Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Back to the Ground

Before I started farming, I used to write a weekly column about home gardening sprinkled with some tips about healthy eating. With more and more of you looking to grow home gardens and eat locally, I thought I'd revive some of those tips. Plus, I can now add new information that I've gleaned from colleagues or learned as I've been growing food full time for the past 7 years. Granted, I grow on a much larger scale than most of you will likely want to tackle. But many of the tips and some of the techniques, can be replicated in any size garden.

And with all of the talk these days about the importance of eating organic, fresh foods, well, it doesn’t get any more fresh than picked from your own back yard where you know for a fact what you used, and what you didn't use, in the garden. So if you want to eat healthy, fresh and organically this year, you should know that it doesn’t have to be expensive or cumbersome. 

Awhile back I shared a link to a blog by a mother who planned out how to budget for her family on a food stamp allowance and still eat an organic, healthy diet all week long.  Here is that link again. http://www.rebeccablood.net/thriftyo/2007/04/the_organic_thrifty_food_plan_1.html   I think a lot of it is still relevant. It all comes down to a little bit of planning and a little tweaking of our attitude regarding the way we think about eating and lifestyle priorities.  

I have had many conversations with folks about how hard they think it is to eat a healthy, home-cooked diet rich in vitamins and fresh foods.  I’ve been told I’m nuts or unrealistic. Well, I'm not perfect at it either, but I know it can be done. I keep reading about people who have done, or are doing it.

Plus, I hear all of the time people say that they are just too busy to cook. Too busy to shop. Well, you know what? I'm busy, too. I have 14 acres and lots of animals to take care of every day. Honestly, I don't always feel like cooking when I come in after a 12-14 hour day in the field - any more than a single parent does after pulling a double shift and dragging kids to several different soccer fields or home from day care centers. 

So, in order for all of us to do this better, we need to plan. I'll invite folks that I know to share cooking tips, including pre-making dishes for later in the week, and using leftovers so there's less waste, too. These can help keep the output of both money and time spent, more efficient.

I think part of the problem, too, is some folks today have lost touch with their roots when it comes to eating healthy diets of real food. And believing too much of the marketing they see in ads. Trust me, just because it's sold on the supermarket shelf, of any grocery store, doesn't mean it's all that great for you.

Most of us who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, ate much healthier, real foods when we were younger than many of today's kids do. And, I daresay, almost all of our grandparents ate mostly meals made from scratch, because most of the aisles filled with ready made meals found in today’s stores, didn’t exist 50 years ago. Come to think of it, as a kid, I could make it through our neighborhood grocery store in about 10 minutes walking up and down every single aisle. All 8 of them!

So what did they eat in the “old days”?  Simple – they ate real food.  And most, in the summer anyway, they grew a lot of it themselves. I remember my mom growing in our tiny little postage stamp, mostly concrete back yard. Corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas, and who knows what else she grew back there.She planted a garden every summer in my mid-west home town next door to Chicago. 
It seems we have gotten used to popping “pseudo foods” into a microwave or driving through the fast food lane, or skipping meals altogether, because we keep our (or our kids'), schedules so full we don't have time to prepare and eat food at home the way it used to be done. 

Eating is not simply about stopping your stomach from growling or quenching a craving for fat or salt. It is meant to fuel your organs with vital nutrients so they can have a better chance at working properly. It's to really satisfy your hunger so you don’t over-eat. And, it can help restore any potential damage done, (you know, from when you had that streak of eating an entire box of sticky buns for breakfast and some kind of mystery food in a box for dinner), so you don’t become sickly. What’s the saying about food being our medicine? Or an ounce of prevention…. You get the idea.

One great cost-cutting way to get your daily dose of healthy, real food, is still by growing some of it like people used to do – right outside your back door - or front door, or both!  Even if you just start with container gardens for lack of space, there are many things you can grow at home that are pretty easy. 

What if we all learned to grow some of our own food like our parents and grandparents used to do, and passed that skill on to someone else?

There really isn’t that much to it on a small, home garden scale and it is very, very inexpensive, especially if you start from seeds and use your own soil and make a bit of compost at home. Even if you're on a super tight budget and receive assistance; did you know that you can use those funds to purchase plant starts and seeds for vegetables, fruits and edible herbs at places that accept SNAP? And what you traded one or two of those extra-curricular activities you hurry off to 3 or 4 times every week, usually at dinner time, became community gardening or joining a garden or cooking club?  Just food for thought.... Think of the gas money you could save, too!

Once the initial prep work is done on a new garden plot, there’s just a little bit of upkeep a few times a week, and you’ll be on your way to fresh salads, fresh steamed or raw veggies and other delicious foods.  As a side benefit, you’ll get some good exercise and fresh air, too.  It’s also a great hobby for kids to do with you, so they can see what vegetables look like as they're growing, and learn where they really come from – before they show up in cellophane wrapped containers in the store.  And hey, if you don't have any around, see about including a neighbor's kids. You can usually rent a kid pretty cheap for an hour or two.
Teach them that yes, we actually plant and dig French fries, out of the ground first. No, those nubby little packaged school lunch carrots don’t grow on trees - or usually that small. Peas can actually be eaten raw, they’re not hard to start with - those are frozen. I often hear many parents say they have never seen their kids eat so many vegetables before they started to help grow a family plot.  Kids can be a lot of fun in the garden. Plus, they don't usually mind picking bugs off of plants and that's one of the ways we control pests. I keep a few containers around for our CSA members' kids to catch grasshoppers and caterpillars to feed to the chickens. Most of them love it!

