more than most laborers in a rice field.

    This lady does not operate out of love for the environment. Yet very few people in Vietnam do more for the environment than she. She embodies the very essence of the small-scale entrepreneurial spirit that should pervade every aspect of waste management in Vietnam. This does not mean that all those involved in waste management should resemble her in every detail. But it does mean that the primary emphasis in waste management should be away from big companies with big capital and expensive equipment.

    Many tend to view the 20,000 tons of waste generated each day in Vietnam as a large-scale problem demanding state-of-the-art garbage trucks, huge bulldozers, and massive craters that swallow endless quantities of waste. Nothing could be further from the truth. Vietnam has a large population (84 million inhabitants), but very little in Vietnam is large-scale.

    Agriculture is still Vietnam’s most important sector (almost 22% of its GDP), and more than two-thirds of the Vietnamese people work in this sector. There are over 11 million household farms in Vietnam, and about 90% of these farms cultivate less than one hectare of land.1 Rice is grown on about 84% of agricultural land,2 and it is cultivated in a highly labor-intensive manner. Almost all planting, fertilizing and harvesting operations are done by hand. Very seldom does one see on any of these 11 million household farms a tractor, a truck or some other large piece of equipment.
    1 See: http://www.aares.info/files/2004_marsh2.pdf
    2 See: http://www.cid.harvard.edu/neudc07/docs/neudc07_poster_vu.pdf

    By contrast, rice farms in the USA can encompass hundreds, and at times, thousands of hectares. They employ large tractors and combines. Planting and fertilizing are not done by hand as in Vietnam, but by airplane.

    If we attempted to employ this large-scale model in Vietnam, rice production would drop to nothing, and tens of millions of people would be unemployed. The large-scale model makes sense, perhaps, in Louisiana and Arkansas, but it makes absolutely no sense in Vietnam.

    Likewise, the large-scale model of dealing with waste that we see in the United States and Europe, when applied in Vietnam, is equally problematic. The lady referred to in the above example operates on an extremely small-scale. Yet she and many others like her are among the few in Vietnam who approach waste at the proper level or scale, and actually know how to sort and collect waste profitably. It should surprise no one that this lady used to work as a laborer in a rice field. When she migrated to Dalat, she did not have to undergo extensive training in order to collect and sell recyclables. The transition was smooth and quick, and she now earns far more money than before.

    If the technologies that we assemble to process specific types of waste are to be used effectively in Vietnam, they must align themselves with the socio-economic structure of Vietnam. They must be small-scale, low-tech and easily operated by someone like the lady in the above example. And most importantly, they must target all of the waste that she does not currently recycle.

    Most of the technologies we will examine in this series are not new, but when aligned and integrated properly, they become powerful tools both in ridding our planet of pollution and in empowering the poor. Only to extent that environmental and social objectives become inseparably intertwined, do developing countries like Vietnam have a chance of addressing properly the many challenges they face as they enter the 21st century.

    by Dr. Paul Olivier

    In the next installment of this series we will examine MESOPHILIC STORAGE AND REDUCTION, and the incredible economic opportunity it presents for residential waste management authorities.

    About the author:

    Dr. OlivierDr. Paul Olivier began his career in mineral preparation in 1981. In 1986 he invented and patented a unique bi-directional dense medium separator which was first applied to the separation of a variety of root vegetables. He has also designed technology that was not only used to recycle non-ferrous metals, but also used to prepare an organic stream clean enough to be used as an alternative fuel in cement kilns. In 1995 several trials were conducted in Belgium on 30,000 tons of municipal solid waste free of food waste. But the problem of what to do with source-separated food waste remained.

    In 1997 while visiting his sister in Louisiana, Olivier saw a compost bin that she had set up in her garden. There he saw thousands of larvae, eating food waste and reducing it to almost nothing within a period of just a few hours. These larvae were the black soldier fly. Dr. Olivier set about designing several types of bins to exploit this behavior. In 2001 he invented the round bioconversion unit commonly referred to as a biopod. This device enables mature larvae to neatly self-harvest into a bucket without any mechanical or human intervention. Dr. Olivier’s passion to design technologies to empower the poor instead of making large corporations wealthier drove him to begin designing waste transformation technologies for impoverished nations.

