Improving Soil

As observation is a key to learning, closely comparing a handful of rich garden soil with one from a worn out field can teach us a lot. The garden soil, with its additions of organic matter and minerals, will be dark and crumbly, while the worn out soil will be lighter in color and compact. The difference is that the former has humus.

Lichens and mosses are the first plants to grow on newly weathered rocks. As they grow, acids leaching out from their roots further decay the rocks, slowly creating and improving the soil. Higher forms of plants can then grow and the process of improving soil slowly continues.

Animals eventually enter the picture, eating plants and excreting. Their waste products speed up the soil improvement process. Acids in these wastes continue dissolving the minerals in the rocks which then become nutrients for further plant growth.

Worn out soil can be made into good garden soil, but only plants can do it, and they need the help of animals. Another difference is one we can’t see, and that is the number of living organisms that can only be seen with a microscope. A spoon full of garden soil can have billions of these microbes, where the worn out soil has just a few million, or 1,000 times less.

Farmers rest their worn out fields by sowing them back into grass and clover. The immense network of the grass roots subdivide the cloddy soil into smaller crumbs, and the clover roots dive deeper down and bring air into the soil. You may have noticed that good soil has air pockets in it, while worn out soil does not.

By Anthony Villa

The life in the soil, just like you, needs air to breathe. Air is made of the elements nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. Nitrogen is usually the limiting factor in plant growth and other chemical reactions, and oxygen is necessary for combining with the mineral elements so they can be of use. Both plants and animals cannot live without these important elements. As the sod grows, it opens up the soil so air can enter.

When the soil is open, water can enter instead of running off. Water is a combination of two elements, hydrogen and oxygen. Careful tillage opens the soil, but too much will damage the precious soil life.

Plants incorporate the element carbon into the soil through photosynthesis, which is the process of converting the carbon dioxide in the air into the carbohydrates in the plant. The water and air in the vicinity of a plant’s leaves and roots are the source of the four free elements; nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. Farmers do not have to buy these when they routinely recover their cropland with a grass and clover sod.

Another great asset of grass and clover is that cows, sheep and goats love to eat them. Their stomaches contain different microbes which end up in the soil and help it get better. These animals are called ruminants, and are capable of improving soil even while living off the plants grown there.

By Mac Hill

Many other smaller animals help as well. Ants bring to the surface the finest sand. Earthworms make channels and take organic matter from the surface deeper into the soil, pulverizing it as they go. Birds, reptiles and mammals are all poking around the soil, moving minerals and organic matter around, and leaving valuable soil-building wastes behind.

The acids in the plant roots and animals wastes continually help decay rocks and release mineral nutrients. The major mineral nutrients are the elements silica, calcium, potassium and phosphorus. Other minor but vital elements are sulfur, magnesium, iron, aluminum, sodium, copper, zinc, manganese, molybdenum, cobalt, chlorine and boron. These are known as the trace elements. Most soils contain enough of the major and trace elements, in an unavailable, insoluble form, to grow abundant crops for thousands of years, with the possible exception of phosphorous. If a soil is deficient in a major or minor element, farmers need to add them.

By spreading calcium-like substances, such as lime and wood ashes, a chemical reaction occurs. These bases react with the acids to speed up the soil improvement process and release of nutrients. They are necessary for the growth of legumes, which is the family of plants clover belongs to.

By Anthony Villa

But this brings a problem, as all solutions inherently bring other problems to a greater or lesser degree. Once the nutrients are released from their parent materials, the rocks, they can be leached out and washed away when it rains. We need microbes to incorporate loose nutrients into their bodies to prevent leaching, and now we see why the life in the soil is so important.

Farmers do many different things to make the land fertile and in good tilth. These things don’t work so well by themselves. Besides growing grass and clover, raising livestock and spreading wood ashes and rock dusts, farmers take great care of the life in the soil so they can grow healthy crops.

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In Case You Missed It- TN Local Food Summit 2017 Recap

Written By: Jeff Poppen
Photos by: Sherman Thomas – See more at The Lost Art of Farming

Nashville’s local food movement celebrated it’s 7th annual Summit December 1, 2 & 3 at Montgomery Bell Academy. Chris, a MBA science teacher, had been to the previous 6 events and thought it would be great to bring the learning and excitement back there. The first three sessions were geared for the students. 

Tradd Cotter explained how fungi eat up environmental problems like oil spills, chemical pollution and garbage. Virginia Harper gave a talk on health and wellness and Hal Holden-Bache related the steps it took to develop his popular restaurant, Lockeland Table. A lively social hour was followed by a delicious gourmet meal and a talk on community food security by representatives from the Nashville Food Project and Vanderbilt University. 

Saturday morning found the massive dining hall, modeled after Harry Potter’s “Hogwarts”, bustling with the energy of three dozen vendors setting up tables. From farms, foundations and food coops, to solar energy garden suppliers and slow food, there was a colorful, informative trade show all weekend. A few hundred attendees finished a hearty breakfast in time to hear about Metro Nashville’s food systems assessment, which pointed out that over 6 billion dollars spent on food leaves our area annually. 

We then broke out into one of 5 smaller sessions, one of which focused on how we can get some of that money to stay and support middle Tennessee farms. Other discussions revolved around mushroom culture, fermenting vegetables and permaculture. Tandy Wilson led a chef demonstrations, and the Gibbs Kitchen continued all day with Julia Sullivan, Eric Zizka and Tony Galzin. 

The second session featured the Baylor School garden in Chattanooga, food as medicine, farmland access and farming cattle to help sequester carbon. A long lunch break gave everyone a chance to mingle and network, which is at the heart of this community. The fabulous luncheon prompted the comment that the meals alone were worth the ticket price. 