So, let’s get started this year! Next time I’ll visit with you about how to select a site for your garden, what you can do right now to start preparing the soil – and guess what, it doesn’t involve digging – and the fun part; seed and plant shopping! 

Until then, start thinking about 4 or 5 things you really like to eat and could possibly grow yourself! And....

Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Acres USA's December Issue - The Untold Chapter

Earlier this summer I was interviewed for a story in Acres USA’s magazine, known as “The Voice of Eco-Agriculture”. Acres USA is North America's oldest publisher on production-scale organic and sustainable farming". The magazine is available at various book stores and news stands and you can read the full article there.

The interview was about specific challenges I experience as owner of an urban farm. And writer Rita Cook notes in the magazine index tease; “…..she has overcome these challenges and continues to focus on growing in harmony with nature…” Staying focused on the end result, “….to produce fresh, healthy food for the local community.” is the best way I know of to be successful.

One of the questions I was asked, concerned any benefits there might be to owning an urban farm. There can be several, namely accessibility to the farm for consumers, which could be considered a built-in market. However, I explained it is only a potential market. As with any business, just because you build it – doesn’t always mean they’ll come; even if they can walk to it. Marketing plays an important role in consumer’s choices.

I added that along with that built-in market, came built-in competitors as well. As the popularity of local food and all things related has increased since I opened in 2007, about a dozen or so other well financed, neighborhood “farmer’s markets” and “CSA’s” have popped up all over the DFW area.

Do they have farmers who actually grow the produce being sold? Some of them. Is it clear which ones don’t? Not always. “Why is this a big deal?” you might ask. It’s a story in and of itself that I’ve touched on many times, but probably bears repeating.

I replied to that question in a part of the story that wasn’t published. With a few additional thoughts I’ve added since the interview, here’s what I said.

I’ll let you decide what the big deal might be, from the farmer or a consumer’s perspective.

Accessibility is of course one of the certain pluses. It is not only convenient for customers, but it makes deliveries of produce to the farm’s restaurant accounts less costly than for many out of town farms.

As far as the larger customer base, this has its up and down side. The extra people living in the area means the market is also desirable to many other businesses vying for the same thing. And I’m not talking about other small farms. Medium to large food buying clubs, middle man run food co-ops and out of town large farms that use their marketing dollars to tout “to your doorstep” deliveries of “local” food are all here, too.

This gives the consumers what has become a wide, yet confusing, choice of ways to eat better. However, it has also put a sort of wedge between the farmer and the consumers' plates by encouraging the old “get bigger or get out” mentality in order to be able to compete. Right in our own backyards.

I don’t think many consumers really understand that when a middle man gets involved between the farmer and the end consumer, about half of the gross profit for the farmer is lost. The one who made this food possible in the first place.

Try to think of it this way; if he, or she, gets paid 50 cents of the retail dollar for those tomatoes the customer paid $5-$6/lb; a farmer is working tirelessly to grow and protect 10 acres of the most gorgeous, delicate, hard to transport and delicious fruit around – and essentially gets paid for only 5 acres. 

I’ve recently seen several farmers stop farming because they just couldn’t afford to do it anymore. This is a sad, and scary, trend. Especially when we're talking about trying to replace the ever aging current farmer base. 

Small farmers can’t afford to donate half of their time or product any more than anyone else can. And yet, in the form of their net profits, it’s often given to a middle man who can choose to buy from any source, local or not, big or small, based on price, (read profitable - to the middleman). This is often done in order to supplement their customers' “shares” with out of town, out of season produce, just to keep a bounty in their customer’s basket. If local weather or other conditions are affecting actual North Texas local farms’ yields, this practice is a direct conflict of what the original CSA movement was meant to be about, and has confused many customers. Or at the very least, has certainly not done a very good job exposing them to the reality of farming. Which is a large part of what the whole "local food" movement is about, right?

The customer doesn't share any risk with the farmer in a food co-op or an on-line grocery ordering system where its "pay as you go". And as far as I know, neither does the food co-ops' owners.  CSA is also supposed to be about sharing the risk with the farmer - to help keep the farmer's supported, “bounty or bust”. The farmers plan, plant, cultivate and hope for the best. But committed CSA members of a farm don’t bail out if grasshoppers or an early, hard freeze ends the season unexpectedly.
Instead, these customers have developed a relationship with that farmer, their farmer, and know he or she will do their best to make it up the next season. Cash refunds are rare, as CSA funds are collected and used as "seed money" at the beginning of a season.  That's part of the concept, too. Banks aren't as forgiving of crop failures, and many urban farms sit on prime tax base properties that are under agricultural valuations. (Even if it takes many more years to achieve than it should have.)

