“Slow Farming” Week 10: There is no food justice until Black lives matter.

This post is one of a series created as a part of our Kalamazoo College Senior Capstone Course, “Slow Farming: Just, Joyful, and Resilient Agriculture.” Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we are teaching this course online in 2020 and making the blog post portion available to community members as well.

Hello Slow Farmers,

Well here we are in our last week of classes. I know that this Spring quarter hasn’t turned out to be anything like what you envisioned when you enrolled in this course. Instead of working and playing and learning together here at Harvest of Joy Farm, you’ve been spread across the country, isolating yourselves against a global pandemic, and now many of you are experiencing the effects of racial violence in heightened ways. So how can we bring this class to a close in a good way amidst all of the craziness that surrounds us?

Throughout this quarter, John and I have tried to share with you some of the practical fundamentals of what we do on our farm, such as caring for seeds, soil, plants, insects, animals, and people too! And we’ve also tried to show you the connections we see between our farming work and the historical and ongoing injustices that have shaped our “modern” food systems.

During our class conversations this week, we can talk about the connections between racial injustices in our food and farming systems and the killing of George Floyd and other black men. And to talk some more about what actions we each can take to help create a world in which black and brown lives are held as sacred as white ones. Until that is true, food justice is impossible.

A couple of weeks ago we watched a talk that Leah Penniman, author of “Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land” gave at the University of Michigan just a few weeks before Michigan’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” orders went into effect. I’m going to link to it here so that community members who are interested in learning more about how structural racism operates within our food and farming systems can check it out (the mic is a little fuzzy during the first part of this video, but they end up fixing it): https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/sustainablefoodsystems/2020/03/13/leah-penniman-farming-while-black-uprooting-racism-seeding-sovereignty/

Thank you for taking the journey of this class with us! We are deeply grateful to have had this opportunity to learn alongside you and to be inspired by your insights and passions and kindness.

 

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“Slow Farming” Week 9: Pollinators, Pests, and Predators

This post is one of a series created as a part of our Kalamazoo College Senior Capstone Course, “Slow Farming: Just, Joyful, and Resilient Agriculture.” Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we are teaching this course online in 2020 and making the blog post portion available to community members as well.

Hello Slow Farmers,

It feels like Spring is quickly turning into summer this week! We have been working long days, scrambling to keep up with the season. Once nights turn warm this time of year, it kicks plant growth into high gear so we are working hard to get all of our plants and seeds in the ground and mulched and protected so that they don’t get eaten by rabbits, woodchucks, birds and bugs! I feel like every Spring there is this beautiful moment right after the garden is planted when everything looks beautiful and green and promising . . . and then all of critters in the neighborhood discover your little patch of vegetable heaven too and begin to devour it!

No, it’s not as bad as that. But I have learned the importance of daily scouting, which simply means closely observing your garden to see what’s happening and then doing some research in order to understand what you see. Here’s a brief video that guides you through the process of scouting a vegetable garden: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eq4b6gEWEFg

Scouting isn’t just about detecting problems, though–it’s also about noticing what’s going right in the garden and noticing how your plants are responding to weather events and their environment. When I scout, I look at the plant color–it should be vibrant, not dull. I look at the plant growth pattern, especially noticing how the plant has changed or grown since I last observed it. Is it too close to neighboring plants and stretching for the light? Or is it growing strong and stocky? I stick a finger deep in the soil to gauge moisture levels so I have a sense of how those might be affecting the plant growth. And, I’m looking for bugs–not just those that might pose a threat to my plants, but also those that can be my friends and allies in the garden.

Over the past few years, the decline of insect populations across the globe has led some folks to say that we are living in an “insect apocalypse.” For more on this situation, check out this article from the Xerces Society:  https://www.xerces.org/blog/insect-apocalypse-what-is-really-happening-why-it-matters-and-how-we-all-can-help

On our farm, a key component of our approach to insect pest management is to create habitat for more insects. It might seem counter-intuitive that the more insects we have, the fewer problems they create, but it’s true. In natural ecosystems, insects form intimate partnerships with plants and do a lot of the hard work necessary to keep plants healthy and productive. If I can encourage a diversity of insect species to take up residence in my garden, they will do that work there as well. Let’s look at two gifts that insects offer me in the garden: pollination and predation.  We’ll start with pollination.

When most people think of pollination, they think of honeybees. And it’s true that honeybees do a lot of the pollination of our agricultural crops but that’s only because our farming systems have decimated habitat for native pollinators. In her TED talk, Marla Spivak does a nice job of describing the multitude of toxic conditions that are impacting both domestic honeybee and wild bee health:

https://www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_disappearing#t-409951

We have kept honeybees on our farm for quite a few years now. Learning how to keep them alive and healthy given all of the pressures that Spivak talks about has been a challenge for us and we are continuing to learn a lot from them.

Here’s a link to a video album that I created when we inspected our honeybee hive this week and I also included a few videos of native bees too (and a brief segue on the subject of green pug moths): https://photos.app.goo.gl/aCv9tYugnFjwvBts9

I have noticed that since I started keeping honeybees, I have been more attentive to other bee species as well. Do you know how many native bee species we have in Michigan? Take a guess and write down a number. Then, look through this powerpoint slideshow to find the answer!

https://www.canr.msu.edu/uploads/234/74792/Gibbs_-_Master_Gardener_Smaller.pdf

As you learned in the slideshow above, there are lots of pollinators besides bees, including wasps, flies, and butterflies. Below is a slideshow of a few of the pollinators I’ve managed to photograph on our farm. (The phrase “managed to photograph” is key here–l have found flying bugs to be very difficult to photograph! I’ve seen a lot more species than this on our farm, just haven’t managed to get a clear photo of them.) I have included a couple of photographs of caterpillars, which you might think belong in the “pest” category of insects, but these two species of caterpillars are the larval forms of Black Swallowtail and Monarch butterflies, which are beautiful pollinators that I’m happy to have around, even if the Black Swallowtails are eating my dill.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What pollinators might be flying around in your neighborhood? You probably need a break from looking at your computer anyway, so I challenge you to take a walk and see how many potential pollinators you can see. If you want to level up this challenge, see how many you can photograph! While you are out there, you could participate in this citizen science project that Kalamazoo College entomologist Dr. Ann Fraser shared with me aimed at collecting information on bumblebees across North America. All you need is a camera and a computer: https://www.bumblebeewatch.org/about/


Well, what did you find? K students, attach your pollinator findings to our Moodle forum so we can see the different sorts of pollinator insects that might be present in the different neighborhoods and ecosystems in which you all are living.

Now, let’s talk about predators. All quarter we’ve been examining how closely observing ecological interactions can help us learn how we might most effectively design solutions for farming and gardening problems . . . or design farming and gardening systems that don’t produce those problems in the first place! So, if the problem is that bugs are eating our plants, we might ask how ecosystems deal with that problem. If I walk out into the woods and fields around my house, there are insects eating plants everywhere. Still, the woods and fields are lush with greenery. So why aren’t these plant-eating insects defoliating everything?