 

The afternoon sessions began with an interesting comparison of the effects of conventional versus organic foods on our health, organic grain production, community gardening and raising food with hand tools. The next workshops were on using bees other than honey bees for pollination, mowing with sheep rather than a machine, transitioning organic farms to future generations, and a discussion on how we can collaborate better for a community based food system. 

 

As you can see, we not only learned gardening and farming techniques, but looked into the way bigger issues facing our efforts to secure fresh food for everyone in our community. As consumers demand better quality food, local farm economics are revitalized, land is conserved for agriculture and they are rewarded with better health. A local food distributor, Nashville Grown, treated us to an evening social with much more lively discussion. 

 

Our deepest appreciation goes out to Montgomery Bell Academy and their gracious staff for hosting us. Chefs William, Paul and Steve compiled the great meals, all from local foods, with the help of Margot, Jeremy and many others. We couldn’t do this without the help of our many sponsors and the dedicated volunteers. The commitment of our community to eating locally and healthily will bring about huge economic changes in the way farming is practiced in the future. Middle Tennessee farmland once fed Nashville, and it will again. 

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Growing Food- Good for the Mind and the Body

In nature, as with life, everything is connected. Symbiotic relationships are ever-present. 

Grass is good for cows and cows are good for grass lands, bees need flowers just as the flowers need the bees, and fruits and vegetables need humans just as humans need fruits and vegetables. 
 
Eating plant-based foods helps to fortify the human body and give it the fuel it needs to operate at its full capacity physically, mentally, and even spiritually. People need plants and it turns out plants need humans too.
 
The fruits and vegetables that we find in our daily diets are cultivated varieties, meaning they don’t grow abundantly in the wild, if at all. They need a human being to make a good spot in the ground for them, to put them there, and then to tend to them in order to be able to grow to be strong and healthy. In this relationship, the plants we need to survive also need us to be able to survive. 
 
Another aspect of this plant-human relationship that people benefit from is the time outdoors, doing physical activity. This spring, as we plant our crops in the composted and plowed fields, I find myself being so very thankful for the necessity to spend time outside, in the fresh air, sweating and working my body. 
 
 
Of course there is the obvious benefit of the physical activity (because we all want to look better in our bathing suits than we did last year), but it has also been proven that natural light and being exposed to nature have direct positive effects on mental health.
 
Mental health benefits of being outdoors includes increased serotonin (making you chemically happier), increased Vitamin D levels (giving you extra energy), and while no direct cause has been scientifically proven, studies suggest being in nature increases creativity and helps with focus. 
 
Growing your own food is good for your mind and your body, and I would even argue that it’s goof for your soul. 
 
But if you can’t do it yourself, we’ll do it for you.
 
Nashville and Cookeville CSA starting the first week of June, and RBS Farmers market opening Memorial Day weekend right across from City Hall. Now accepting EBT. See you there! 
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Situation

Much of middle Tennessee crop land is misused or not used at all. The way crops are grown currently for exporting out of state is increasingly under scrutiny by scientists and the public alike for their questionable affects on the environment, the economy and our health. On the other hand, Tennessee’s cultural and economic heritage had always revolved around small, sustainable farms growing food crops and pastured livestock for local consumption. As of today, organic, local foods continue to be the fastest growing sector in the national food economy, although they are not readily available to most Tennesseans.

Key Questions:

  1. What is Tennessee’s crop land being used for now, and how is it being managed?
  2. Where does Middle Tennessee’s food now come from?
  3. If properly managed, how could middle-Tennessee’s farmland provide a large portion of middle-Tennessee’s diet?
  4. What affects does the present agricultural system have on Tennessee’s environment, economy, population health and rural social networks compared to what would happen with a shift towards local organics and small farms?

Challenges:

  1. It’s hard to change a diet, or a farmer.
  2. A highly centralized and extremely profitable (for a few) system is already in place, with overwhelming political, economic and military clout.
  3. Public indifference to agricultural policies, coupled with widespread misunderstanding of various farming practices, keeps serious environmental, economic and health issues under most people’s radar.
  4. The food system in place is not set up for the distribution of healthy, local food.
  5. There is a lack of education and training for farmers beginning in organic agriculture.

Opportunities:

  1. Nashville has recently become a city noted for local food.
  2. Agriculture pollution is rampant, rural economics are devastated, and our population’s diet of products grown and processed elsewhere is creating serious health problems.
  3. Middle-Tennessee’s unique climate and culture offer the opportunity to sustainably grow and process the crops needed for a large part of our diet.
  4. A proliferation of organic gardens and diversified, sustainable farms would greatly benefit the middle-Tennessee community immediately by reducing agriculture pollution, reviving rural economies and providing fresh, healthy, local food for everyone.

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They Like It Hot

Below in an excerpt from a garden consultation that Jeff did last week. Maybe it could help you gain some insight into your own backyard garden! 

 

Your garden needs humus, Find this black soil underneath where cows are fed and coat the garden area a few inches deep. I suspect a 50 pound bag each of rock phosphate and jersey greensand would also be beneficial for the phosphorous, potassium and trace elements they contain. Just fling it out over the garden.

You need to keep a few rolls of your hay. Get it from the first cutting, which should be done before it goes to seed. In your situation, you have to keep the weeds down while you are away in Nashville. The frost hardy crops can be mulched right away: potatoes, onions, lettuce, swiss chard, beets and such. Let the ground thoroughly warm up before you mulch tomatoes, peppers, squash and other later crops. They like it hot.

blackberry picking farm tn organic pretty

Establish a perennial bed for rhubarb, asparagus, berries, etc., and plant the sage, oregano, rosemary and thyme with them.