The pressure is already great to provide our customers with the best we can grow for them, because most farmers take a lot of pride in what they do. But it’s really difficult to compete with the marketing campaigns and misuse of descriptive terms, like co-op and CSA, when even major local media coverage interchanges the words and doesn’t make clear the differences between the various programs. 

This difficulty is especially true if the consumers' main objective the convenience of a weekly selection of a wide variety of what they are used getting from the supermarket, dropped off at their doorstep. They may not even realize that the small farm touted when they joined, may no longer even part of their "share" because of a crop failure or had a crop that was rejected by the distributor for a few bug holes in the leaves of a crop grown organically. (Excuse me, do you want us to grow without synthetic pesticides? Then you're sometimes going to have a few holes in your cabbage leaves.)

We waste so much food in this city; food that healthy meals could be made from, and given to the people starving right here in our own back yards. People living in food deserts, where, ironically, my farm is located along the edge of. But that topic, is again another story in and of itself. One I'll try to cover another day.

But some customers are so out of touch with the differences between these middle man food delivery services and CSA's, that in the same year that Eden’s and another small local farm were named “Best CSA” in a tie by the magazine’s staff, a readers choice award in the same publication for “best farmer”, went to one such local food distribution company, instead of an actual farmer. (I didn't even notice farming as a category in this year's "best of" version. Probably just as well.)

Abraham Salum - one of my farm's first local chef supporters
There’s still seems to be a real disconnect, even though the topic of local food and being in touch with its source, has risen to new levels in the past 5 years. Locally, that is in large part thanks to the publisher of the 5 year old magazine Edible Dallas and Fort Worth, Chefs for Farmers, a number of prominent chefs, as well as the various food documentaries that made it to some of our local theaters. National Eco-conscience companies like Chipotle have sponsored local expert panels to answer questions from the audiences after these films as well as large food festivals. Educational opportunities are out there, and growing bigger. I have hope for the future.

(If you missed them at the theaters, some films really worth seeing are Fed Up, Food Inc., Cafeteria Man, GMO OMG!, GROW!, Fast Food Nation, and Fresh!, the film my farm premiered here in Balch Springs back at our periodic fund raiser BarnAid a few years ago.) 

So, really the best thing I can do to not look like a sour grape, is just tell the story of what I’m trying to do here, and rally the support of those who want to help achieve the goals I’ve set.

I try to encourage people who really want to be on the front lines of food justice and eating locally grown, clean food, to join me and pledge their support with a CSA membership or to buy as much of their family's food as they can by other farmer-direct methods. 
As Alice Waters so eloquently put it many years ago, and I paraphrase here; everyone has the right to eat good food and to make a fair living. I think that there are plenty of ways to do both, without doing so at the expense of others.
And I think the, successful on-line fund raiser I recently held for the farm, is perhaps a testament of the achievement of this farm’s outreach. 

But not all farmers have such prominent public voices. Being urban has also afforded me that privilege. So holding a small market here on my farm to help give fellow farmers a place to sell their wares, has become an important cornerstone for my farm's mission. 

I still host the only market in DFW that allows only food grown or produced organically, meaning, without the use of synthetic pesticides, etc., or GMO's. Certified or not, I know these farmers and producers personally, and my customers have come to know them as well. We don't need a government sticker to back up our word. We work in our own fields and eat, and serve to our families and friends, the food we produce.

Let the local growing continue, and let’s hope convenience and price doesn’t always win out over small, local and real food, grown with integrity. The more demand for transparency there is, for food grown naturally and truly grown locally, the more it will become available.

Buy direct from the grower or producer as much as you can. It's really what the big benefit of having local farms around, is all about. And get involved! There's a current movement going on to help loosen restrictions on community gardens and urban agriculture in the City of Dallas.

Now Go on and Eat Your Food - Naturally!
Farmer Marie

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Frost Watch

Smoke, our Icelandic ewe, is glad someone finally turned off the heat.

A few weeks ago we were in the first frost “watch” mode of the season. That is, the local prognosticators were calling for an earlier than usual first killing frost that sent many folks scrambling. But it never came. At least, it never frosted here at the farm.

But with this new, much more severe sounding “polar vortex” forecasted recently, frost seemed more likely to happen and it seems everyone is calling it quits on summer crops. (Whatever happened to the much friendly phrase – “blue norther”?)

At first, they were calling for a light frost, something that would give us a temperature range of about 32°F down to 28°F. This temperature range affects the most tender of your summer garden such as beans, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, New Zealand spinach, okra, peppers, pumpkins, summer squash, corn, tomatoes, amaranth, and winter squash plants, although if the skins are hardened on the latter, a light frost won’t affect the fruit itself.

Other conditions must be present for a frost to set up on the plants when temps are hovering at 32°F, such as calm air and a clear night sky. This is also known as a “radiation frost”, and is generally what happens when we wake to “Jack Frost” on the pumpkins for the first time in the fall. Although, with the way the winds blew in with much colder temperatures, this event may well qualify as an advective frost, as occurs with a strong cold front.

A hard freeze occurs when temps are colder than 32°F for four or more hours, and temps get below 25°F. Not too many veggies appreciate these temps, although winter crops such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, onions, parsley, peas , (but you may lose the blooms), radishes, spinach, turnips, leeks, and sorrel, are often “sweetened” instead of damaged by them, and don’t usually require protection. Although I’ve been known to cover seedlings if they’ve not had a chance to harden off.