I’m going to answer that question with a story. Shortly after my parents’ retired from dairy farming, they put a good portion of their former farm fields into the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Under their conservation contract, they let some of those fields simply go fallow; others they planted into mixtures of wildflowers and native prairie grasses. Over first few years after they quit cultivating these fields, I watched the plant species change dramatically–in the wildflower plantings, for example, certain plants like blue flax sprung up in the first couple of years and then were outcompeted by taller flowers like goldenrods and coneflowers. In the fields that had been planted to alfalfa for hay that were let go fallow, field grasses began to take over and eventually the alfalfa disappeared. I remember one year when the field grasses were really getting themselves established when I walked out mid-summer just as the grass heads were ripening to find that everywhere I looked, the grasses were covered with black worms. And I mean, they were everywhere, covering the grasses, eating them. It was creepy. When I got back to the house, I did a little research and identified them as army worms.

The next Spring when I was walking out in the fields, I started to notice praying mantis egg cases. I mean, a lot of praying mantis egg cases. If you’ve never seen one of those, here’s what it looks like. (The words “harmonize with nature” are from permaculture principles and are on this photo because I used it as a part of a permaculture project that I was doing. I’ll share more about permaculture with you next week!)Harmonize with Nature

This little egg case can contain up to 300 praying mantis eggs, though a minority of those will survive to adulthood (partly ’cause they eat each other). Here’s a photo of a female adult mantis patrolling my tomato plants for hornworms:

DSCF3316

Praying mantises might also be called “preying” mantises, because they eat other insects. Voraciously. After I saw all of those mantis egg cases appear in our fields that one spring, we never had another armyworm infestation like that again. I suspect armyworms are still there in the fields, but enough of them are getting picked off by mantises and other predators that their populations are not growing out of control.

Wasps (which I unfortunately have very few photos of) are one of our most important types of pollinator and predator insects, since certain species of wasps feed on caterpillars like hornworms and cabbage worms that are some of our most problematic garden pests. Many of them use caterpillars as food for their larva, often paralyzing the caterpillar and laying their eggs on, in, or near the paralyzed caterpillar. Here’s a tomato hornworm that has been parasitized by a wasp. All of those white things on its back are wasp cocoons. The mama wasp laid her eggs under the caterpillar’s skin and when the larva hatched out, they ate the caterpillar’s insides and then ate their way back up to the skin, chewed their way out, and built cocoons on top of it. (Yeah, the insect world can be kind of gruesome.)

hornworm

I have been finding more and more of these parasitized hornworms in my gardens in recent years. One strategy I have been using to support the population of these parasitic wasps is not to control my hornworm population too much! Think about this for a moment–if I am super on top of pest control in my garden and the moment I see a hornworm I reach for a pesticide or I scour the tomato vines looking for hornworms that I can pick off and kill, then I am limiting the wasp’s food source. But if I simply monitor the hornworm population, only intervening if it looks like it’s going to actually damage my harvest significantly, then I help that wasp population grow, which means that each year they are more able to take over the job of monitoring and controlling the hornworms for me, saving me time and energy.

So, that’s our basic philosophy of insect pest control–observe, identify, and try to understand what role the insects in our gardens are playing within the garden ecosystem before we decide how we might most effectively intervene in those relationships. Sometimes we turn to non-insect predators to help us with pest populations as well. Here’s a short video of one of my avian friends who is helping me out with one of my most problematic pests:

https://photos.app.goo.gl/N54uUyj76y5xLA2e7

And here’s a quick slideshow of some of our other predatory friends that help us out in the orchard and gardens:

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Okay, time to get up and stretch again! K students, I invite you to take a second walk around your neighborhood and this time keep your eye out for possible insect predator/prey interactions. What bugs do you see on this walk? What can you find out about them and about their diets? Do they eat plants? Do they eat dead things? Do they eat other insects? What birds, amphibians, or reptiles do you see that might dine on insects?

Share your findings with us in our Moodle forum! As usual, community members are welcome to comment here.

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“Slow Farming” Week 8: Animals

This post is one of a series created as a part of our Kalamazoo College Senior Capstone Course, “Slow Farming: Just, Joyful, and Resilient Agriculture.” Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we are teaching this course online in 2020 and making the blog post portion available to community members as well.

Hi Slow Farmers!

We’ve been talking about learning from the diversity of natural ecosystems and how incorporating both microbial and plant diversity into our gardens and farms can make them more productive and sustainable. But what about animals? Do they have a role in just, joyful, and resilient farms and gardens? Or not?

Before you read any further, I’d like you to jot down some notes about what you know, think, and feel about animal agriculture. Do you choose to eat animals and/or animal products? If so, why are you making that choice? If you don’t choose to eat animals or animal products, why are you making that choice? K students, I would love to hear your answers to these questions in our Moodle forum.

If you choose to eat animals and/or animal products, what do you know about the lives of the animals that you eat or whose milk or eggs you consume? Where, geographically, did they most likely live and under what conditions? Who are the people who took care of them and what do you know about their lives? What do you know or can you find out about the impacts the farms on which your animals were raised have on the environment, climate, and surrounding communities? Pick one animal or animal product that you have eaten in the past week (or that is currently in your refrigerator) and do some research–what answers you can find to these questions?

If you don’t choose to eat animals or animal products, I have a different challenge for you. Pick one plant that you have eaten in the past week (or that is currently in your refrigerator) and trace its history. Where was it most likely grown and under what conditions? Who are the people who took care of it and what do you know about their lives? What can you find out about the impacts of the farm on which it was most likely grown on the environment, climate, and surrounding communities? What animals were likely killed or displaced in the growing of this plant?

In this TED talk, Gabriella Wolfe describes some of the problems created by livestock “factory farms” where the concentration of large populations of livestock in confined spaces create horrible living situations for the animals; awful working conditions for farmworkers; toxic soups of manure, hormones, and antibiotics that leach into waterways; noxious fumes that plague nearby communities; and emissions that contribute significantly to climate change. She also talks a bit about why it can be so hard to learn exactly what is going on at these farms. There are some graphic images in this talk. If you are unable to view those, I encourage you to listen without looking at the screen. If you are able to view them, I encourage you to think about how the images are a part of the story the speaker is telling about animal agriculture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQBUO4pG278

Jacy Reese Anthis advocates for the end of animal agriculture and the adoption of plant-based meat “substitutes” and lab-grown meat products instead. Pay attention to the images in this talk as well and what messages they are crafting: https://www.ted.com/talks/jacy_reese_anthis_why_we_should_end_animal_agriculture?language=en

What are your thoughts and feelings about these two talks and the picture they paint of animal agriculture?

Not everyone thinks that lab-grown or plant-based “meat” is the solution to problems with animal agriculture. K alum, attorney, rancher, and writer Nicolette Hahn Niman describes her issues with the “clean meat” movement in this article: https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/clean-meat-is-neither-we-can-and-must-do-better/

I’m curious about what you think about lab-grown meat–would you eat meat grown from cells in a lab? Why or why not?

