Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hail Storm August 2009

Hail Stone
The Sound of these guys on the roof was terrifying.

Hail damaged Hubbard

Flattened Winter Squash

Green Tomatoes with Hail Damage

Watermelons with Hail Holes

Our Deck 10 minutes into Hail Storm

Zucchini After Hail

Salad Mix After Hail

Hail Stones at 12:20 AM
This bowl was on our deck. When we brought it in it was filled with ice.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Time to (re)Organize!

At last the real "farm" work of the season has begun! The last week has found us sowing our first seeds of the 2009 growing season and, by Tuesday morning, the first sprouts poked through the soil and began their climb towards the sky. It has now been 13 years since I planted my first seeds as a farmer and while, in some years, the act of planting those first tiny seeds has felt weighty, in others it has felt, especially as the years roll by, a bit ho-hum. Like many things in life, where repetition can take away some of the "magic", seeding flats in the greenhouse, while always fun, can also feel a bit mundane. However, this year, while I was holding a bag of broccoli seed in my hand, my mind began to hum and I was reminded of how much of a "miracle" these simple little seeds are.
Beginning work on my second day of planting I picked up my broccoli seeds and, for some reason, the fact that, in my one hand, I held enough seed to plant something on the order of 15,000 broccoli plants, set my mind to contemplating seeds. Fifteen Thousand plants could yield around fifteen thousand heads of broccoli. That is enough broccoli to feed a lot of people and yet, there it was, in a little plastic bag, weighing just a few ounces and costing, perhaps, $40. Each one of those seeds was filled with potential, some more than others, and nearly all of them COULD, given the right conditions, grow roots, stems, leaves and even the immature flower clusters that we eat. Each would be planted into the soil, some in richer soil than others, and each would contend with a mixture of the conditions that mother nature provides and the extra care we are able to provide for it. Some will fall prey to wind or insects or rabbits but many of them will, quite likely, flourish and end up in your CSA box sometime later this summer. At the moment of planting, much like each of us at birth, they are pure potential, the most recent product of one of a multiplicity of lines extending back to that first single celled organism that did whatever it did in that much discussed "primordial ooze". To be sure, that broccoli seed can't be a beet, a melon, or a tomato but, with a little love and a whole lot of luck, it might be the best head of broccoli you've ever tasted. Only time will tell.
This thought, of course, got me to thinking further about seeds; what is it that seeds really do? As a small child I thought that seeds were filled with a tiny version of the future plant and that, somehow, magically, with a little water and sun, it would expand. This is obviously not exactly the case. Seeds are, like all living things, patterns for reorganizing the world of which they are a part. What do I mean by this? A seed begins with very little aside from the plan encoded in its DNA; just some simple cells differentiated in just a few ways. Seeds have an "seed coat" (Testa), cells that will become the leaves and act as food for the emerging plant (cotyledon), cells that will become the roots (radicle) and cells that will become the stem (plumule). All of this, in the case of a broccoli seed, fits into a package no larger than the head of a pin! What makes each seed special is, of course, the instructions it contains for interacting with the world around it. We tend to think of plants as exceptionally passive things but, like all living organisms, from the first moment of growth, they begin to remake the world. The plants' cells "grab" molecules from the air, soil, and water and reshape them into new molecules to build the structures that the plant needs to fulfill its potential. Each plant's very existence leaves the world changed and each and every seed is a slightly new approach to remaking the world.
This thought is, of course, not merely applicable to seeds! It is about all of life and it is about all of the work that we do. It is inescapable; with each breathe, each step, each action we are reorganizing the universe playing out countless permutations. The thought really struck home when I began to tie it to one of my other passions, restorative justice. For the past 2 years, in addition to my agricultural exploits, I have been involved in a program called "Circle Sentencing". Circle Sentencing is an alternative, for juveniles who have committed crimes, to incarceration. Rather than put them away for a while, surrounded by other offenders, often far from the community in which they committed their crime and will, likely have to return to, we attempt a different approach. The goal of this is the idea of "resorative justice", a process in which the person who has harmed takes responsibility for their actions and the person who has been harmed may take a central role in the process, in many instances receiving an apology and reparation directly or indirectly from the person who has caused them harm. Additionally, our goal is not only to have the youth understand/pay for their crime but also to leave them with stronger and positive connections to/with the community in which they live and better skills for being constructive members of society.
So, you are probably wondering what the heck this has to do with seeds? Each of the kids in our program is just like each of those seeds I plant each spring. Each of them is, at birth, filled with potential and, while each is distinct, some might make great artists, others doctors, teachers or mechanics, the greatest factor for their outcome seems to be the soil into which they are planted and yet, for good or bad, they WILL reorganize their world. Unfortunately, many of them are born into fairly thin soils and it is a struggle for them to get what they need to thrive. Unsurprisingly, they are, for the most part, the children of families that are struggling to get by, more often than not, with at least one parent that either is, or has been, incarcerated. As these children begin their work of reorganizing their world, their potential is, too often, limited by the "field" in which they have been planted. It occurs to me that we must, each of us, be, as one of our own acts of reorganization, "organic" gardeners to one another; working to improve the fertility and tilth of the "soils" not just of our own fields, but also our neighbors both for now and for future generations.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Good Month for Farming