"Deep swings in the weather can take out plants that would ordinarily be hardy.  But then we never experience 40 degree temperature swings in North Texas, do we?"

Somewhere in-between these two lists are the crops that can usually take a light frost, but not the hard freeze and include artichokes/cardoon, beets, carrots, cauliflower, celery, Chinese cabbage, endive, lettuce, parsnips, peas, Swiss chard, escarole, arugula, bok choy, maché, and radicchio.

While the above lists are a good rule of thumb, and should be taken into consideration when planning your garden layout, I’ve seen exceptions to all of these rules at various points, on various plants. The more mature a plant, the higher off the ground it generally is, and the more susceptible to frost it will be due to losing contact with the ground heat. Deep swings in the weather can also take out plants that would ordinarily be hardy.  But then, we never experience 40 degree temperature swings in North Texas, do we?

Many factors can affect frost.
Sometimes, an area will escape a forecasted frost if it is somewhat protected by its micro-climate such as often exists in close knit, highly cemented, urban areas. The heat of the day is held in by the buildings, parking lots, and side walks.

That’s why many times a small backyard garden isn’t affected by a light, brief drop in temps, like one in a wide open space. Like this urban farm.

Although, if you have an inner urban property that exists at the bottom of a slope, or the top of one, you may experience a frost, while a neighbor on the side of the same slope, may not.

Experience over the years on a property is the best teacher for whether or not you’re likely to see damage based on a forecast – IF that forecast ends up correct. One extra push from a strong weather system, could mean an unprotected plant may not make it if temps end up dipping just 1 or 2 extra degrees.

It’s probably not too hard to cover most small back yard gardens, so if you want to try to preserve yours, you may as well be safe, rather than sorry, and cover it up. (More tips on how to do this, below.)

Time to Prepare
As seems par for the course, we had a few very nice days ahead of the predicted cold. I like to take advantage of those days to prepare. And we did just that here at the farm. Tugging on a 100’ x 15’ piece of frost cloth with 25 mph north winds can probably be equated to trying to struggle with the parachute of, say, the Jolly Green Giant during a Minnesota winter. Not fun.

And while it was still a bit windy while I was giving the farm intern his first experience with this winter weather drill, we were pinning frost cloth down in a brisk, easterly wind with the temps near 75°F, not 35°F. The wind chill is much more pleasant at the former.

Additionally, you’ll increase your soil’s heat holding capacity by about four times, if it’s well irrigated beforehand. That’s why you’ll hear me saying to be sure to “water in” your garden, before a frost. Cornell University says it can affect the air above the soil by 5 full degrees, which is a big deal when temps are hovering near freezing over your heavy laden, late fall tomato, basil or eggplant crop!

Some folks decide it’s just not worth the trouble to try to save summer crops and let them go by way of a natural season ending frost. But often, as had been the case the first few winters I was farming, the first predicted frost comes in early to mid November, the low temps last briefly, and there is little to no damage, followed by several weeks of mild weather.

We enjoyed summer squash well after Thanksgiving, tomatoes and summer squash at Christmas and didn’t have to cut all of our basil until around New Year’s. Lately, though, winter has been hitting earlier, and harder. Time will tell if the few hours of prep time will pay off.

To Cover or Not to Cover
By now, you’ve either decided to bother or not, and I’ve covered this topic a few times in the past, but it bears repeating. Frost cloth is designed to trap heat from the ground, under the blanket, not keep cold air from touching the plant.

It’s for this reason that unless you’re stringing lights inside the cloth to keep that palm tree warm, simply tying a sheet over the top of a tall plant is not likely to do much good. And I’m not entirely sure how well doing that works, I’ve never tried it.

Unless you’re able to keep soil heat radiating up inside that blanket to protect the plant, there’s a good chance you’re wasting your time making lollipops out of trees.   

You should never use plastic directly on a plant, without first protecting it with at least a cloth sheet. Plastic conducts the cold. A hoop over low growing plants is also helpful in protecting as a heavy frost can form on the surface of your frost cloth and burn the tips of leaves it’s touching.

So, in review;
1-Decide if the temps are going to dip below freezing long enough to damage, or just to chill the air enough for a hot cocoa. If you’re not sure, plan to protect plants based on predicted temps and above lists.
            Hard freeze range – 25°F or lower; 4+ hours below 32°F
            Light frost range – 32°F - 28°F, a bit warmer if dew points are right with calm winds and clear skies

2-Irrigate the garden soil, thoroughly. Moist soil holds in more heat than dry soil. (but don't forget to disconnect that hose when you're done!)

3-Foliar feed with a liquid seaweed, compost tea, regularly, but for sure before a frost. The higher the plant’s brix reading, (the more sugars present), the less likely plant cells will experience damage from the frost. Healthier gardens tend to fare better than stressed ones.

4-Harvest any tender fruits, such as ripening tomatoes, peppers, summer squash (and blossoms), even if you cover to try protecting the plant. Often the fruits themselves will not make it through if ripe or nearly ripe.