In his talk, Reese critiques the idea that we can have humane animal agriculture and offers a disturbing description of an egg farm using organic practices. Here’s a video that offers a peek into an organic egg operation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IchRY_1SYFU

For comparison, here’s a video inside a conventional egg farm using “enriched housing” practices: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dd7yu1mnjjM

And you’ve all seen our ducks wandering around and quacking in the videos that I’ve made for you on our farm. Their eggs are a staple of our diet during laying season and a main source of protein for us. Here’s a series of videos I made about other ways that the ducks fit into our farmscape: https://photos.app.goo.gl/22Eupaq2mc9dKRnZ8

What are your thoughts and feelings as you watch the series of videos I linked to above (the chicken egg farms and my videos of ducks)?

In one of my videos, I mention rotational grazing and how I plan to move my ducks through different foraging areas so that they don’t over-forage one area and denude the soil in that area, depleting the soil and creating erosion problems. There are farmers and researchers working on systems like this across the world. Some terms used to refer to these systems include regenerative grazing and holistic grazing. Some systems include rotations of different types of livestock, such as running chickens through an area that has recently been foraged by cattle so that the chickens will pick through the cattle manure and eat parasites that might otherwise reinfect the cattle when they return to that area.

A recent study sponsored by Michigan State University looks at the possibilities for these sorts of grazing systems to restore soil and sequester carbon, offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions produced by livestock farming. You can read the scientific paper here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X17310338

Or, you could watch this short video that describes the project instead: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxocDQBoXGU

Whew, that was a lot, wasn’t it? We could spend a whole quarter looking at all of the complex issues related to animals in agriculture and this post opens up just a few of the questions involved. We can dig more deeply into animal agriculture in our Thursday conversations, but to wrap up this post, I’d like to have you go back to your initial jottings about what animals or animal products you choose to eat or not eat and why. As you have taken in the different media that I’ve linked to throughout this post and brainstormed answers to the questions that I’ve posed, how have your thoughts and feelings about the role of animals in agriculture and your diet shifted and developed? What new insights and questions do you have? What would you like to learn more about?

K students, I’d love to hear your responses to the questions I’ve posed throughout this post on our Moodle forum! (And remember that your responses can be multi-media.) Community friends are welcome to share their thoughts and questions here.

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“Slow Farming” Week 7: Timing & Transplanting

This post is one of a series created as a part of our Kalamazoo College Senior Capstone Course, “Slow Farming: Just, Joyful, and Resilient Agriculture.” Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we are teaching this course online in 2020 and making the blog post portion available to community members as well.

Hello Slow Farmers & Friends,

I had this song stuck in my mind recently, so I thought I’d start off this week’s post by sharing it with you:

 

Ah, yes, but what season is it? A week ago I wrote that Spring was moving right along but it seems like we got Winter back for a few moments this week! Monitoring and adjusting to weather patterns is a part of daily life for farmers and a critical one, especially in Spring when plants are vulnerable as they emerge from dormancy and start to put out those tender roots, shoots, and buds. Planting seeds too early in cold soil can mean that they rot instead of sprout; planting too late can mean they don’t have enough time to mature before the seasons turn again toward Fall and Winter.

In Michigan, we start many of our heat-loving crops indoors as “transplants,” which means that we germinate their seeds indoors under controlled climatic conditions and let the young plants grow for a month or more before transplanting them outdoors. This practice allows us to move the season along for these plants whose seeds wouldn’t normally germinate outdoors in our cool Michigan spring weather. Here’s a video that I did at the beginning of April that shows how we start most of our transplants:

https://www.facebook.com/168871449887455/videos/455123715262575/

And this video shows a grow light system in our porch that serves as the “nursery” for our early transplants:

https://www.facebook.com/168871449887455/videos/215357416426286/

This video from mid-April shows you my process of thinning seedlings and beginning to select for characteristics that I want in seedlings. Notice the size of the plants in this video–I shot another video involving these plants earlier today (May 10) so you’ll be able to see how much they’ve grown in the past three weeks:

https://www.facebook.com/168871449887455/videos/554826711833058/

I mentioned the term “hardening off” in the previous video. This is an important stage in the transplanting process and any gardener who skimps on this step once or twice probably won’t do it a third time! You can kill all of your baby plants in one afternoon if you aren’t paying attention to the weather and stick them outdoors for the first time into bright sunlight or strong wind. Hardening off takes time but is critical for developing strong, healthy transplants that can withstand the weather stresses of the outdoors. Here’s a video describing our hardening off process (this video was from two weeks ago–you’ll see these tomatoes in the video from today as well):

https://www.facebook.com/168871449887455/videos/923037748126348/

As I mentioned in the first video, we time the seeding of our transplants according to our best guesses about when the outdoor weather will be hospitable for them and how quickly they grow. But the outdoor weather doesn’t always conform to our best guesses! For example–I had planned to have all of our cool-weather loving crops like cabbages, lettuces, and kales transplanted a week ago. But even though they grow well in cool weather, these plants don’t necessarily like BELOW FREEZING weather like the temperatures we had last Friday! So I decided to hold off on transplanting them until the weather warms this coming week, even though they are starting to outgrow their soil blocks, which creates stress for them that I’d prefer to avoid. Here are two videos that show how to identify a stressed-out transplant and what you might do about it if that plant happens to be a tomato:

https://www.facebook.com/168871449887455/videos/673302266801254/

https://www.facebook.com/168871449887455/videos/678813546229053/

Looking ahead at the weather forecast for this week, we’ve got a few more nights of possible frost and then on Wednesday we move into a warmer weather pattern with a rain pattern coming in on Thursday and possibly continuing for the following few days. Which means that we’ve got a planting window on Wednesday between the cold temperatures Tuesday night and the rain moving in on Thursday. So we’ll be scrambling to get soil ready in all of our gardens on Monday and Tuesday this week so that we can have a big planting push on Wednesday and get as many of those poor transplants that are outgrowing their soil blocks into the ground as we can. This afternoon I decided that the pac choi wasn’t going to make it until Wednesday and so I transplanted it today and made some videos for you so you could see that process:

https://photos.app.goo.gl/usUGnUgpQQhkqYdk7

K students, what questions do you have? Post them on our Moodle forum and we will try to answer them. Other friends, feel free to post your questions here!

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“Slow Farming” Week 6: In the Orchard

This post is one of a series created as a part of our Kalamazoo College Senior Capstone Course, “Slow Farming: Just, Joyful, and Resilient Agriculture.” Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we are teaching this course online in 2020 and making the blog post portion available to community members as well.

Hello Slow Farmers & Friends,

Whew, that rain and the subsequent warmth is moving Spring right along this week, isn’t it? It seems like everything is growing, budding, blooming, nest building, and pollinating. It’s a little intense trying to keep up with all that fecundity! But we’re doing our best, getting our cool season crops transplanted into the ground and our final warm season crops (the fast growers like cucumbers and melons) started indoors.