    He began designing top-lit updraft gasifiers for the gasification of rice hulls, coffee bean husks, and other types of agricultural biomass. Initial designs have focused on placing this technology in the hands of households and small commercial enterprises. Other technologies that Dr. Olivier has been improving on are mesophilic storage units for source-separated biodegradable residential waste, urine-diverting composting toilets, thermophilic composting using the simple and inexpensive technology of a compost fleece, and lactic acid fermentation of food waste.

    Currently he is working with Todd Hyman and Loren Cardeli, where they are designing recycling systems turning waste to profit to empower poor rural communities in developing nations. This series of documents are authored by Dr. Paul Olivier with the help of both Todd and Loren. They are currently setting up a social entrepreneurship business to market and spread these technologies around the world.

    Throughout all of his environmental endeavors, Dr. Olivier has always been self-employed. He has never been on the payroll of a company or university. He has never received grants or subsidies in the development of any of the environmental technologies he has promoted. Up until now he has always been able to utilize profits from one venture to fund research on behalf of the next. In a sense this has not been difficult to achieve, for he has always viewed waste, in all of its many forms, as our single greatest resource.

  • July12th

    BokashiThe purpose of Bokashi
    ‘Bokashi’ is a fermented organic fertilizer.  In the previous edition, the importance of making good quality compost for the purpose of improving soil fertility had been mentioned.  That is the basis of producing a healthy crop and also the foundation of sustainable agriculture.  However, plants require the necessary nutrients to grow and to produce flowers and fruits.  Just as in human beings, we need a house to stay in, as well as foods to eat in order to stay alive and to carry on our daily activities.  But our state of health is much depended upon the types and quality of the foods we consume.  Especially at the early stage of growth, if contaminated foods are regularly consumed, the risk of developing into some forms of health disorder in the later stage of life is higher.  The types of fertilizers used also affect the healthiness of the plants.  The tendencies of suffering from certain nutrient deficiencies and low resistance to diseases are common in plants that are fertilized solely by chemical fertilizers.  

    fishmealBokashi is made from fermenting protein rich organic raw materials such as animal manure, oil residue, fish refuses and fishmeal, meat meal, bone meal etc.

    There are two types of organic fertilizers.  One is by just mixing together different kinds of organic raw materials and it is static in the sense that no fermentation occurs.  Whereas Bokashi is an active living fertilizer with abundance effective microbes.  In 1gm. of Bokashi, there are more than 1 billion of actinomycetes.  In 1gm. of ordinary soil, there are in the region of 10 thousand to 100 thousand.  In healthy farm soil where the occurrence of soil bound disease is rare, there are about 1 million.  As you can see, the amount of microbe’s presence in Bokashi is enormous.  Bokashi is like a mass of actynomycetes.  Besides actynomycetes, the amount of effective microbes, yeast and fungi is 1000 to 10000 times more than in ordinary soil.  These microbes will propagate and die in a very active and short cycle leaving their protein rich bodies as nutrients to the plants.  So Bokashi actually multiplies its nutrient value like a fertilizer factory in the soil.  That is why it is called a living fertilizer.  Moreover, Bokashi contains glucose, high-grade alcohol, amino acids and minerals, which are produced in the process of fermentation.  These also serve as nutrients for the propagation of the soil microflora.  These microflora and the enzymes they produced will further decompose organic matters in the soil and similar nutrients are produced.  This cycle will greatly improves the biological condition of the soil.

    Why Bokashi
    The wrong usage of non-fermented organic fertilizer may cause growth disorder such as root damage in nursery.  Raw organic materials contain saccharides, fat and other low molecular organic matters, which are highly decomposable.  These readily decompose in the soil and consume a lot of oxygen and release carbon dioxide.  This will create an acute shortage of oxygen to the roots and impair their functions as well as their growth.  The growth of the plant is impeded and withers in serious cases.  This is especially important in the case of seed germination and at the early stages of growth, where a lot of oxygen is required.  The effect of oxygen shortage and excessive carbon dioxide can be very serious.  The intake of nutrients and water are inhibited due to the damage to the roots.  To avoid this from happening, it is necessary to apply organic fertilizers that are properly fermented.  In the cases of plant based organic raw materials, harmful substances such as lignin, tannic acid, oil and fats, terpene and others are presence.  These substances are harmful to the roots and also inhibit germination.  Fermenting the organic raw materials before using can eliminate these problems.  As plants based organic raw materials are slow in decomposing in a natural manner, nutrients required at the early stage of growth are not sufficiently available.  Through fermentation, some parts of the nutrients are made readily available at the early stage of growth and the remainders are gradually taken in at the later stage of growth.