While we, in the frigid north, might not know it, the past few weeks have been, in my opinion, some great weeks for agriculture or, at least, the vision of agriculture that I hold. While our fields have lain dormant beneath the ice and snow, the fields of agricultural legislation seem fertile and ready for renewal.
The first bit of good news involves President Obama's proposed budget and the administration's apparent desire to begin fixing some of the worst bits of our nation's farm policy, namely, the Direct Payments issued to farmers through the last Farm Bill. Direct Payments are "subsidies" payed to farmers based on the number of eligible acres they have enrolled in the federal farm program and they are a fairly recent addition (1996) to our federal farm policy. Here is how it works:
Under the "old" farm bill, farmers were paid for the commodity crops that they grew (corn, soybeans, wheat, sugarbeets, rice, cotton) with the idea that this would help stabilize the price of those crops and, in doing so, keep the prices low for the "consumers". The federal money given to farmers, whatever the intended "benefits" for them, really worked as a way to cushion the banks that extend massive operating loans to farmers each spring. Since the money was tied to production, it encouraged farmers to grow more and more of these commodity crops, increasing the average size of farms, increasing the yearly operating debt that farms took on, and bloating the U.S.'s share of cheap grain to be dumped on the world market. Since ever-increasing supplies kept prices low for 40 years, small acre farms found it increasingly difficult to survive and the percentage of Americans involved in agriculture dropped from around 20% to less than 2%. This system, which was purportedly designed to insulate farmers from the massive fluctuations in crop value, actually was driving prices down and made almost all farms completely reliant on subsidies. As a way to get around this, policy makers decided that it would be best not to tie subsidies to the actual production of crops. Farmers would get payments based on the cropping history of the acres they farmed, not the crop planted. This "freedom to farm" idea, somehow, was meant to ween farmers off of crop subsidies. Here is the USDA on direct payments:
"Fixed direct payments are not tied to current production or prices and do not require any commodity production on the land. With planting flexibility, farmers are not confined to growing the historically produced crops for which they are receiving direct payments"
WHAT!?! Farmers were to be paid a lump sum each year regardless of crop prices or the crop they planted on their acres! Actually, this is not quite true; if you planted fruits or vegetables on those acres then you would be disqualified from the program. Direct payments, of course, really encouraged people to farm ever expanding acreages of land and it allows the largest 10% of farms to reap over 75% of crop subsidies (AKA your tax dollars). This means that farms that earned $750,000 last year were still able to collect money (up to $80,000) from the federal government. The environmental Working Group has an interesting website where you can check, by county, how many federal dollars were given to the largest 10 "farmers". I put the word farmers in quotation marks because many of these people are not even actively engaged in their farming operations.
For example, the largest farm in my county received $82,000 last year. This was during a year where crop values hit historically high levels.
In the new budget plan the administration recommends cutting direct payments to all farms with over $500,000 in annual sales. This would eliminate 9.2 million dollars from the subsidy program, about 1/5th of the total yearly farm subsidies, and would affect around 90,000 "farmers". This money, then, would be redirected to USDA programs that aid in alleviating childhood hunger. As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack put it," 30 million children, 90,000 farmers. It is a tough choice, but it's a choice that folks are going to have to make." Opponents to this change are, of course, already beginning to dig in and spin this in the usual ways. Our own Congressman Colin Peterson, Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is jumping into the fray, as expected, to defend the status quo. Since the beneficiaries of keeping things as they are represent a fairly small, though powerful, lobby, if we can keep them from successfully pretending that this is about protecting the "family farm", we should be able to win this. I encourage you to contact Colin and let him know how you feel.
The second great bit of news involves the EU's decision to ban 20 of the most harmful agricultural chemicals and to set up much more rigorous guidelines for approving the use of new ones. Specifically, this ban will target pesticides linked with cancer, mutation, reproductive toxicity, and hormonal disruption The decision, which still must be ratified by member governments, in addition to banning several chemicals, puts severe restriction on the methods of application and bans the use of many pesticides near schools, hospitals, and waterways. While opponents are attempting to undermine this by linking it to the silly fears of environmentalists, this policy is, in fact, based on fairly sound science.
In the United States, the FDA regulates chemicals not based on actual toxicity, but based on assumed levels of exposure. This, of course, does not take into account the exposure levels of farm workers, the exposure rates of young children (most acceptable levels are set for healthy adults) and fetuses, or for their interactions with other farm chemicals. It assumes that actual exposure mimics that which occurs in a lab. Hence, scores of harmful chemicals are used on our foods and enter both the environment and our bodies. While advocates of these chemicals like to point out how few ppm (parts per million) of these hazardous substances are found as residue on our food, in fact, this is a bit of a bamboozle. Many of our most efficatious drugs are delivered to our bodies in doses that approximate the levels that certain pesticides are found in our blood and urine. Huh!?! Here is an interesting study pertaining to this:
On September 1, 2005, Chensheng Lu at School of Public Health at Emory University, along with colleagues at the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and at the University of Washington, released an important study that will soon appear in the NIH journal, Environmental Health Perspectives. At the beginning, every child in the study was found to have pesticides in the urine everyday, in every urine sample. The children were healthy American, suburban, elementary school kids. The pesticides were organophosphorus pesticides commonly used in food production – malathion and chlorpyrifos (Dursban) – both known to cause neurologic problems in animals and in humans. After establishing the baseline pesticide exposure, the researchers made the simplest of changes: the kids were switched to organic versions of the foods they were eating anyway. They didn’t make any changes in the types of foods they enjoyed. They didn’t make any other changes, such as in home gardening or insect control. With this simple diet change alone, the pesticides virtually disappeared from every child’s urine – within 24 hours! They enjoyed a pesticide-free holiday for 5 days, and then went back to their ‘normal’ diets. Within 24 hours the pesticides returned. They were again seen in 100% of urine samples, twice a day, in 100% of the children. Health outcomes were not followed in this study, but the authors believe intuitively that, “children whose diets consist of organic food items would have a lower probability of neurological health risks,” a known toxicity of these pesticides.
While the last sentence might be a little bit of a jump, since acceptable levels of exposure are calculated using a 155lb adult, it does seem likely. In any case, the EU ban is certainly based on far more than unsubstantiated fear mongering! Perhaps some day, the health of our people and environment will trump the desire for low-cost food.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Corners of Our Fields