And, we’ve been finishing up pruning and doing some transplanting of herbs and berries into our orchard and young apple tree “guilds.” Last week we talked a little bit about polycultures and how diverse polyculture systems managed with minimal tillage can nurture strong soil food webs. This week we thought we’d extend those ideas into the orchard ecosystem and invite you to think about garden designs that include perennial crops like fruit trees and shrubs.

To remind you a bit about the history of our orchard, my parents began planting it in the old cow pasture after they retired from dairy farming somewhere around twenty or more years ago. They planted all of the different fruits that they could think of: apples, peaches, apricots, pears, nectarines, kiwi fruits, sweet and sour cherries–even persimmons! Which was fun, but unfortunately they planted many of the trees too close together and then didn’t prune or shape them for many years. When the trees started to get too tall and tangle-y to manage, my mom and I attempted to prune them, but we really didn’t know what we were doing in those early years and we made a lot of mistakes, including “topping” the trees too heavily all at once, causing them to respond with suckers that shot upward with incredible vigor. Because the orchard was too big for us to manage, we were never able to prune all of the trees each year and so those suckers just kept growing and pretty soon the tree was too tall and tangle-y once again.

My Dad came of age in the early 50s, when the chemical revolution in agriculture was in full swing. So when he shifted from dairy farming to growing fruit and pests began to appear in his orchard, his question was “what can I spray to kill them?” His extension agent and his chemical salesperson provided a list of recommended insecticides and fungicides and a regular spray schedule to follow, beginning in early Spring and continuing through the fruiting season. One of the insecticides that was recommended to him was Guthion, or azinphos methyl, a pesticide derived from nerve agents developed during the chemical warfare of World War II that was first registered for agricultural use in the United States in 1959.

I suppose that it shouldn’t come as a shock that a pesticide derived from a neurotoxin developed to kill human enemies in battle would have toxic effects on human farmworkers, but it wasn’t until 2001 that the EPA (despite concerns raised by the United Farmworkers decades earlier) reassessed the risks of Guthion exposure and released  a memo containing this statement:

Taking into account both the risks and benefits of azinphos-methyl use, the Agency has determined that all uses of azinphos-methyl are ineligible for re-registration based on their currently approved labeling. Although EPA is unable to find these uses eligible under their currently approved labeling, EPA has identified conditions under which a limited number of uses of azinphos-methyl could be eligible for a time-limited re-registration of four years, if specific mitigation measures are adopted. The registrations for these uses will, in effect, expire on October 30, 2005, unless the registrant requests and EPA grants an extension of the registration. (https://archive.epa.gov/pesticides/reregistration/web/pdf/azinphosmethyl_ired.pdf). 

Of course, the registrants (Bayer CropScience, Gowan and Makhteshim Chemical Works) did request extensions and they were granted. It took a lawsuit and twelve years before Guthion was finally pulled off the market in the US for good. During those twelve years, my father continued to spray Guthion across his orchard every couple of weeks throughout the growing season, using a hand wand sprayer and minimal protective equipment (the most I could get him to wear on a regular basis was a raincoat). This, despite the fact that he had a progressive peripheral neuropathy that caused him to lose sensation and coordination in his hands and feet. But his confidence in the conventional agriculture system and its dismissal of pesticide toxicity was such that I could never get him to consider that perhaps the fact that he was drenching himself with a neurotoxin on a regular basis had something to do with the damaged nerves in his extremities.

I’m angry about this.

I’m not only angry for my father, but for all of the farmers and farmworkers (and their children!) across this country who have been and continue to be exposed unnecessarily to neurotoxins, carcinogens, and other poisons while our agricultural “experts” continue to promote their use as essential to “feeding the world”. And pesticides aren’t the only dangers faced by the men, women, and children who provide the bulk of the labor on farms and food processing plants and who are generally underpaid for this dangerous and draining labor. Below is a link to a 2017 report that provides an overview of issues facing migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Michigan. Take a read through (it looks long but half of the pages are bibliography and resource pages): https://jsri.msu.edu/upload/publications/research-reports/RR59%20final.pdf

What did you know about the roles that migrant and seasonal farmworkers play in Michigan’s agricultural systems prior to reading the report? Where did you learn what you already knew? What was in the report that you didn’t already know?

———–

As you might imagine, when my father was no longer able to manage the orchard and it fell under my care, I was not eager to expose my body to the toxins of conventional orchard sprays. I mean, I like fresh fruit, but I also like to be able to feel my fingers and toes! John and I have been working to transition the orchard to a more ecologically-based system for around five years now. We’ve still got a long way to go to create the diverse and beautiful food forest that we can envision, but we are making progress.

Our first step in healing the orchard ecosystem was to stop using all conventional pesticides. Then we began working steadily over a period of years to remove dead and non-productive trees and to prune the remaining trees into productive and manageable shapes and sizes, opening up more light and air spaces both within and between the trees. We’re still working on this!

Another important step in restoring ecological health to the orchard has been working with the soil, adding organic matter in the form of woodchips and introducing herbaceous and flowering plants to provide habitat for beneficial insects and pollinator species. And we’ve been allowing my mom’s chickens to forage underneath the trees to help us with pest control, since many of our insect pest species have a stage in their life cycle in which they pupate in the soil.

We’ve mostly been focusing on maintaining the apple and pear trees since many of the older peaches, cherries, apricots and nectarines have died or are no longer very productive. Once we get the number of trees scaled back to a manageable amount, we may consider planting some new peaches or cherries, but both John and I love the apples so we will probably continue to grow quite a few of them. Even ugly apples make great apple cider!

What do you know about apples and where they come from? Check out this film that gives a quick overview of how we ended up with the apple varieties that are currently common and traces their history back to the wild apple forests of Kazakhstan:

https://vimeo.com/114449609

Then, check out this series of videos we made for you about our orcharding efforts: https://photos.app.goo.gl/mChBYVCDPtCyCYrD8

Rehabbing this orchard has been a lot of work. And on those years when the fruit is especially abundant, harvesting and processing the fruit is a lot of work too. But what if that work and that harvest could be shared?

About ten years ago, an undergraduate student at Indiana University who was struggling with food security herself nurtured the seeds of a vision of an urban community orchard: http://www.bloomingtoncommunityorchard.org/site/2014/02/chatting-with-amy-countryman/

Here’s a map of what the orchard looks like now: http://www.bloomingtoncommunityorchard.org/site/about/

Poet Ross Gay serves on the board of directors of the Bloomington Community Orchard. Here’s a short essay he wrote that describes the vision of the orchard brought to life. He writes:  “This common dreaming, in addition to apples and plums and figs, is the real fruit of this orchard. The orchard is a way for us to imagine how to better care for one another. How better to love one another.” https://otherwords.org/a-free-fruit-for-all-in-bloomington/

If Ross Gay’s article inspires you, please take time to listen to this podcast interview with him: https://www.cultivatingplace.com/post/2019/11/28/unabashed-gratitude-structures-of-care-with-poet-gardener-ross-gay

What I love about Ross Gay is his ability to root deep into the joy and wonder and beauty of the world even as he grapples with the ugly and dangerous and difficult. Here are two of his poems that I especially love:

“Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58762/catalog-of-unabashed-gratitude

“To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian”: https://aprweb.org/poems/to-the-fig-tree-on-9th-and-christian

Okay, this post has gotten long, so I’ll stop now. K students, you can post your questions and comments on the Moodle forum. Everyone else, feel free to send us your comments or questions through this site. As you respond, I’d like to invite you to take inspiration from Ross Gay and to create your own “catalog of gratitude.” How is the earth teaching you to care for yourself and for your community right now? How are you engaging in “common dreaming” that helps you imagine how we might better love one another? When you think about your community of care, who is included in that? Does it include the soil microbes and the pollinators that are essential to producing the food that you eat? Does it include the plants and animals whose bodies become your food? Does it include the humans who planted, cultivated, harvested, and slaughtered those plants and animals? Is there a limit to the number of beings that you can love and care for?