    Characteristics of Bokashi
    Bokashi works slowly and gradually like a melting candy.  Unlike chemical fertilizers which are highly soluble and induce a short but excessive intake by the plants.  The properties and decomposition factors of the various nutrient compositions of the chemical fertilizer differ. Thus the intake of nutrients is usually unbalance even at appropriate application.  The population of microbes, the amount of organic matters, soil temperature etc. are factors that affect the balance of intake and are difficult to control.  In the case of Bokashi, the nutrients content of the various raw materials used breakdown evenly through fermentation and thus enables a balanced intake of nutrients by the plants.  Excessive nitrogen intake and the shortage of phosphate, potassium and other trace elements, which is common in the use of chemical fertilizers, can be avoided.  Furthermore, organic acids such as citric acid, lactic acid, acetic acid and others are produced during the decomposition of Bokashi in the soil can help insoluble phosphate, silicate and other minerals to become soluble and thus enhance the supply of nutrients.

    Recently, it was reported that consuming vegetables with excessive nitrate salt content could produce compounds that cause cancer.  Excessive use of chemical fertilizers can result in the high content of nitrate salt in the vegetables.  On the other hand, since the use of Bokashi is less likely to bring about an excessive unbalanced intake of nitrogen, it is an excellent fertilizer in the aspect of food safety.

    malaysiaImproving the quality and healthiness of the plants
    The nitrogen content of Bokashi made mainly from animal organic matters, which consist mainly of protein, is in the form of amino acids through the process of hydrolytic fermentation.  Proline, a type of amino acid, plays an important role in rising the content of sugar in the plant.  However, if protein is broken down through an anaerobic decomposition or putrefaction, indole and ammonia are produced instead of amino acids.  It is only effective as a source of nitrogen but does not increase the sugar content of the plant.  That is why it is important to make Bokashi with the use of hydrolytic enzymes such as BYM-enzyme.

    Fermentative products such as nucleic acid, the vitamin B group, UGF (Unknown Growth Factor), hormones and others , produced by the natural yeast, play a very important role in maintaining the healthy growth of the plant.  It is known that the plant directly takes in some of the amino acids, asparagine, creatinine, and glucose, which are produced in the process of decomposition of various organic matters.  This will stimulate the physiological function of the plant and promote fast and healthy growth.  At the same time, organic salt, choline, betaine, trimethylamine and others, produced during fermentation also promote healthy growth.

    Selection of raw materials
    Suitable raw materials should be selected for different requirements of the crops.  For example, fishmeal, meat and bone meal, blood meal, rapeseed oil cakes and rice bran, which contain proline, should be used for fruits and fruiting vegetables which require a higher sugar content.  Crops such as cucumber and chili, which has high content of chlorophyll in the fruit itself, require a higher amount of magnesium.  Raw materials such as rapeseed oil cake, cottonseed oil cake and other oil cakes, which have high magnesium content, should be selected.  For tomato, cabbage and Chinese cabbage that require high amount of calcium, bone meal, leather waste and wool waste are ideal. For flowers, which aim for vigorous reproductive growth as well as bright colors of the petals, oil cakes, bone meal, fishmeal should be selected for a balanced content of magnesium, calcium and phosphate.  In the case of rooting and leafy vegetables where a higher sugar content is not required, cheaper materials such as chicken manure can be used for lowering the cost of input.  Besides the above-mentioned raw materials, soil with high CEC (Cation Exchange Capacity) such as clayish soil is required.

    Combination of raw materials
    Soil ….. 500kg.
    Organic raw materials ….. 500kg.
    Rice bran ….. 30kg.
    Sugar ….. 3kg.
    BYM-enzymes ….. 3kg.

    Piling of Bokashi

    • Mix all materials together except sugar.
    • Dissolve sugar in water and mix in evenly.
    • Adjust moisture level to about 50% evenly. (At this level, the mixture becomes a lump when squeezed but will break up easily)
    • Pile up in a heap and cover with “gani sack”.