Blueberries are slow to get going, but make sense for you to pant now. Put out a few dozen of what your neighbor recommends. Keep them mulched and add plenty of black, rotted (this is very important- must be rotted to the point that you can not tell what it used to be) organic materials. We keep the blooms picked off for the first few years to encourage the plant to grow big before it comes into production.

Thornless blackberries are quicker to start bearing, usually the year after planting. They require a trellis to grow on. They also like organic matter, compost and mulch.

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Why Compost Works and Chemicals Don’t

The secrets of manuring are now being discovered in the fields of soil microbiology, and the incredibly rich interrelationships there. When we choose to refuse chemical fertilization, we instead rely on these complete interactions to supply our crops with the nutrients they require for  proper growth. At the top of the list is nitrogen, and how our plants get it is of vital importance.

Bacteria and fungi supply other soil microbes with nitrogen in the form of amino acids, a live nitrogen, so to speak. Silica plays a crucial role, as the transport system for getting amino acid nitrogen into the plants through fungal hyphae, which are silica-based. Calcium is needed, too, to help move the nitrogen around. When a plant sends a signal that it is ready for nitrogen, sap pressure, via boron, allows for calcium to gran nitrogen in a pure form and it is moved into the root zone through the silica-rich tubes of the mycorhyzae.

jeff-lecturing

When a plant needs water, it should receive pure water, with no soluble fertilizer in it that it didn’t ask for. This would cause an imbalanced growth, creating susceptibility to insects and disease. This is a major reason not to use water soluble, chemical fertilizers.

In a live humus soil, there is plenty of nitrogen in the life forms there, existing as amino acids, Nitrogen dispersant when any being excretes or dies. Nitrogen-fixing microorganisms make sure the plant, whose root exudates feed the soil life, gets what it needs.

When we add chemical nitrogen in the form of nitrate, three things happen that make it necessary to use chemical nitrogen again:

  1. Nitrogen fixing microbes die, because they can’t survive singing in their own excrement and dead bodies.
  2. Fungal activity is compromised because nitrate is antagonistic towards silica.
  3. It takes the plant about ten times as much energy, which it makes by photosynthesis and the conversion of sunlight into sugar, to use nitrates as it would to use the nitrogen in amino acids. Nitrates from chicken litter are still nitrates, and poison soil life.

Once we destroy the nitrogen fixing microbes and the fungi that helps move the nitrogen, the plant will use up the nitrate, wasting energy and quickly needing more nitrogen. It not becomes apparent why farmers buy so much nitrogen. Once they’ve been tricked by the “experts” to use chemical fertilizer, they have to keep using it. The experts are paid through the chemical companies.

piles-of-manure-cropped

Luckily, compost can come to the rescue. We can reinoculate our soils with the beneficial microbes the chemicals destroyed. With cover cropping, rotations, and animals, farmland quickly revives and healthy crop growth returns. We just have to consider these microbes, and we will avoid compaction, chemicals, and anything else that hurts them.

The potassium and phosphorus fixing microbes are in the same boat, they are destroyed by chemicals that supply these nutrients. Water soluble fertilizers put them out of work and they are gone- again, good farming practices return them. These are some of the secrets of manuring, which are very real and important mysteries.

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At Adam’s Farm

Below is an excerpt from this past Monday’s consultation. Winter is a great time for consultations, to get you ready for what to do in the following year. It is also our most free time, so you are more likely to be able to schedule something with us now!

Please request your consultation here! 

Dear Adam,

It was great to be at your place and feel your enthusiasm. I think you’re on the right track with rotational grazing of chickens, goats and hogs. Here is a few of our thoughts together.
Talk to the neighbor with the dozer. I’d like to see the fence line and privet cleaned up. A possible exception might be the East line towards the road, because it’s a wooden fence. Your perimeter fence could be 10′ inside it, giving you a strip of ungrazing land to plant your persimmons and other trees. Goats love trees.
Fence in anywhere that has the big rooted Johnson grass. It is hard to garden where it is. Find some rotted cow manure, from where a farmer has fed out hay, and get a few truckloads for your garden spot this fall. The whole farm could use lime, the co op will come with a 15 ton truck and spread it for you.
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Don’t use wood chips until they blacked and crumble easily- otherwise they will rob nitrogen.
Consider the 3-dimensional deer fence, Premier fencing has a good article about it. 
Talk to your neighbor with the Massy Ferguson tractor and get a commitment for bush hogging th whole place twice a year, along with what you need garden wise. Plant your rows far enough apart to get the tiller in between.
Talk to the NRCS about cross fencing and waterers. Get rotations going as soon as feasible. When goats have taken care of shrubs, get a few calves.
Buckwheat is good for bees, and can be broadcast and raked in a place that has had sufficient animal impact. It also acts as a nurse crop for clover. Clover can be a perennial, Ladino White and Kendall Red, or a biennial like Crimson Clover. Only use Crimson in a garden over winter as it dries out easily in May, after cutting and tilling. The others will come back so are used in pastures.
A survey of your wife’s coworkers might be useful. See what folks need. Look at ethnic groups for goat sales.
Try and clean the well. Good water is always a plus. Cut Poison Ivy vines and run hogs or goats in woods, but only for very short times. Your forest is pretty and doesn’t need lots of animals in it.
Hogs can make bad odors, so be aware of getting them too close to your home. Maybe they should stay by where we parked rather than on down the driveway.
Talk to the neighbor to the east about running livestock there. Offer something.
Please feel free to come visit, or ask any questions any time.
Thank you so much and good luck!
Jeff
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6th Annual TN Local Food Summit

The 6th annual Tennessee Local Food Summit began almost right on time. With excellent facilities at Tennessee State University’s downtown campus, the event ran from December 2 through December 4, 2016. A partnership with the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee has made sponsorship easier, and the Nashville local food community pulled it off elegantly. Our deepest appreciation goes out to TSU and all of those involved.