Last night Malena and I watched the second half of Masterpiece Theater's excellent production of Dickens', "Oliver Twist" and, because of some ideas that have been floating around in my head quite a bit of late, it really did strike home. Watching it reminded me of a line from the book, not featured in the film,"There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread". The story is, of course, set in motion by Oliver's attempt to get enough to eat after suffering from hunger for months and I have been thinking quite a bit about hunger recently.
As a child, when I was first exposed to the somewhat silly (and overly cheerful) musical of Oliver, while I enjoyed the antics of the Dodger and Fagin's boys, the point that their thievery, which seemed, somehow, excusable, was the result of poverty and hunger, was completely lost on me. Like many Americans, true HUNGER is something that I have been fortunate enough to have never known personally, and to have witnessed, first hand, only once or twice. Although I have had a fair amount of contact with poverty through several non-profits I have worked with, I have not really seen very much hunger. Over the course of my lifetime, as flawed as many of our social safety nets have been, it seems that exceptionally low food prices and food shelves have kept the most dire cases of hunger very low. Certainly, millions of people have gone to bed hungry countless times, but hunger, within the United States, has been dispersed enough that most of us do not come into contact with it on a day to day basis. Unfortunately, it appears that hunger, and the circumstances that lead to it, are on the rise.
Recently I was having a conversation with an acquaintance of mine, who works at a food shelf, and she was telling me that while they have seen an marked increase in the number of families coming in for help, donations are down. A recent New York Times article also bears this out; According to the article, studies indicate that food shelf usage is up as much as 30% as more and more families, formerly members of the "middle-class", fall victim the many effects of our current economic crisis. The timing couldn't be worse considering that, many of the foundations and individuals who have contributed to the shelves are, themselves, feeling the pinch. To make matters worse, the 3 year drought, which has plagued the Central Valley of CA, is also beginning to have an affect on our country's food supply.
For a variety of reasons, the majority of the fruits and vegetables grown within the United States are grown in the Central Valley. With water supplies in the region at historic lows, the Federal Government is looking at severely limiting the amount of water that will be available to Central Valley farmers this summer. Without water the farmers cannot raise many of their crops. Last year 100, 000 acres were left unplanted and it looks as though up to 800,000 acres will be fallowed this year. This will likely lead to higher food costs and shorter supplies and it has already contributed to an alarming unemployment rate in the areas affected, putting even more low income people in need; up to 80,000 agricultural jobs have already been lost according to another article in the Times ( This problem is yet another reason why our current, overly centralized, industrial ag model, while it has provided us with cheap food in the past, leaves us remarkably prone to disaster under a variety of changing conditions.
As a farmer I feel an especially acute relationship to the idea of hunger; it is my job to try and feed people and, in most years, I am witness to the abundance that our earth can provide. I also know that the yield is really not all mine to take; it is my responsibilty to make sure that some of the bounty is shared with those in need. Over the years we donated extra produce to foodshelves and from time to time, "underwritten" shares for low income families. Last summer, Steve Share, who, with his wife Rona, hosts our drop-off site in Linden Hills, made sure that all of the extra boxes that members forgot to pick up, often 2-3 boxes/week, went to the Harriet Tubman Center in Minneapolis. This year, with the need for food donations growing, we are going to try and expand our donations and use our CSA as a way to get more fresh food into the hands and, more importantly, the stomachs, of those in need. Our members from Synogogue Adath Jeshrun have purchased shares, at a discount, to donate to ICA foodshelf and I am working on setting up a system so that our members can do the same both with ICA and with the Harriet Tubman center. If you are intersted in helping with this, please do contact me at We who have will be judged by how we treat those without.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