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“Slow Farming” Week 5: To Till or not to Till . . . tending the soil, part 3!

This post is one of a series created as a part of our Kalamazoo College Senior Capstone Course, “Slow Farming: Just, Joyful, and Resilient Agriculture.” Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we are teaching this course online in 2020 and making the blog post portion available to community members as well.

Hello Slow Farming Friends!

I promised you a deeper dive into soil care and cultivation this week, along with planting strategies that we use to keep our soil healthy. To begin that exploration I’m going to share a talk by Jane Mt. Pleasant, an agronomist at Cornell University who has done extensive research into Haudenosaunee agriculture. Though it may not be culturally or ecologically appropriate or practical for us to copy Haudenosaunee farming methods precisely, there is a lot for us to learn from the principles they employ.

K students, as you listen, jot down a list of general principles for successful gardening and tending the soil that stand out to you. How might you employ those principles in a personal garden, community garden, or small farm? What did you learn from this talk that you might apply to your experiential learning project this Spring?

Here’s the link to her talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrK51bE1uSE

————-

Now I’m going to show you how we employ a version of some of the strategies that Mt. Pleasant talks about in the kitchen garden behind our house. I began this garden in 2001; previous to that time it was a field that was rotated between corn and alfalfa. The soil was quite heavily compacted and I had to work very hard to loosen it up for planting in those early years. I used hand tools like shovels and forks but I also sometimes borrowed my folks’ rototiller in the Spring to prepare the soil for planting. I always hated using the tiller because it was loud and smelly and would frequently not start when I wanted it to and not only did I not know how to fix it, I had absolutely zero interest in learning small engine repair. I just wanted to plant my seeds! I think the last straw came on the day that the tiller actually caught fire while I was using it. Or maybe it was the day that I mangled a milk snake with its tines. I don’t remember the exact moment, but I do remember my feeling that I never wanted to have to use a rototiller ever again. That was the year I bought a broadfork and raked the soil into permanent, slightly raised, three-foot-wide beds:

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This garden has been expanded a couple of times since then. When I began Harvest of Joy Farm in 2011 and grew our CSA, this garden was where we grew our earliest spring crops because this no-till, raised bed system allowed us to plant much earlier than in other gardens because (much as in the mound system that Mt. Pleasant describes) the soil in the slightly raised beds drains quickly and warms up quickly in the Spring. And because we never walk on the beds (only in the paths!) and we are continually adding organic matter in the form of compost and mulches, each year the soil gets looser, fluffier, and friendlier to our vegetable plant roots. Here is a photo of some of our very first Slow Farming students helping us to plant kale in these garden beds:

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When I was using this garden to grow food for just myself and my family, I used polyculture plantings like the Three Sisters Mt. Pleasant describes much more frequently than we did when we were using this garden for CSA production. When I was growing for the CSA, I found that I had to consider my need to harvest a certain amount of produce efficiently each week in my planting strategies. In the Haudenosaunee farming Mt. Pleasant describes, many people share the labor, but on my farm it was just me, John, and in the early years, my friend Diane. So being able to move down a row of lettuce really quickly and to harvest all of that crop in one spot became an important consideration. But even though we didn’t use inter-cropping systems often through the CSA, we did follow the principle of spacing plants so that when they were mature, they were close enough together to capture as much of the available sunlight as possible and to shade the soil and suppress weeds (as you can see in the lettuce on the right):

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In addition, we used cover crops like buckwheat to fill in the gaps between the plants as they were growing:

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And then we would pull or chop those cover crops and lay them next to the vegetable plants as mulch to cover the soil as the vegetable plants matured:

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We have also used white clover (a nitrogen-fixing legume) as a “living mulch” sown underneath our vegetable crops as a means of feeding the soil food web and capturing sunlight as well. These strategies aren’t nearly as sophisticated as a Three Sisters planting, but they use some of those principles of capturing available sunlight and keeping the soil shaded with vegetation that out-competes weeds and returns organic matter to the soil. Now that we are transitioning away from doing a CSA, I am excited to return to experimenting with more diverse polycultures in our kitchen garden again!

Another thing that Mt. Pleasant talks about is choosing the right crops to meet your nutritional needs and harvesting those crops at the time when they are most nutritionally dense. This is another place where I found that the goals of running a CSA came into conflict with my personal goals of feeding myself as much as possible from the land. When most people are thinking about “buying local” at farmers’ markets or through CSAs, what types of foods are they thinking about buying? Often it’s vegetables like fresh tomatoes or sweet corn or green beans. Sometimes it is meat, eggs, or cheese. Less frequently it is staples like mature dry beans and grains that not only provide calories and protein, but also last through the winter months when fresh produce is harder to come by.

As more and more of my energy went toward raising fresh veggies for the CSA, I found that I started running out of time and energy to grow and process my own staple crops. Not only that, I found myself running out of time to can and freeze those fresh veggies into tomato soup and roasted red pepper sauce and other preservable forms that used to carry me through the winter months. Now that we don’t have the pressures of produce sales guiding our gardening planning, we are focusing our crop choices much more heavily on plants that can provide the bulk of our diets, not just the side-dishes and condiments: black beans, lima beans, runner beans, soybeans, flint corn, rice, peanuts, potatoes, squashes, etc. And, we have resumed our canning and preserving practices. Last year I learned to make pickles and kraut and kimchi through the process of lacto-fermentation, which is quickly becoming a new passion of mine!

Finally, Mt. Pleasant talks about the damage done to soils by plowing. I want to acknowledge here that there are different types of plows and plowing techniques and there are other types of cultivation techniques, such as rotary tilling, that aren’t exactly plowing but do damage to the soil just the same. Some types of mechanical tillage are less damaging than others, but they all disrupt the soil food web and the soil organic matter to some degree.

Here, again, I have found that the no-till soil cultivation strategies that I developed for our kitchen garden didn’t quite work when I tried to scale them up to CSA production and again, I attribute this to not having the labor force of a village! In my kitchen garden, I keep on top of weeds by mulching and cover cropping and also simply by walking through the garden multiple times a day and randomly pulling whatever little weed I see popping up and dropping that weed on top of the soil so that it becomes part of the mulch. But with only three of us managing gardens that were set to feed forty to fifty other families, we couldn’t keep up these practices fast enough to out-compete weeds and the hand-tool methods we used to prepare beds in Spring weren’t fast enough to keep up with our CSA schedule.