A food systems development project recently announced by Metro Nashville was awarded to Ken Meter. Ken’s discussions at the last four Food Summits have proved the merit of this decision. He continues to guide us into the next growth stage of producing and consuming more local food to increase local jobs, small farms and better health.

While Laura Wilson moderated a panel discussion with Ken, Tasha Kennard from the Nashville Farmers Market and Alan Powell of Nashville Grown, Hugh Lovel from Australia explained the science behind organic agriculture. Meanwhile, Chris Robbins from TSU and I led a talk on access to land and education for young, beginning farmers.

panel-discussion

After more talks and appetizers from Farmhouse Restaurant, Joel Salatin took a national look at local food. There is a lot going on, some positive and some negative. The demand is growing, but industrial organics threatens to usurp the markets with imported hydroponic “organics”, large mono crop plasticulture and legislation that hinders small local farms. Joel’s humorous insights put it all into perspective, and a fabulous dinner was provided by the Pegleg Porker, Two Goats, and other local chefs.

Saturday was chock full of panels, informal talks and lectures. Susana Lein and Cliff Davis described their permaculture crop production while Johnny Mitchell from Georgia gave samples and instructions of time honored meat preservation. A special guest, Will Harris, described hi large operation in Southern Georgia. It’s a livestock and CSA farm complete with an on-farm slaughter house, a restaurant and a store, employing 90 people and thus reviving a small town’s economy.

Nashville’s own James Beard award winner, Tandy Wilson, joined up with Philip Krajeck and Trey Cioccia to talk about the farm to table restaurant business. David Cloniger from Second Harvest food bank described their efforts to procure and now grow fresh produce, and Bill Keener talked about dairy cows. Carolyn Hoagland from Sewanee’s University of the South gave a lecture on soil microbiology.

The next sessions included Tradd Cotter from North Carolina explaining organic mushroom farming and using fungi to bioremediate everything from garbage to oil spills. John Compton from Vanderbilt University talked about efforts to get local food into hospitals and schools while Eric Zizka from Oak Steakhouse gave a chef demonstration.

Lunch was another phenomenal local farms to local chefs extravaganza and gave us time to examine the 30 or so vendors at the trade show. Then we began again with talks on land access, farmer education, the grocery business, fermentation, and cover crops. Steve Diver from the University of Kentucky discussed on-farm micro organisms and growing organic transplants, and John Bell described his 500 member CSSA and livestock farm and their eight year rotation plan on 200 acres in Kentucky.

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We gathered for a plenary lecture by Larry Kopald of the Carbon Underground. Now we see the big picture of climate change and the role agriculture plays. The survival of a planet we can inhabit will depend on a major shift to carbon sequestering farming within the next decade.

John Ikerd wrapped up the busy day with a plea to end hunger. He grew up in a time when most communities got most of their food locally, with plenty of jobs and no hunger issues. He became an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri and helped usher in the “green revolution”, which was to feed the world with industrial agriculture. In 1967, 5% of the U.S. was considered underfed and hungry.

john-ikerd

He saw it unfold as a tragic failure. Industrial agriculture grows less than 30% of the world’s food supply, created climate change by destroying 70% of the worlds top soil, and has raised the U.S. hungry population to 15%. It only benefits a few businessmen.

On Sunday we visited a model, small organic farm and saw it in action. Farms like this feed 70% of the world today. Small, local farms have never ceased to be the way most people get their food.

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We continue to promote local food production and consumption, and firmly believe that as Tennessee once fed itself, it will again. Only this will review rural economics, secure small family farms, provide better health, and turn agriculture around from putting carbon into the atmosphere to bringing it back into the soil where it belongs.

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Explicit Instructions

Below is an excerpt from a consultation report Jeff wrote up for someone after visiting their farm.

With your 7500 square feet of bed space in mind, here are my suggestions.

I would ensure a good crop by incorporating:

– 50 lbs green sand

– 50 lbs granite dust

– 50 lbs kelp

– 50 lbs rock phosphate

– 200 lbs lime

– 50 lbs wood ashes

Spread on the well mown grass and plowed in by the 9 point chisel plow that has the 3 center tines removed, which is where the grass path will be. When I got to the end the first time, I would turn around and rebreak one bed while creating a new one. This would keep it all well laid out.

One week later I would spread 1/2″ of biodynamic compost on each bed and work it in the same way. The waiting period is valuable to let the microbes do their thing undisturbed. We may want to go over it again in another week, depending on how it works up.

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If the minerals aren’t there, we can ad them later. All of this needs to be done pronto, before heavy rains set in.

We will need a small cultivating tractor, if that’s how we want to tent it. An out turned disc hiller could be put on it that would act as an edger. White clover is particularly invasive in such situations, as is Bermuda grass, of course. I don’t know what is there right now.

For all spring crops (planted before last frost date), I would leave the beds rough plowed and unplanted over winter. For summer crops I would harrow in wheat and vetch for winter cover crops. We would want these next to themselves so we could work them up at different times of the year, keeping in mind the chisel will be set to do two beds at a time. The harrow can be offset to do just one bed at a time.