5-Cover the garden while the sun is still warming the soil in order to trap as much ground heat as possible. Use bricks, boards, sand bags or special frost cloth fabric pins to secure edges of cloth against the ground, closing gaps where air can leak in/out.

For the really adventurous, you can try to extend your growing season by a technique used by Eliot Coleman up in Maine where he gardens all year long. After you’ve covered with frost cloth, pull a layer of greenhouse plastic over top and secure the edges. This creates a deeper layer of protection, sometimes up to 3 zones worth of coverage, from a short blast of cold.

I tried it one year, almost by accident, and was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked.  

As I type, the temps are still in the mid 30’s, and the dew point was at 24°. I still don’t quite understand all of the meteorological factors involved in predicting frost, but it felt like frost was imminent earlier when I did my final walk for the evening.

And sometimes, a farmer’s intuition is all you need.

Eat Your Food - Naturally!


PS- We hit our goal, even exceeding it by a bit, for our on-line fund raiser last weekend. Thank you to everyone who contributed, pitched in by sharing, tweeting, etc. Watch for future blog posts on lessons with the new loader. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Make It Happen - For Compost

A little over a week ago, I dove head first into unchartered territory and began this farm’s first venture in #crowdfunding by way of Indiegogo, in order to raise a fairly large sum to pay for needed upgrades. It has been, and continues to be, quite exciting – just this week, a long time, very generous farm supporter issued an amazing “challenge” to others watching the campaign. She’s matching dollar for dollar any contribution that comes in, up to $5,000! Yet, running a month-long, on-line fund raiser has also been, and continues to be, a lot of work, with all of the emails, press releases, hash-tagging, and social media blitzing required to get out the word.

But without conventional means of income, it’s pretty tough to walk up to a banker, even my friendly home-town type, and take out a loan for anything - much less an after market front-end loader for a used tractor, a walk-in cooler and an ice machine. That’s pretty much how crowdfunding got started. People needed help pushing their potentially unconventional thoughts & ideas forward, so they turned to other like-minded folks en masse - grande.

And like many small business owners, farmers, it seems, are sometimes in need of this or that. And once we have “it”, we often wonder how in the world we ran a farm before we did. As much as I don’t want to use fossil fuel, (and I use it as infrequently as I can), at this stage in the farm’s development, on a 1-woman farm, it’s a necessary evil. With biodiesel only 15 miles away, at least I’m sort of green when I run the tractor. But I long for the day when ol’ JD only gets fired up to turn compost piles.

And turning compost piles, is the main reason to acquire a front-end loader for the tractor – at least for me. Sure, it’s going to make short of other tasks as well, such as carrying things around here that outweigh me. I’d like to still be able to walk and stand upright when I am 80.

But the ability to make one’s own living, breathing, compost source, could very well be one of the most significant advances for any small farm or homestead. It’s what could afford one to become nearly, totally, self sustaining. And that my friends, is one of the beauties of what organic farming is to me. Not having to trek to the store, or in my case the warehouse, each and every season to stock up on bags of commercially processed organic fertilizer and bottles of liquid this and that, is an important goal to have for truly sustainable agriculture to be realized.

I understand we live in a commercial society where everyone has to make a living, buying and selling things. And there’s always going to be some “stuff” we all buy so becoming “self sufficient” isn’t going to hurt the economy. Heavens, a garden center is one of the most glorious places to visit on Earth! I’ll always find my way to them and opening one was my first venture into owning a small business.

However, when did it become necessary for us to stock up on hundreds, even thousands, of dollars worth of soil amendments to put on our gardens each year in order to grow food? Well, I’ll tell you what I believe....

When we stripped them of topsoil in order to get rid of “weeds” – or worse, we doused them with poisons to do the job. 
When we stopped replenishing our soils with what was already present on the farm – or nearby. 
When we found a "miracle" in a bag, jar or bottle. 
When we got lazy, or too “busy”.

If you’ve ever watched Nature, you know she’s not lazy. Now she doesn’t work really hard either, and yet while she’s always “busy”, she’s busy working smartly. She stacks dead things on top of each other, adds water, leaves it lying there for animals to kick around and poop on, mix up and smoosch all down into the soil, and whalah – compost! 

Now granted, this method takes many years because it’s not heated up just laying there on the forest floor. But pick up a scoop of fresh soil off of the floor in the woods next time you’re hiking – and lift it up to your nose. I think it's one of the most wonderful scents you’ll ever experience. You can’t create that commercially and stick it in a bag.There are laws against it. No, really.

But, you can create it on your farm, or in your backyard, and spread it out over your crops or gardens. And if you can do that, consistently, I submit to you at some point, you’ll make your last necessary trip down the aisle of packaged "miracles" at the local garden store.

The insects will be more in check. Moisture will be less evasive because there’s ample organic matter in the soil to retain it, therefore reducing the need for this precious resource - as we enter our 5th year of drought. Weeds will become less invasive because the soil’s biology will begin to balance out and support higher forms of life, instead of desperately just trying to cover itself with whatever will grow there to keep from eroding away. Namely grass burs, Bermuda grass and fire ants.