While the cold weather of the last few days seems to indicate that winter is not nearly done with Minnesota, for me, it is rapidly approaching its final days. Twelve mornings from now I will wake up, knock back a few cups of high-test coffee, and commit my first act of farming for the 2009 season; I will plant our first successions of leeks, onions, celeriac and some herbs, in one of our greenhouses. By late March I will be the only guy in Milan sporting a serious "natural" tan. In truth, the beginning of my farming season began in early January but, until now, mostly it has involved phone calls, spread sheets, and speaking engagements. Not nearly as thrilling as planting but vitally important.
Like many people who did not grow up on a farm, when I first entertained the idea of farming thirteen years ago, my sense of it mostly involved planting and harvesting. The idea that farming was, in addition to being a lovely lifestyle filled with reaping and sowing, a business that would require a variety of non-horticultural skills really did not occur to me. My vision was terribly pastoral and involved a great deal of communing with nature, living off the fat of the land and not overly much reality. While farming does afford me ample opportunity to witness the "goings-on" of the natural world, the soils teaming with life, the cycles of the seasons, the amassing of dark tumult in the sky, it, like all vocations, is also filled with things far more mundane. In order for our season to run smoothly I have found that it will not suffice to just plant when feeling inspired to do so. With 18 weeks of boxes to fill for 275 shareholders a great deal of planning is necessary. In early January, once I have determined the budget for the year and how many shares we will be selling, my first job is to develop our greenhouse planting schedule. A majority of our crops begin their lives in one of our greenhouses and spend between 4 and 8 weeks growing before they are transplanted out into our fields. This allows us to get a jump on the season and harvest many things over a longer period. Additionally, many of our crops require multiple plantings in order to have a steady supply of them over the course of the season. Broccoli, for instance, gets planted 7 times during the season; five times in the spring/summer and twice in the fall. In order to accomplish this, we must start around 1000 plants in flats every two weeks in the late winter/spring. Suffice to say, over the years, creating a greenhouse schedule has required me to put together a fairly serious set of spreadsheets filled with little macros to help extrapolate how much seed we will need, when the plants will need to be transplanted, and what sort of yield we should expect. This has involved spending quite a bit of time in front of the computer... not exactly part of that farming dream of yesteryear! Additionally, there is marketing work, book keeping, maintaining machinery, purchasing supplies, hiring workers... like any small business, the list is extensive. The funny thing is that, at least some of these tasks, I have discovered, I enjoy as much as the plowing, cultivating, planting, etc... There are few things I enjoy more than conversing with our many members and the challenges posed by developing field rotations and planting schedules or fixing the occasional busted piece of machinery keep my mind feeling nimble. While I do not really enjoy many of the tasks involved in keeping our farm's books, I do enjoy thinking about the economics of what we do and comparing them to the way conventional agricultural systems work (perhaps i will blog about this in the future).
While much of the last month has been spent in the office developing the plan for this year, and visons of perfect fields inhabit my dreams, twelve days from now will commence the enactment of those plans and, truth be told, I am unbelievably anxious to get started, to smell the moist earthy air of the greenhouses, and plant that first seed.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Recipe For Success