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Thinking of You Always

A note to our CSA members.

Thinking of You Always

When we sort potatoes in the middle of the week, I wonder what you‘ll do with them when we bring them to you on Monday.

Then when we sort butternuts I wonder if you‘re making pies with homemade crusts and plenty of cinnamon.

think about you all the time.

When we pick radishes I wonder if youlike them better on salads or roasted in your oven, and as I pick out the prettiest turnips for you, I wonder if you are mixing them in with your mashed potatoes, or just cooking the greens with some bacon and onion.

While I am picking flowers for you I wonder which flowers your little one is going to think are the prettiest, and while I am picking eggplant I can’t help but wonder if you are making baba ganoush.

So curious.

Green beans, onions, and summer squash

Green beans, onions, and summer squash

Picking the green beans makes me think about you steaming and baking them (both with garlic of course), and I wonder if you ever pressure can or blanch them for a winter time revival.

I can’t pick a kale leaf without assuming you‘re making kale chips, and picking the arugula and mizuna gets me so excited about all of the possible things you could be doing in your kitchen!

It is true that the rows are long, the sun is hot, and the bushel baskets are heavy, but thinking of the food and you getting to eat it makes it so so fun . There are 100 of you, and we think of and appreciate you always.

Thank you for letting us feed you!

-Kristina Rossi

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Mid-October Garden Report

The mid-October garden report finds the farm in pretty good shape. We survived festival season and got a lot of much needed clean up done. Tomatoes and peppers are dwindling, but the fall beans are banging. Besides six rows of blue lake, we have many rows of October beans whose time has come.

These were sown in the old potato field in late July, along with long gone cucumbers and yellow squash. Above them we have rows of arugula, mizuna, ale and turnips. A field of purple tops and mustard are growing at the very top.

turnips, mustard greens, fall greens, organic tn

A half acre of greens followed a summer garden, planted in early August. Bok choys and chinese cabbage were started here and then transplanted out to other fields. Next to several rows of our own flat leaf kale we have a big collard patch and one row each of Red Russian, Siberian, and Dwarf Scotch curled kale. A young spinach patch is starting to poke up.

The squash field is in assorted greens daikons, awaiting Sandor Katz’s Nov. 5 workshop and inspiration to make kimchi. A taste and sharing of muscadines was heavenly. The last pears were the very best.

In the store house we are busy sorting sweets and butts, our affectionate name for sweet potatoes and butternuts. They look (and taste) good. We still have irish potatoes to look through, too.

The barn loft has plenty of onions and garlic left. We have the new garlic beds planted and about half mulched. I’d like to get some ground composted and plowed for an early onion crop next spring.

It’s beed a good growing year, with plenty of rain most of the time. We thank the gardens with cover crops of buckwheat, crimson clover, wheat, rye and peas And we thank all of our customers, from far and near, who support local organic farming.

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River Run Garden Project

To inquire about having Jeff Poppen out to your small garden or large farm, please click here. 

About six months ago David approached me with a job he thought I might be interested in. He manages Second Harvest Food Bank and has been getting donations from our farm for many years. David has a goal to be able to offer more fresh produce, and he had a plan.

Jess had recently purchased a big farm out on River Road and was willing to donate some land and resources to create a community garden. I met with David and his helper Becky, along with Jess and her helper Dustin. As I’d done similar projects before, I could give them a realistic idea of what it would take to grow an acre garden to give away at Second Harvest.

I revisited the farm a few weeks later and drove around the 300 acre property. We talked about mob grazing cattle, a deer fence around the garden spot, and the vision for the farm. Jess loves horses and envisions a community farm where teenagers can enjoy horseback riding. She also likes the idea of farm to families and exposing people to growing food. 

Now that the project had the green light, I measured the plots, noting a wet spot in the middle. We checked out a nearby spring, and plowed four beds for the berry patches. Potatoes and corn were on our minds, along with a row each of cucumber, beans, squash, lettuce, tomatoes and a row of flowers. 

On the spring equinox I stirred the biodynamic preparations and applied them over the whole garden area. I met Ken and Lucy from KDL Farms and looked at some old manure. It seemed composted enough and they graciously offered it to the project. Dustin hauled two 10 ton loads and soon it was incorporated. Meanwhile, we checked out two 140 Farmall tractors in Clarksville, before deciding to just fix up Dustin’s grandpa’s tractor. 

Within the week we got the potatoes in. Second Harvest sent a crew over to cut 450 pounds each of Red Pontiac and Kennebec, and then dropped them into the furrows made with the tractor. We skipped over the wet spot, and the tractor straddled the rows to cover them up. 

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Ten days later I harrowed over the field, to prevent evaporation and disturb the surface weeds. Dustin helped me set out the berry patch, which are four different beds, 75 feet long. The Heritage Raspberry and thornless blackberry came from our farm, and Jess had bought 15 blueberry and 10 grape plants. 

I dropped in a few weeks later to harrow the potato patch again. Frequent stirring of the soil keeps it loose, aerated and weed free. Another biodynamic preparation was stirred and applied, and I checked on our berry patch. 

My new intern Chris joined me on May 8th to plant the rest of the garden. I chisel plowed and harrowed the field, and then laid off 26 rows. He dropped G-90 bicolor sweet corn into 16 rows, and Incredible into 4 more. I planted one row each of cucumbers (Marketmore and National Pickling), green beans (Blue Lake and Roma), summer squash (yellow prolific straightneck), zinnia (Giant Dahlia), four kinds of head lettuce (Freckles, Fenberg, Avenue and Nevada) and tomatoes (14 each of Cherokee Purple, Parks Whopper, Pink Girl, Big Beef, Tiren Paste and Bradley). A small patch of large leaf basil was sown at the end of the tomato row, and Dukat Dill with the cucumbers. I also cultivated the young potato plants. 