Compost. It’s about balance. It’s about permaculture. It’s about working smarter, not harder. And that means working with Nature, not against her. Save that money you'd spend on "miracles", for cool new plants, more seeds, ceramic gnomes and fun baskets to share your bounty with friends. Compost Happens. And it makes your garden grow. Really well.

Thank you to all who have pitched in to help make this farm’s garden grow throughout our 5 years, and in this current on-line crowd funding drive. It better enables me to offer more real, food grown with integrity, to southeast Dallas County’s community where I live. And if you'd like to be part of the crowd - check out our campaign here.

I hope you'll all join us on Nov. 7th here at the farm for a little get together. It's the count down to the end of this campaign, as well as an early Veterans Day tribute with a mini film festival. Terra Firma, and time and weather permitting, Ground Operations will both be DFW area premiered on our big, outdoor, barn screen.

Eat Your Food - Naturally!


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Of Poop and the FDA

This week, after much revising, editing, re-writing and proofing, I will launch what is called a “crowd funding” campaign, to raise the funds to buy and have installed a front end loader on the farm’s tractor. This piece of equipment is the missing link of labor for being able to get manure out of the stalls, onto a trailer and into the fields in an efficient manner.

A front end loader will also make the many, many mountains of mulch sitting here turn into molehills of compost a lot faster. By being able to mix together bags of leaves and some of the manure with the mulch and put it into more manageable piles means the difference in usefulness of materials and, well, piles of stuff just sitting around waiting to decompose. 

Let’s face it, a front end loader makes a LOT of farm jobs more efficient. And we really need one. Here, on the farm. All of the time. I hope you'll be able to help the farm reach the full goal. (LINK http://igg.me/at/feedthesoilfeedthecommunity goes live this week.)  

I mean it's either a front end loader - or expensive hired help - a sure fire way to sink the financial sustainability of most small farms. I don't think an ongoing stream of a small army of poop shoveling volunteers exists and I've slowly but surely come to realize that relying on the unreliability of a former "partner" is no way run a farm, either, or live for that matter. A girl's just got to have her own equipment!

If I’ve learned one thing about organic gardening since I started farming that I didn’t know beforehand, (and trust me, I’ve learned way more than I ever dreamed I would!), it is that no matter how much bagged organic fertilizer you apply to the soil, no matter how straight your rows or how well you weed out the goat-heads, Bermuda grass and Carolina nightshade (aka bull nettle); none of this is a substitute for having microbiology in the soil. And being able to add and keep it in the soil, is a matter of having a way to do so without wearing out the body of the applicator.

Microbiology is the difference between dirt – and soil. (Or, in the case of this farm; beach sand with some red clay tossed in here and there.) Back when I was taking classes on horticulture, I would say that the soil I’ve been working with here, falls all the way into the lower left hand corner of the US Dept of Ag’s fancy soil pyramid. (you didn’t know there was a dirt pyramid did you? It’s sort of like a food pyramid – for soil.) That lower left hand corner is not a good place to be necessarily, if you’re trying to grow things besides pigweed, grass burrs, purslane or mesquite trees.

But, short of fixing soil the way Nature would, with a lightening storm sparked prairie fire, we can add organic matter manually – over and over and over – until the class of the dirt, becomes more soil-like.

Moving dirt’s structure up and over to the right on the pyramid where it really becomes productive soil, takes a lot of labor and a lot of organic material.

Ah, labor. When I started, I had quite a few volunteers and a full time job that supplemented the farm’s modest CSA membership funded budget. Secondly, renting a tractor with a loader for the weekend to help us, only set me back a half a day’s salary. The farm's production was very good, too, for the small area I’d planted. During a time of my late father’s illness, I gave up that full time off-farm job, and salary. But, without the off-farm job, the farm’s budget shrank and cash flow slowed considerably.
So, buying fertilizer in small increments seemed more manageable financially, than committing to several weekends a year of expensive equipment rentals. And fortunately while I still had some savings, I took the opportunity to purchase a small, low hour, very clean tractor – with a brush hog. (No front end loader. I didn’t realize back then just how important it would be to have that as much as the big mower it came with. But let’s just say I realized it a few years later.)

One way to add organic matter to soil, is to sow seeds in mass quantity at the time of fall or spring rains, let these specialized “crops” grow, then mow them down, chop them up and mix them into the soil. This takes a big, heavy duty mower – such as the one I have on my tractor. And I’ve done this many times during the several years I’ve been growing.

But, much like adding bags of commercial compost or organic fertilizer to the soil, without microbiology present, it takes much longer for the process to create a living, nutritious soil.

Enter – POOP! That’s right, manure.

photo credit - Joel Salatin at Carbon Economy Series Class 2014
It's got to be one of our greatest gifts in organic farming, to date. Better than any of the latest, greatest bottled wonders of laboratory created mixtures and concoctions, some of which are very good – when you’re not adding them to a soil that’s devoid of any life forms other than fire ants.

They say when you put a teaspoon of soil under a microscope you’ll see a colony of millions of microorganisms. Clearly, they’d not seen my soil. It looks like crushed glass mixed with dark grains of crushed pepper or something. Virtually lifeless and still.

In order to have life in the dirt, making it soil, you must have residents of life.