So we adopted a partial-tillage strategy in some of our bigger gardens where we will till once in the Spring to prepare the beds and knock down weeds from the previous year and then we don’t till for the remainder of the year. In crops like corn or potatoes we may use the tiller to do a hilling once the plants are established, but frequently we do this with hand tools like rakes or hoes. For me, this is a far from ideal solution but it is better than the conventional no-till practices of spraying herbicides or the common organic practice of using black plastic or landscape fabric as an inorganic “mulch” to control weeds in-between plants in organic no-till systems.

Our kitchen garden, though, remains a tiller-free zone and I much prefer it that way! Below are a few videos of John demonstrating how we use a broadfork and a cultivating hoe to prepare these no-till beds for planting. You will see a walk-behind tiller in the background–John was doing some Spring repairs on that to take it to our hoophouse where he used it to prepare the ground for sowing a “cover crop cocktail”–or a polyculture of cover crops that will help build that soil so that we can plant into it in late summer.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/NpHYC2VQySMVHDdY8

K students, what questions do you have? Share your questions and responses to Jane Mt. Pleasant’s talk on our Moodle forum!

 

 

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“Slow Farming” Week 4: The Nitrogen Cycle, Food Waste, and Compost

This post is one of a series created as a part of our Kalamazoo College Senior Capstone Course, “Slow Farming: Just, Joyful, and Resilient Agriculture.” Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we are teaching this course online in 2020 and making the blog post portion available to community members as well.

Hello Slow Farmers!

Well, we got Winter back for a few days last week but it looks like Spring has returned to us again. All across the farm, our plant, animal, and insect friends are waking up from their winter dormancies. This includes our friends in the soil, the microbes. One of the things we’ll be doing this week is tending to our garden soils and getting them ready for planting. What this soil preparation looks like is different in each of our garden areas depending on the soil type and garden design. Next week I’ll show you some of the different cultivation and planting strategies we use to care for our soil. This week I’d like to focus on compost and how it can be part of the solution for three major problems in our industrial food systems: food waste, nutrient deficiencies, and fertilizer runoff.

In our live call last week, I shared an infographic with you that showed the connections between nutrients in the soil, nutrients in the bodies of plants, and nutrients in our own bodies: http://www.fao.org/resources/infographics/infographics-details/en/c/358223/

I’d like to focus a moment on one of the “macronutrients” depicted in that diagram: nitrogen. Nitrogen is a critical element for plant growth in part because it is essential for photosynthesis, the process by which plants produce energy in their bodies using sunlight. In the image below you see a representation of the photosynthesis equation that depicts plants’ taking in of carbon dioxide and water and converting those substances into sugars (C6H12O6) that are used to build the plant’s body and oxygen that that is released back into the air. Of course, this diagram is simplistic and misses a lot of the steps! If you remember our conversation last week, you might notice one critical piece that is missing from this diagram–the exuding of sugars back into the soil through the plant roots to feed the microbial community that is making an array of nutrients in the soil available to the plant.

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But wait, where’s the nitrogen in this process? Well, the process by which plants make sugars out of carbon dioxide and water requires a substance called chlorophyll and nitrogen is one of the elements of that chlorophyll molecule. Nitrogen is also essential for plant proteins that build plant structure, for energy transfer within the plant, and is a fundamental component of DNA. So, no nitrogen, no plant.

Throughout this course, I’m going to be talking about how we look to the systems, processes, and relationships of nature as we design and manage our gardens. (Why? Well, because nature works! If you haven’t noticed, we have are living on a complex, beautiful, and highly functional planet that works incredibly well when humans aren’t disrupting the systems that create and support all of its life.)

So let’s look at the system of nitrogen cycling that Mama Nature uses to support photosynthesis in plants. (And remember that plant photosynthesis is critical to supporting all animal life as well. Since we “higher order” organisms can’t make our own energy using sunlight, we must get our energy by eating plants or eating other animals that eat plants.)

Diagram of nitrogen cycle above and below ground. Atmospheric nitrogen goes to nitrogen-fixing bacteria in legumes and the soil, then ammonium, then nitrifying bacteria into nitrites then nitrates (which is also produced by lightning), then back to the atmosphere or assimilated by plants, then animals. Nitrogen in animals and plants become ammonium through decomposers (bacteria and fungi).https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nitrogen_Cycle_2.svg#/media/File:Nitrogen_Cycle_2.svg

Take a few minutes and look at this diagram. What do you notice? What are your first impressions? Follow the arrows around the diagram with your eyes. What additional things do you notice as you look more carefully? What questions arise?

Here is a photo of legume root nodules on a bean plant from my garden. Inside these nodules, there are bacteria doing the work of supplying nitrogen to this plant:

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Now let’s take a look at the human-constructed nitrogen cycle that is fueling most of our industrial crop production today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzFZ9TYizaw

As you watched this video, what did you notice? What were your first impressions? What images and/or words stood out to you? Watch the video one more time. What do you notice on your second watch? What questions arise for you?

Okay, now take a listen to this short radio story on the development of the Haber-Bosch process of producing nitrogen fertilizer using nitrogen from the air and hydrogen from natural gas and other fossil fuel sources. As you listen, have a blank piece of paper near you and jot down the claims (or main points) you hear being made throughout the piece.

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1146429

Now, look back through the list of notes you jotted down. What messages stand out to you? Which relay facts and which are speculation? What additional information might you need in order to verify the claims that are made? What worldviews and values are represented in this piece? Whose voices and perspectives are missing?

Notice, too, how your own positionality, background, and academic studies shape your responses. What experiences and beliefs are you drawing on as you evaluate the messaging of this radio story?

K students, I’m going to ask you to take a break here, go to our Moodle and share your responses to the questions I’ve asked you throughout the first section of this blog post in the Harvest of Joy Farm Week 4 forum.

____________

Just my personal opinion, but I think that one of the dumbest parts of our industrial food system involves the extraction of fossil fuels to create chemical fertilizers to fuel farming systems that destroy the life in the soil, thus creating the need to apply more chemical fertilizers since plants can’t get the nutrients they need from the soil food web if the soil food web is broken. Without life to hold the nutrients in the soil, we have nutrient run-off into waterways, devastating aquatic ecosystems. So we have to apply more chemical fertilizers because those we previously applied have been leached out of the soil and are no longer available to plants. Who might benefit from this fertilizer treadmill, do you think?

The other dumb thing is that we use these chemical fertilizers to grow a bunch of food, a lot of which never gets eaten. In the US, it is estimated that 40 percent of the food that is grown is wasted. And much of that food ends up in landfills where it produces methane gas that contributes to climate change. So the process of creating chemical fertilizers creates toxic waste products, the process of using chemical fertilizers creates toxic waste products, and then we take food that we grow with those fertilizers and make more toxic waste products out of it!