Two weeks later I cultivated everything and hilled up the potatoes. The wet spot in the center of the garden had dried up, so we planted four rows of butternut squash there. I finished the day up with another stirring and application of the biodynamic horn manure. 

On the second day of June I returned to plow out the garden and check on it. The soil is beautiful and everything was thriving. I’m planning a compost operation utilizing the daily cleanings from the horses somewhere near their barns, with the turning to happen as we move it closer to the garden area about six months later. 

Within the week I came back to hill the corn, cultivate the other vegetables and plant a row of late summer squash below the tomatoes. David came and he got a tractor lesson and we made tomato cages. 

On my 13th visit to the garden I staked up the grapes and felt they were getting ignored. I could see why, the garden is huge and starting to produce a lot of food. It will take more than just David to keep up with harvesting, mulching and weeding. As in other projects I’ve done, the summer squash did not get picked and became as large as clubs which are big enough to beat up the guy who planted all this stuff. I take it as a sign that my job is basically over. 

The team made this garden possible. Dustin came through with the compost and tractor, David with the helpers, and Jess with the deer fence and beautiful land. My erratic schedule made it hard to organize an official educational day, although I believe we all learned a lot. We will soon be digging a bumper crop of potatoes, harvesting fresh corn, cucumbers, beans, squash and tomatoes, and enjoying the flowers, lettuce, dill and basil. I have high hopes that this is just the beginning of another great community garden, supplying tons of delicious produce to a wide variety of people.

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First Press Release: TN Local Food Summit 2016

The 6th annual Tennessee Local Food Summit is at TSU’s downtown Avon Williams campus on December 2-4 this year. Local food means many more jobs, food security, better health and revitalizing family farms.

According to Joel Salatin, “Local integrity food will enjoy a huge boost from the Tennessee Local Food Summit in December. For enthusiasm, inspiration and how-to, this is the place to be.”

food gourmet tn local food summit by alexandra gellis

Joining Salatin will be Sean Brock, Hugh Lovel and other leaders spearheading the local food movement. Expect a vibrant trade show, invaluable networking and plenty of local food. Brought to you by Barefoot Farmer, LLC and Tennessee State University College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Sciences.

For more information, please visit tnlocalfood.com.

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Strawberry Fields

Let me take you down ’cause I’m going to strawberry fields. The harvest is real. Gallons upon gallons are picked every few days, and we are not selling them. Instead, we are trying to set a new Long Hungry record for desserts.

Besides simply eating too many strawberries, the kitchen crew has produced pies, tarts, cakes, cream roll ups and other red, juicy delights. We are also freezing a lot for next winter. Jams and wine seem to loom in our future as well.

Strawberries are planted in the fall. I’ve made the mistake of spring planting, and this involves a whole spring and summer of weeding. Market gardeners often follow a summer crop with a September planting of strawberries, and then pull them out after the May harvest, allowing for another summer crop. All they need is a few months of growth before winter, not a whole summer.

strawberries organic fresh red

We had some leftover landscape cloth from an old watermelon patch, and it was folded up and had slits cut into it at two feet apart. Chandler plants were set and watered a year and a half ago. Last year a beautiful harvest kept us jamming all winter, and I decided to leave the patch in. We are sure glad about that.

A floating row cover protected the plants last winter, after the runners filled up the bed. As we weeded them it looked like they were too thick. The cover was pulled off in the spring during bloom so the bees could get in there to do their thing.

Deer love strawberries, so a big fence is required. Compost is their fertilizer of choice and weeds are the main problem. Keeping the grass and other plants away allows the berry plants to thrive and take over the patch. We’ve had no other issues besides the tedious task of daily picking.

The berries are perfect, heralding the new season on the farm. Gertrude the Guernsey plays no small part in the strawberry festival, with her fresh cream, butter and yogurt. Add farm fresh eggs, some sugar and flour, and let your imagination ignore your calorie intake. There is something to celebrate everyday.

 

Strawberry patches need renovation every few years. They tend to grow up so thickly they shade each other out. Yields decrease after a few years, but runners can be transplanted to a new spot. This is how you have strawberry fields forever.

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Plan Your Plantings

Planning plantings to provide people who’ve previously pledged payments with plenty of produce places particularly peculiar and perplexing parameters around the potential possibility of periodic over productions. It is way too easy to grow way too much.

Our first plantings pose no problems. We can never grow too many onions or potatoes. These storage crops are always in high demand, and we are able to off load extras.

On the other hand, when it comes to summer squash and cucumbers it is easy to overload everybody. Unless you make pickles, who needs a peck of cucumbers? And surplus summer squash has neighbors locking their screen doors.

I plan for about 150 families, and plant accordingly. This supplies a 100 member CSA, a restaurant, some other accounts, and leaves us an abundance to put up and give away.

The rows average about 300 feet in length. Fifteen rows of beets will get everyone in a pickle. Twelve rows of lettuce makes sure everybody gets lots of heads. Three rows each of swiss chard and celery provides plenty of weekly pickings, although just one row of parsley suffices. Unless you really relish radishes, two rows work well. Two rows of carrots is all we want to keep weeded, but we all could eat more.

We are so lucky when the work we do is the fun we do.

We are so lucky when the work we do is the fun we do.