And in order to learn about that, you have to look someplace besides your Biology of Horticulture textbook. Microbiology is not even in the index – much less the table of contents. Neither is the word microorganism.

However, it does speak of manure. Although, I think it misses the real magic that manure adds to the picture of creating healthy soils. All of the things the textbook claims about manure’s ability to help keep soil warm in a greenhouse because of the exothermic bacteria decomposing the manure; its addition of macro and micro nutrients and nitrogen, etc., are true. But that’s about as close as it gets to talking about the real benefits of adding manure to one’s soil.

But organic farming is what it is because over the centuries – literally – things have pooped on top of the soil and stuff grew there. 

The real magic of manure, is the wonderful and complex community of microorganisms that comes with it. Without this, sandy soil is basically a lifeless, medium used to hold up plants. With that community – you can feed the world. Seriously.

Fortunately, this farm does have a small army of poop makers – and they make a pretty fair amount of it. It has also been the fortunate recipient for the past 4 years of tons, literally, of shredded tree trimmings via the local tree trimming company who saved me after the 2008 tornado that hit here. Mix in a few hundred bags of leaves and some moisture – WHALA! – you have a living, breathing, multiplying source of a wonderful and complex community of microorganisms to add to that lifeless medium that will turn it into – SOIL! Better than any bag of commercial compost you can pay for.

But organic farming is what it is because over the centuries – literally – things have pooped on top of the soil and stuff grew there. It’s a simple, proven, like it or not – FACT. And I couldn’t have been happier or more relieved to see that the FDA has actually at least paused for awhile on their initial knee-jerk legislation to take away one of the most important tools organic farmers have in their tool-belt because of people’s germ phobias. (Be sure to send your comments to them on the revised provisions - comment period opens at the end of September.)

The application of raw manure to soil, well in advance of harvesting any food, is very important – dare I say critical to healthy soils and therefore to crop production. The presence of living bacteria is what breaks down not only the manure itself, but other organic materials such as previous crops, weeds, leaves, bags of organic fertilizer and whatever else used to be on top of the soil that manages, either through tilling or light raking, to get close enough to the bacteria. And it is through the breaking down of these materials, that makes available to the plant, the macro and micro nutrients that most textbooks focus on.

Without organic matter and the microbiology present, those micro and macro nutrients, no matter how applied, in a sandy soil either leach away into some black hole unreachable by cultivated crop roots (or downstream somewhere), or sit there locked up waiting to be discovered – as is often the case in the more dense, gumbo-like soils of most of north Texas.

It is true as I previously noted that you can take mounds of mulch, stalls of manure, bags of leaves and pile them up and turn them, creating a wonderful compost. And this can often be the difference in a well-realized harvest, or a fair one.

However, through the very process of commercially decomposing organic matter at the high temperatures required by various laws, a lot of that community of microorganisms perish. Even in a home made pile heats up to 140°F or so. Still better than nothing, it isn’t the same as being able to spread manure, straight from the stalls, coops or lean-tos, onto the fields in-between crops. Ask just about any organic farmer. They don't need a 5 year study by the FDA to tell them this. But we'll take the 5 year reprieve and hope some big chemical company - ahem - doesn't fund the study.

And some new farmers, like me, may tell you it took a few years of literally observing the difference between a crop grown from fresh horse barn bedding versus that grown from soil fertilized mostly with bags of organic fertilizer, to realize just how MUCH of a difference there can be. After all, the commercial organic fertilizer companies would like you to think you just have to add their stuff and have bounties of harvests.

But, once the life in the soil begins to die off due to lack of moisture, excessive heat or cold or other often weather related factors, that organic fertilizer doesn’t do nearly as much good.There's nothing left to break it down so the plants can use it. You have to add more manure and living compost.....

Enter – a front end loader to the rescue!! I know it took a long story to bring you here, but it’s been a good lesson in soil building for those who may have wanted it. 

So thank goodness for Indiegogo crowd-funding campaigns and the countless number of people who wrote to the FDA calling for common sense when it came to pretty much ending organic farming as it has been known for centuries.

We’re going to have a poop scooping party after I get my tractor back with it’s shiny, new front-end loader attached! And our friend Elizabeth Dry's community gardens at Promise of Peace, and Farmer Jones Eco Friendly Produce are first up on the list of places we're going to bring it to help out - as soon as we get that new trailer. ;) 

Marie Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Market Day Then and Now

First Market Day August 2007
Has it already been 7 years since I opened my property as home of the first farmer’s market in southeast Dallas County? Yes, I guess it has been. You can read about our humble beginnings here. And here. 

Back in August of 2007, I invited some of the farmers from the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assoc. to set up a food co-op at my place. I’d advertise for pre-orders and customers could come pick up here, at my house.

See, I’d fallen on some tough times and found myself without transportation out of Balch Springs. Being somewhat particular about the food I chose to consume, I found it frustrating that I couldn’t buy any thing I considered suitable at the only grocery store within walking distance. The other store, over 2 miles away, didn’t carry anything organic either – much less, locally grown from N. Texas. Maybe, not even from anywhere in Texas.