Perhaps thinking about nature’s approach to “waste” could help us re-imagine our soil fertility systems in a way that makes more sense: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBgYfkuydaI

Waste is not a concept that Mama Nature subscribes to. In natural ecosystems, one organism’s waste is another’s food. There are lots of ways that we can apply this principle of “no waste” in our farms, gardens, communities, and daily lives. One way is through composting. Or, rather, many ways are through composting, for there are many ways to compost. Here are three composting strategies that we use:

Cold Composting: Letting organic materials decay over time without a lot of management or interference. Cold composting can be done in piles or through other methods such as sheet mulching (layering organic matter over an area that you want to turn into a garden next year). Or you can continue to add layers of mulch to your already established garden and let the decomposers in your soil break them down over time.

Pros: Easy to build and maintain.

Cons: Won’t kill off pathogens or weed seeds. Takes a long time to fully break down.

Hot Composting:  Mixing organic matter together in the right ratio (along with air and water) to promote fast microbial population growth. As the microbes (like bacteria) feed on the organic material and reproduce, they release heat, which can bring the pile up to 130 degrees F or higher. In an intensive hot composting process, the temperature is monitored and the compost is managed to maintain optimal temperatures (which are really just indicators of optimal microbial populations). Maintenance can include turning, watering, and/or adding materials to keep the microbes happy.

Pros: Because the pile gets so hot, pathogens and weed seeds are destroyed and because decomposer microbes are maintained at optimal levels, the compost process happens much more quickly than in cold composting.

Cons: More labor intensive to build and maintain. If the pile gets too hot, plant-beneficial microorganisms can be killed off as well.

Vermicomposting: Using worms to break down organic materials. This method uses specific types of worms that feed heavily on decomposing organic matter. As bacteria soften and begin to breakdown the compost materials, the worms suck in a mixture of the bacteria and decayed organic matter and poop out worm castings, which are rich in both nutrients and beneficial microbes.

Pros: Can be done in small spaces, such as indoor containers. Produces a very nutrient and biologically-rich compost. Materials can be added frequently in small batches.

Cons: Does not kill pathogens or seeds. Requires some maintenance (worms are alive, after all, and will die if they don’t have their basic survival needs met).

But any given compost pile might not fall neatly into one category or another—it’s a spectrum! For example, piles may heat up initially, then cool down, and as they cool, the worms move in to finish the job.

Here’s an overview of some backyard composting basics from the Rodale Institute: https://rodaleinstitute.org/blog/backyard-composting-basics-a-cheatsheet/ One thing that they suggest that I might skip is putting your compost pile on a pallet. Yeah, it will give you better air circulation at the bottom, but then you are going to have to extract your compost from the pallet or vice versa. I don’t know, I haven’t tried it, so maybe it isn’t as much work as I imagine that might be. If you try it, let me know!

One type of composting that I love to do is vermicomposting, composting with redworms. This Cornell webpage contains a 9 minute video that explains why vermicompost is so good for plants: http://cwmi.css.cornell.edu/vermicompost.htm.

I put together a few videos demonstrating my process of building and maintaining vermicompost bins. You can view them here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/qTTWgXaUs2binFTj9

K students, I’d like to hear from you about your experiences with and thoughts about food waste and composting. Please go back to the Moodle and add your thoughts about food waste and composting to your previous forum post (you can just reply to yourself). Have you done composting in the past? If so, how did you do it and how did it go? What compost methods might work for you where you are living currently? What challenges and obstacles to reducing your food waste and/or composting do you face? What would you need in order to overcome those challenges?

Next week we are going to talk about other strategies for keeping soil healthy and what health soil has to do with climate change, so stay tuned!

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“Slow Farming” Week 3: What is Soil?

This post is one of a series created as a part of our Kalamazoo College Senior Capstone Course, “Slow Farming: Just, Joyful, and Resilient Agriculture.” Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we are teaching this course online in 2020 and making the blog post portion available to community members as well.

The Common Living Dirt

The small ears prick on the bushes,
furry buds, shoots tender and pale.
The swamp maples blow scarlet.
Color teases the corner of the eye,
delicate gold, chartreuse, crimson,
mauve speckled, just dashed on.

The soil stretches naked. All winter
hidden under the down comforter of snow,
delicious now, rich in the hand
as chocolate cake: the fragrant busy
soil the worm passes through her gut
and the beetle swims in like a lake.

As I kneel to put the seeds in
careful as stitching, I am in love.
You are the bed we all sleep on.
You are the food we eat, the food
we ate, the food we will become.
We are walking trees rooted in you.

–Marge Piercy

This week we will explore the mysteries of the “living dirt,” otherwise known as soil. Take a moment to think about the context in which you have used or heard these words: dirty, soiled. Is it a good thing for someone or something to be described in these terms?

Might there be a connection between the fact that we frequently use these adjectives in negative ways and the fact that we are actively destroying the complex web of life that exists within the soil through our agricultural practices?

What do you even know about the soil and its importance for your own life?

K students, I promise that I won’t ask you to watch a full documentary every week, but there’s a really good film on the soil that I want to you to see. It’s called “Symphony of the Soil” and it’s free to you through your Kalamazoo College Kanopy account. (The library needs to approve access but I hope they’ll be able to do that early on Monday–I’ll keep you posted if they can’t!). I hope you enjoy the film–I’ll have some reflection questions for you about it on our Moodle site.

Community friends, unfortunately, this film is a little harder to acquire, but if you’d like to order a DVD, here is the website: https://symphonyofthesoil.com/the-films/symphony-of-the-soil/. It is really a lovely and comprehensive look at soils!

As you’ll learn in the film, there are LOTS of different soils around the globe https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/soils/use/worldsoils/?cid=nrcs142p2_054013 that have been shaped by geologic forces over time. As farmers and gardeners, it can be useful to think of soil as containing five different elements: minerals, water, air, organic matter, and living beings. The interactions between these elements are a big factor in what sort of plant life a soil can support. Read through this webpage for a concise description of each of these elements: https://climate-woodlands.extension.org/basic-soil-components/

On our farm we are fortunate to have soils whose mineral particle sizes range from sand:

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to clay:

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This means that we can have different garden plots whose soil types can support plants adapted to these different types of soil. For example, the sandy soil in the first photo is going to have more air spaces in between its larger particles where water can flow through and so plants that like drier conditions will thrive there. The clay soil will be better for plants that need more constant water, since it will hang onto water more easily, both because of the small size of clay particles and also because the charge of the clay soil particles helps them bond to water. But the clay soil also could become waterlogged by hanging on to too much water, which would mean that there isn’t enough air spaces in the soil to support beneficial microbes and root health and our plant roots could start to rot.

Take a look at those two photos again. What do you notice about the color of the soil? You might notice that even though the soil particle sizes in these soils are very different, they are similar in their light color. This is an indication that both of these soils are very low in organic matter. Organic matter is an ugly term for the beautiful process by which death feeds new life on earth as the bodies of the dead plants, animals, insects, and microbes enter the soil and feed the living beings of the soil that make up the soil food web that makes life above the soil possible too!

soil food web

The two photos of our soils above were taken in areas just outside our garden plots. Let’s take a look at what the soils inside the garden areas look like:

Sandy area: first photo outside the garden; second photo inside the garden.