Successive plantings are the way to deal with beans, squash, cucumbers and corn. Yesterday we sowed an 80 day variety along with a 90 day one of sweet corns. We will do the same two or three weeks later. Three rows each of summer squash, cucumbers and green beans were also sown, and I’ll wait until June to plant more of them. A third planting happens in July, and this gives us fresh pickings throughout most of the summer of all of these vegetables. Six rows each of tomatoes and peppers makes everyone happy. Three rows of watermelons are about right, although every year is different with them. One row of okra is all I want to be responsible for picking, and one row of sweet basil keeps many freezers full of pesto.

As for the winter squash and sweet potatoes, I say “the more the merrier”. Like Irish potatoes, we store hundreds of bushels of these crops and divvy them out weekly until Christmas. Having something to sell in the off season is handy, so we don’t mind leftovers.

In the fall we plan for about 1,000 heads each of cabbage, Chinese cabbage, and bok choy. This keeps the kraut and kimchi makers satisfied. A half-acre each of kale, mustard, daikons and turnips is way too much, but they are good cover crops so I just go for it. Four rows of spinach was about right, but I bet I plant more this year.

As market gardeners, we have to grow excess. It’s taken me a long time to learn how not to grow an excess of excess, like the annual plantings of 21 rows of lettuce that comes in at once and half of which bolts. Ponder your plans and prepare your planting for appropriate production.

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Educational Opportunities Abound

Educational opportunities abound on a farm and in a garden. Two groups of school kids spent extended stays here last month, and I spearheaded garden projects at two different Nashville schools. I am learning a lot.

Last fall I got a message from Brad, a teacher at High Mowing School in New Hampshire. He had attended our Biodynamic Conference back in 2000 and it “changed his life”. He became a gardener and then a garden director at this Waldorf High School, and wanted to bring some students down for a week in April.

It was chilly spring weather, so instead of the campground and outdoor facilities they used the new barn and my kitchen. Fifteen New England kids, ranging from freshman to seniors, experienced a Tennessee farm. We dug out briars, weeded the onion patch, cleaned up the berries and took long hikes.

When they piled in the house to get warm and rest, I was pleasantly surprised to see them all reading books. They had smart phones but weren’t obsessed with using them. Livi knitted a hat for my grandson, Austin asked questions about his garden, and Feona explained the contrast of  comedy and evil in Shakespeare’s plays. It was good to see higher education alive and well

Soon after they left, Linden Waldorf school had their annual 3 day adventure for the 3rd graders. Now we really had fun, running around and being 10 years old. We had bonfires and played in the creek. A treasure hike up Grissom holler yielded lots of geodes for them to take home.

A few years ago I double dug four garden beds for them, and they asked me back. A group of teachers and parents came to the workshop on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. I explained the concepts of opening up the deeper layers of soil, minerals, composting and soil biology. Then we got to work and removed the topsoil, loosened up the subsoil, pushed the adjacent topsoil on to it, loosened that subsoil, and continued down the beds.

We added lime and wood ashes for minerals, and raked in the compost on top. Lettuce, radishes and green onion sets were planted after an hour of stirring horn manure and applying it. Several folks were inspired to dig in their own garden beds so the plant roots could really penetrate deeper.

A friend of the farm from Davidson Academy invited me to dig a garden for them. The soil was really compacted and we had to use the pick a lot more than the shovel. We added a few buckets of sand from the nearby volleyball court to help keep the clay loosened up, and we also stirred up some horn manure. The students and teachers enjoyed the afternoon, and we soon had the quick growing salad garden of lettuce, radish and green onions planted.

Kids offer a fresh and nonjudgmental attitude that opens me up. The awe and wonder of discovering new things and new capabilities in themselves is food for thought and introspection. The world will be taken over young people, and that’s a good thing.

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Reversing Climate Change Through Agriculture

I have good news and bad news. First the bad news. There is more carbon in the atmosphere than is healthy for our planet, and it takes 25 years for the carbon we’ve been emitting to get up there. So there will be much more in the next few years.

What happens when too much carbon is in the atmosphere is up for debate. Rising sea levels, weird weather patterns, and some sort of greenhouse effects have been predicted. The known fact is that the carbon in the atmosphere 200 years ago was 265 billion tons, and today it is 402 billion tons. This is measurable.

Carbon is not a bad thing. It is necessary for life. We live on a carbon-based planet. All things alive or that were alive have carbon in them. Nature has a wonderful way of working. Animals breathe out carbon dioxide, and plants take it in. Through photosynthesis, sunlight on leaves brings carbon into the plant, forming carbohydrates like sugar and starch. We get it by eating plants and animals.

The good news is that plants also send carbon into the soil This is called carbon sequestration. A teaspoon of good, rich soil has billions of tiny microorganisms in it, and each one needs carbon to live. As a plant photosynthesizes, carbon goes from the air into the soil, if the soil has these carbon-needing microbes in it.

The problem is that 70% of the world’s agriculture land no longer has the little live things in it. They get killed by tillage, chemicals and antibiotics. “Bio” means “life”, so antibiotics means “opposed to life”.

Scientists have recently reported that by regenerating soil with these live microorganisms, enough carbon will be brought back out of the atmosphere and into the soil to avoid negative climate change. When you grow cover crops and till less, you raise the organic matter of your garden or field. This is a measure of the increase of carbon in your soil.

More good news is that giant corporations are wanting to help. It will be business and economics that help us shift from putting carbon into the atmosphere to pulling carbon back into the soil. Composting is key to propagating the beneficial microbes, and good farming practices will bring about a reversal of carbon going up to carbon coming down. A good source of information iswww.thecarbonunderground.com. With organic farming to rescue, maybe we can keep driving cars.