6H2O + 6CO2 ----> C6H12O6+ 6O2
Last night I happened to turn on MPR and was fortunate enough to hear a great interview Terri Gross did with Michael Pollan. If you get a chance, look for it on the internet and give it a listen. In any case, what really struck me about the conversation was his idea that we must "resolarize" our agricultural systems. This is something that has, as we, in the northern hemisphere, daily tilt closer to the sun, causing the days to lengthen, been on my mind quite a bit recently. By the end of February there will be about twice as much solar energy hitting the suface of the earth, here in Minnesota, as there was on January 31st. That solar energy will create changes in the weather patterns and, as some of it is radiated off of the various surfaces it hits, things will begin to warm. This warming, and the winds it creates, will change our weather and allow us to trade our snow boots for flip-flops and will melt the snow, exposing the ground, allowing us to begin planting. So, what's the deal with the oversimplified reaction in green above? Well, that's the foundation of my job and that is the "miracle" that you can thank for all of your favorite (and least favorite) meals; without photosynthesis, not much would be happening on this big rock of ours. While we are busy debating our shift to a new "solar" economy, the truth is, it always has been, and always will be solar, whether we like it or not! All that oil (a hydrocarbon...loaded with carbon atoms which, when combusted, joins with oxygen to form CO2) that we are pumping out of the ground... it too was, at least partially, created by solar energy! So what's the problem then? Well, it took gazillions of life forms billions of years to pull all of that Carbon out of the atmosphere (the 6CO2 on the front side of the reaction) in order that we "higher" organisms could have an earth that would support our biology. Actually, that statement is backwards. Our biology could only exist AFTER the CO2 was sequestered below the surface of the earth through a mixture of photosynthesis and other geological events. In any case, the main point is that this "simple" reaction deserves far more respect than it gets.
So, what does the reaction mean? Simply, it means that, through the photosynthetic process, 6 molecules of water and 6 molecules of carbon dioxide are combined to form one molecule of sugar and 6 molecules of atmospheric Oxygen. Why is this a big deal? Well, if you like either breathing or eating, two of my favorite things to do, without photosynthesis you would be out of luck!
Have you ever wondered why most plants are green? If asked, most of us will answer, "because they are filled with chlorophyll." Well, why is chlorophyll green? Its green because the wavelengths of light that make up "green" to our eyes are not being absorbed. So what?!? Well, the rest of the spectrum that managed to travel through space and strike our earth IS absorbed. What happens then? Some of that energy is used by reactions in plants' chloroplasts (the organelle that contains, among other things, chlorophyll) to split the Hydrogen from that water molecule (H2O), mentioned in the reaction above, and combine it with the carbon dioxide (CO2) to form simple sugars (C6H1206). Notice that, in combining water and carbon dioxide, we began with 12 Hydrogen atoms,18 Oxygen atoms, and a 6 Carbon atoms. The sugar has 6 Carbon, 12 hydrogen, and 6 oxygen atoms. That leaves the 12 remaining oxygen atoms to form 6 O2 molecules. The plant doesn't "need" this O2 and releases it. O2 is the plant's WASTE! Breathe deeply and smile at the nearest plant! If only our factories were as clean! Plants are able to take these two simple and abundant molecules and use them to store the energy from the sun, which they cannot directly use, as C-C bond energy in the sugars they produce. This energy can then be released through glycolosis and other metabolic processes used by plants and animals. Yippee! The sun could hit our skin all day long and we would still not be able to do this. We are very efficient at breaking these sugars down in order to run, or breathe, or dance the cha-cha, but we cannot make them ourselves and all life depends on their existence.
Agriculture, then, is all about organizing the plants to function in a way that puts their photosynthesis to use in order to feed ourselves. It is about harnessing solar energy. Michael Pollan made the point that modern "industrial" agriculture has been about not being content to just use the energy that is entering the system on a daily basis from the sun. It is about adding to the system the "ancient" solar energy, which is embodied in oil, to get even more out of our fields. We use oil not only for agricultural machinery and transportation, but also to create fertlizers to boost the amount of energy entering our agricultural system. While this has given us an abundant supply of cheap food, it is a little like squandering an inheritance. It is living beyond one's means and science is telling us that it is causing a whole host of problems that we cannot delay dealing with. So, if you are on the lookout for a miracle, and the virgin of Guadalupe appeaping on a piece of toast won't cut it, head over to your nearest potted ficus or spider plant and say, "Amen!"