    Within 24 hours, the fermentation temperature should go up to 45~50°C.  Turn the heap and cover it again.  Fermentation will start again.  Turning should be done once everyday for another three days.  After the fourth turning, the heap should smell amino acid, which is similar to the smell of soy sauce.  It is ready for use.  Spread the heap up into a thin layer to air dry for keeping.

    Usage of Bokashi (Basal  +  Additional)
    Tomato, watermelon, pumpkin, etc. ….. 300gm/m2 … / + … 150gm/m2/20days
    Cucumber, melon ….. 600~800gm/m2 … / + … 200gm/m2/14days
    Brinjal, chili, leafy vegetables ….. 800~1000gm/m2 … / + … 250gm/m2/14days

    For fruit trees, 4~6 tons per acre per year depending on the age of the trees.  Application should be divided up to at least 4 times a year.  Raw materials should also be selected for flowering and fruiting.  In-fact Bokashi is most suitable for fruit trees especially those with surface roots like durian due to its gentle and mild nature.  It will also greatly enhance the intake of phosphate and other trace elements, which are very essential in proper flowering and fruiting.  Though the application seems to be on the high side, it is very much viable if it is self-made and considering the high price of imported organic fertilizers.  The higher yield and better quality also justify its usage.

    Use of BYM-enzymes for the treatment of waste from poultry farms and pigs farms is very ideal.  It will greatly reduce the foul smell and hasten the fermentation of the waste, making it into a high quality and effective fermented organic fertilizer.  This will also increase the production capacity if the farm is treating its waste commercially as organic fertilizer.

    Essay by Steven Leong

  • July9th


    Holy Crap, Batman!  Turns out we’ve been sitting on a fortune… and that’s no load of bull, either. In fact, we’re the ones that are full of it. We’ve been taking this resource and just flushing it down the drain. It’s time we grow up and re-examine our attitudes about this valuable commodity that we’ve been treating like, well, you know.

    Seriously though, A Growing Culture is proud to have presented the first installment last week in what will be a series of excerpts from Joseph Jenkins’ The Humanure Handbook. As we look forward to presenting the second installment from this “guide to composting human manure”, we’d like to take a moment to shed some light on the subject matter and the humble beginnings of what we deem to be a modern classic.

    In terms of a viable compost source, human manure has been viewed as a “little too gross” to be used within a sustainable food system.  A once highly valued agricultural asset is now being viewed as waste and disposed of in a manner that further pollutes our valuable finite resources. AGC hopes to bring this to the forefront of the discussion table.  We encourage everyone to follow the link and purchase Joseph Jenkins’ The Humanure Handbook for a full in depth look at maximizing this resource.

    The Humanure Handbook was something of an accidental literary phenomenon…  Joe Jenkins began writing the book as a master’s thesis while attending Slippery Rock University’s Master of Science in Sustainable Systems program in northwestern Pennsylvania in the early 90s. Not content with academic convention, but fascinated with the topic of humanure composting, Jenkins decided to convert the book’s language into a popular format and self-publish the thesis as a book.

    The intention was to learn how to “self-publish” using a book that probably no one would ever read. As expected, every possible publishing mistake was made on the first edition of the book, published in January 1995. Yet, an unbelievable 10,000 copies sold. Clearly there was more interest in this topic than Jenkins had expected, so he revised the book and published the 2nd edition in 1999. This edition sold another 15,000 copies and won awards.

    The Humanure Handbook

    Click to purchase

    The 3rd edition was born in 2005, sold out its first 10,000 printing and is working on the next 10,000 copies. The book and topic receive regular coverage in the news and have been mentioned on Howard Stern, BBC, CBC, NPR, the New Yorker Magazine, Grist, Seoul Broadcasting (SBS), Playboy, Wall Street Journal, Mother Earth News, and many others.

    Jenkins maintains a business in north western Pennsylvania (Joseph Jenkins, Inc.), where he resides on 143 acres with a large garden, an orchard, several family members, and a compost pile or two. Jenkins speaks at various venues when time allows, provides consulting services, maintains a publishing business, and two online stores.

    Again, we are proud to present the first installment of the chapter, “Microhusbandry”.  READ IT HERE.

  • July6th