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Compost Month

March is the compost month. The cows have cleaned up the hay and are eagerly awaiting the greening of the pastures. By harrowing where they’ve been, old hay and cow pies get spread around and mixed with a little soil. This is called sheet composting, where the decaying and rebuilding of humus happens directly on the fields.

piles of manure cropped

This is taken from an old farming book written before 1900.

In places that cows have been fed rolls of hay we pile up the resulting manure, hay and soil mess into windrows five feet tall and ten feet wide. They may be 100 or more feet in length. A concavity is created on top of the pile by inserting the front end loader bucket and backing up. This is done to allow rainwater to soak in, and also gives access for air flow.

Last year’s compost is loaded into the manure spreader and flung out on the garden areas. The first priority is the potato patch. It then gets chisel plowed and harrowed, ready for the ton of seed potatoes that are cut up in baskets down in the cellar.

The early spring garden is also ready for seed. A row of English peas is already up, and a quarter acre of onions are in. A couple of cold frames have lettuce up, and the others are ready for tomato seeds.

The rich earthy smell of the compost is such a pleasure to breath while it is spread. It is quite the contrast to the unusual practice of spreading the toxic waste products from the new industrial chicken houses we are trying to keep from overrunning our lovely community. With a NPK value of only 2-3%, farmers will surely quit angering their neighbors, fouling the air and polluting the water table with dead birds, antibiotics and who knows what else.

A neighbor brought over the clean out from the stockyard, and it would have been horrible to spread. Instead, I added soil and old compost to it, made the windrows and will let it ferment down into sweet smelling compost before it is used. All of our piles get our homemade biodynamic compost preparations in them when they are made and after they get turned.

There has been much March mulching. Berry bushes love old hay or rotten wood chips around them. I’ve been threatening to put the old tin from the barn reproofing underneath the orchard trees to smother grass. It’s unsightly but effective. And as we march through the garlic beds, weeding and mulching, the delicate pastels of March’s redbuds, maples and wooded hillsides foretell of April’s showers and flowers, and what may come gushing forth in May.

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Too Much Sun

We sat in the field, letting the sun kiss our skin while we watched the butterflies and fairies play, and the wildflowers and grass dance. Our fingers worked to pull up the weeds that were choking the garlic and stealing their food, and in return they thanked us, one by one, with a deep sigh of relief.

Garilc in the spring

Garilc in the spring. Photo by Kristina Rossi

At lunch we ate food that was more alive than we were. It made our insides stand up straighter  and our brains spring up higher. We had started to feel it earlier from the air and the soil, and we thought we heard it whispered among the insects and the trees, but now we were sure- it was getting to us.

Things were changing. We were seeing deeper, clearer. It was all connected, we were all connected, everything is connected.

We wandered up the hill, higher and higher, and our bodies started to feel even lighter. The kale spoke to us of the past and the future, and the cows so readily shared with us their essence and ways of being. How intricate, how deep, how universal every little part is.

cows on the farm ss 2015

Photo by Mac Hill

Back into the woods the trees towered us and stood openly and honestly, not pushing their message onto us, but allowing us to see it and feel it ourselves. The creek hummed, and sang, and sparkled and wished, and we danced along beside it, winding and moving to the rhythm we heard.

The long and hungry creek.

The long and hungry creek. Photo by Kristina Rossi

Hours passed this way before anyone realized the sun had turned angry and against us, burning us with the same fire that it had kissed us with earlier. The brush was too thick, the trail was too treacherous, and our enthusiasm to continue was dwindling.

Now my body is sore, my skin is hot, my head is aching and I am so painfully aware I did not drink enough water. The highs are too good to give up because of the lows. I am an addict. I can not wait until morning comes, the rooster crows, and I can jump up to milk my cow and get high on farm life again.

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Improving the Hillsides

Pastures can get compacted, acidic and in need of renovation. I’ve been doing some things to improve our hillsides. The soil color is getting darker and the texture looser, so maybe I’m on the right track.

The most important aspect of grazing cattle on pastures is to keep them off of it. The grass needs to be able to grow back for a few months with no animals grazing it. This allows the roots to grow deeper into the decaying organic matter left over from the last grazing.

cows on the farm ss 2015

Photo by Mac Hill

The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has been helping farmers with cross fencing and water systems, because resting pastures conserves soil. Ideally, animals should eat the tips of the new growth, tromp in the majority of growth, and then move off of it to let it regrow. The alteration of grazing and rest builds soil.

Another good idea is key line plowing. I take a transit and find the level contours along the hillside. Then the chisel plow, with every other shank removed, is pulled along the contour making four inch trenches, two feet apart. Water that is flowing down the hill gets caught in the trenches, soaks into the soil, and is used later in the summer rather than running off to the creek.

Lime is the cure for soil acidity. I like to apply a ton and a half per acre every two or three years It helps to do this in connection with loosening the soil by chisel plowing. Litmus paper is a good way to check soil PH.

cows in a field farm

Photo by Kristina Rossi

In late February I mixed oats, fescue and red and white clover seed together in a five gallon bucket. I walked over the hillside flinging it out. Then I harrowed the field to knock down the ridges and cover the seed.

I also use the harrow after the cattle have grazed a paddock. This scatters the cow pies out and slightly tills the field. It seems to really help with the fertilization.

Cute spring calves are hitting the ground, and trees are budding out. Plants are springing up out of their winter sleep, and I am wound up like a spring, planning gardens and farm activities. The pastures will soon spring back to life, with the extra bounce from winter’s pasture renovation. Happy Spring!

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