The Early Years Market Day
So started my journey on what has now become a passion of mine; To make available for me & my community, real food that was grown without the use of synthetic poisonous pesticides, by people who like to meet them – face to face. I call it Market Day. And everyone is welcome here - no membership required.

It’s not flashy. It’s not loud. It’s not crowded. It’s not a “stuff” market.

It’s Real Food, Grown with Integrity. I used to say that it was Real. Clean. Fresh. Local. Food. But a lot of people didn’t know what that meant. Clean food? You mean, you wash it for us? Not exactly.

If it’s really full of soil, yes, we’ll rinse it off. But ever since the USDA restricted the use of the word organic by anyone who doesn’t pay them to do so, farmers have had to find alternative ways to describe farming practices older than the USDA. Whatever.

Simply put, we don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Nature has enough in her arsenal for controlling outbreaks of insects, diseases and soil building. And soil building is the key to “organic” growing.

I tried to find “organic” farmers that wouldn’t have to drive hours on end to get here to sell their products. And I didn’t want to go to some big warehouse to buy imported organic produce and re-sell it. There were already enough brokers from whom you could get that kind of product. No, not nearby.  But why not give customers the chance to meet the people who grew their food and be the first place like it in our area. Why not give people the option of eating in a way they didn’t previously have. I saw a blossoming, local “real” food hub! We had enough fast “food” joints.

Unfortunately, it was not an easy task to find sufficient numbers of organic growers.

Some early days volunteers help farmer Marie
Farming is not easy, as I have discovered. I broke ground and into a new career in 2008. Keeping farmers coming back year after year of grasshoppers, hail, drought crop losses – is not easy either. But it is something I feel compelled to keep doing. You could say that I've become a small farm & local food justice activist. Hey, if you don't stand for something....

When a customer will drive her motorized wheelchair down the street, oxygen tank in tow, over 2 miles, to be a part of Market Day, and encourage us to keep up the good work, spending what little money she has on fresh, real food – I can get up every morning and hoe a row of weeds down and fight the county not to spray toxic pesticides in the area that will kill our honey bees - who pollinate our crops.

Community Garden Ground Breaking
Brenda was one of our first cheerleaders. She still calls my shop every time she sees a story about us in the paper and came to markets as often she could find the energy to do so. She was even part of our community garden ground breaking. She doesn’t come to visit as much anymore, her health has limited her outings. But a new neighbor from 2 miles the other direction, Charles, has started to cruise down on his chair. He is sometimes late and misses a lot, but we’ve usually got something leftover that he likes. Yesterday, he took home a watermelon and some home made Italian rolls. And a smile.
A small community of folks living just to the community south in Seagoville, became another reason I am so diligent about organic methods being followed by our growers. The folks who live together in a special “camp” for chemically sensitive people taught me the importance of not allowing any of our farmers to use “conventional” methods.

Even if it meant, no fresh strawberries.

One spring when I had to retract our excited press announcement about featured organic strawberries coming to our market, instead of complaints, I got thank you notes for “thinking of our health”.

(By the way, growing strawberries organically is no easy feat. We look each spring for someone who can grow them and bring them to market. Our soil here just hasn’t been rich enough to support that crop – yet.)

Families are encouraged to visit
It's really important to me that children know how real food is supposed to taste and where the heck it comes from.

Eggs don’t grow on trees and tomatoes don’t come from plastic covered foam cartons. 

Texas Honey Bee Guild Advocates for Education
And you know what? Most kids don’t even flinch when they learn that honeybees and earthworms make their food grow – and taste - better. 
Where's my "hat-cam"?
And they get some of the most awesome looks on their faces when they pet and feed one of my friendly roosters or hens; learning not to be afraid of them, while respecting them as a living creature who provides them with food. This happens a lot at Market Day, too.

This spring we were approved to accept SNAP at the market. To me, this was monumental because I know there are a lot of good people in the area who have fallen on the same hard times I fell on back in 2007. Good folks live all around me who might need a helping hand in order to keep their families well fed and use the Lone Star Card. They can even use it to buy vegetable plants and seeds here so they can grow some of their own food. We're always offering gardening tips and hold low cost classes periodically.

Picked by hand - with care
NOT found at Market Day
We can’t beat bulk supermarket prices. Everyone here grows, harvests and handles everything by hand on a very small scale and that costs more to do than mass production. 

But we sure can give you awesome taste, unmatched freshness, and the peace of mind people get knowing that their food was grown in a safe way by someone they can meet – face to face. And once you try real grass fed beef – that “closeout” meat won’t ever look, or taste, the same to you.

Eat More (grass fed) Beef!
As our newly appointed volunteer market manager Iris says, we are not the biggest, but we are....

Farmer Mel - Farmer Jones Eco Friendly Produce
“The Cleanest Little Farmer’s Market in Town”. We’re also still, the only one.

Real Food, Grown with Integrity. All farmers, ranchers and producers – only – No brokers - ever. 
GMO free – always. 

Happy anniversary to us all! Hope to see you next time, down on the farm!

Marie Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Market Day is every 1st, 3rd and 5th Saturdays April – December (weather permitting) at 4710 Pioneer Road, Balch Springs in back of the the old gray farmhouse next to the Zumba House, across the street from the new Dallas County Cowboy Church.