 

Clay area: first photo outside the garden; second photo inside the garden.

 

I hope you can see from the pictures how both the soil color and texture have changed as we have added organic matter over the years through mulch, cover crops, and compost. This organic matter absorbs water and helps to hold it in the sandy soil, but it also helps the clay soil drain better by helping the clay to clump together to form soil aggregates, which are larger clusters of soil particles that have larger air spaces between them. Most importantly, the organic matter provides food for soil micro-organisms and as those micro-organisms feed on the dying and dead organic matter and on each other, they release nutrients that our plants need to thrive!

So, as farmers and gardeners, our first job is to take care of our soil and the beings that live within it. In our next lessons, we’ll show you some ways that we do that with compost, cover crops, mulch, as well as soil-friendly cultivation and planting methods.

K students, we shot a series of videos to give you more of an in-depth introduction to our soils but then I realized that I’m not able to post them to this blog. I will create a shared folder and link it to our Moodle site so you can find them there and I’ll have create a space for you to ask us some questions about them on Moodle as well.

 

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“Slow Farming” Week 2: What is a Seed?

This post is one of a series created as a part of our Kalamazoo College Senior Capstone Course, “Slow Farming: Just, Joyful, and Resilient Agriculture.” Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we are teaching this course online in 2020 and making the blog post portion available to community members as well.

Hello Slow Farmers, this is Amy.

When I think about where to begin with the fundamentals of farming, I think of seeds and I think of soil. We’ll talk more about soil next week. This week we’ll begin with seeds. First, I’d like you to engage with me for a moment in a short activity. Find a piece of paper that you can draw on and something to draw with. (You can get as elaborate or as simple with your drawing materials as you like.) Now, I’d like you to draw a seed. Don’t think too hard about this and definitely do NOT look up pictures of seeds before you do your drawing!! Just draw a seed from your imagination.

Got your seed? Okay, now I’d like you to brainstorm a list of ways that you might complete this sentence:  A seed is . . . .

See if you can write at least five different sentences.

Now, I’d like you to step away from this blog and watch this film: Seed: The Untold Story. Kalamazoo College students, you can stream it free through Kanopy: go to the College library website, click on databases, find Kanopy under the “k”s, and then search the film’s title. Community members, you can stream it for $5 through the film’s website: https://www.seedthemovie.com/.

 

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What did you think about the film? I’d like to hear your responses, but before I do, I’d like to let my partner John (K students, if you haven’t met John already, you’ll meet him during our video call this week) share with you a bit about his relationship to seeds.

This is from John:

Always I have been fascinated by seeds–their vivid shapes and colors, their power and mystery. When I joined the Seed Savers Exchange (http://www.seedsavers.org/) in 1982, I fell in love with the stories attached to seeds gifted to me. Most of our culture at the time had not yet awakened to the “heirloom phenomenon” we see today. Matter of fact, most gardeners and farmers had come to believe as they were told by seed companies and university breeding programs that modern hybrids were far superior. These beautiful seeds that I had requested would arrive at my door accompanied by wonderful handwritten stories about the seeds like these:

“My family lost almost everything during the Great Depression, but these beans kept us alive.”

“This was the only corn to make ears during the great drought of ’34.”

“My people carried these beans on the Trail of Tears.”

I added my own stories when I sent seeds in return: “Midnight, late July, Aunt Mary’s Sweet Corn in full tassel and silk–strong stalks and setting two ears–I feel such powerful ecstatic energy.”

Seeds and culture intertwined. There is more encoded in seeds than their DNA. Seeds have stories to tell and they are still waiting for us to listen.

So, yes! I do think seeds have agency. They are my sisters, brothers, and teachers. Since it appears that climate change may encourage us to rethink agriculture, what kinds of questions should we consider that connote a relationship between us of mutuality and reciprocity? Here are a few that I have been pondering:

Have we misinterpreted our ancient ancestors’ true motivations for selection of seeds for food crops? What about the seeds/species we did not select (such as perennials) and those we have chosen to leave behind?

How might a nurturing/stewarding seed culture emerge in our Great Lakes Bioregion?

What critical consciousness skills will we need to bring to the table when we consider genetically modified organisms?

What about all the seeds that sit in cold storage in seed vaults? Where are the gardeners to find out if these seeds could have a new “homeland”?

How might we re-vision our educational ethics so that seeds and our healthy relationship to the biotic community mean more than power and money?

This talk at a Bioneers conference by John Mohawk talks about the role that the human relationship with “domesticated” plants has played in allowing humans to adapt to many different environments and how that relationship will be important as we adapt to the coming climatic changes. Take a listen:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6kOA-KtPxw.

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Now, that you’ve heard from us and a few other seeds-folk through the film and the talk, go back to your list of sentences about what a seed is. Write five more sentences.

Are there differences between your first list of what a seed is and your second list?

Now we’d like to hear from you: K students, you will find a discussion forum with this blog title that includes prompt questions for you to respond to on our Moodle site under Week 2. Community members, you are welcome to respond in the comments section of this blog or on our Facebook page. Please be respectful and also forgive us if we don’t respond to your comment immediately. We are having relationships with a lot of seeds right now!

If you’d like to learn more about seeds and how to steward them in your home or community garden, we will be teaching an online Seed Stewardship 101 workshop through Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s community education program this coming Saturday, April 11. You can register through this link: https://www.campusce.net/kvcccommunity/course/course.aspx?catId=37. You will need to scroll down to find our course. K students, we will be giving you an abbreviated version of that workshop in our live chat sessions this week.

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What we’re up to this Spring

Hello Friends, how are you all doing? We have been thinking about all of our friends, members, and customers a lot in these past weeks and hoping you all are well. We are isolating on our farm and are very busy as usual with our Spring chores! We are also thinking a lot about what the COVID 19 pandemic might mean for folks in relationship to food and thinking about how we might be of most service at this time. We both have a passion for helping people grow their own food, whether that be in community or backyard gardens, small farms, or pots on an apartment balcony. It seems like there is a lot of interest in that right now and we want to be supportive of that movement!

One thing that we can offer folks is transplants. Before Amy’s father John passed away last year, he helped us to build a larger hoophouse near our house, which gives us more room to grow transplants. So we are starting extra plants this year that should be available beginning in about 5-6 weeks for folks looking for plants to put in their gardens.

The other thing we’d like to offer is educational resources and support for folks who may be new to gardening or returning to it after a hiatus of some years. Normally each Spring we have a class of Kalamazoo College seniors who come to our farm to learn as they help us out with farm projects. This year that class will be happening entirely online. So we thought we’d post some of the lessons for that class on this blog so that they could be available to anyone who wants to read them. The class is called “Slow Farming: Just, Joyful, and Resilient Agriculture.” We’ll put the class title in the blog post title so you can keep an eye out for those if you are interested. We’ve also started to post some short videos on our Facebook page so you can check those out if you are interested as well.

Please reach out to us if there are ways that we can support you in this time!

Blessings,

John and Amy

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