The earth breaths a sigh of relief as a much needed slowdown of the economy takes place worldwide. Rivers are cleaner and air quality is up. For the first time in 30 years the Himalayan mountains are not obscured by pollution. The next step is to curb soil pollution by developing a healthy, local food system.
One good sign is the resurgence of gardening, so I am making extra biodynamic compost. With compost, lime, seeds and a few tools, gardens can sprout up just about anywhere. Staying home offers the chance to rediscover your backyard and have some fun in it.
Market gardeners and distributors are wondering how to move produce. Direct marketing may shift away from farmers markets and restaurant sales, but what will take its place? I’m reading a book on the cooperative marketing movement 100 years ago which gives many compelling reasons for farmers and distributors to develop local warehouses and processing plants themselves, and not rely on big centralized markets.
We’re lucky to have a dairy cow. A relaxation of legislation prohibiting raw milk sales could see more folks getting fresh dairy products. It could be easier to get meat from the farm to the table with more local butchers and meat lockers.
More profitable grazing could lure the corn, soy, CAFO farmers into the soil building enterprises rather than the soil depleting ones so common in Middle Tennessee. Regenerative ranching mimics nature’s way of restoring carbon into the soil from the over supply in the atmosphere. Following the ruminants with poultry further diversifies a farm and diversity is a sure sign of health and resilience.
We lost an old friend when Alfred Farris passed, but his foresight has enabled Windy Acres to be preserved for agricultural use only. May organic grains continue to flourish there for another forty years and far into the future. Local livestock producers rely on local grains, particularly those raising pork and poultry. Ensuring land access for young farmers is paramount.
A hard frost in full bloom this April may dampen fruit production, at least the fruit trees. I bet many folks are planting berries and fruit trees around their places. Underneath them is a good place to have small herb gardens.
My role planning gatherings remains unclear. What is clear is the need for a healthy, local food system. Whether we gather in person or in virtual reality, our network of friends, farmers, speakers and shakers is ready, willing and able. Middle Tennessee once fed itself, and it will again.
Growing high quality CBD Cannabis is no different than growing high quality fruits, vegetables, and other produce. We start with the soil, and this begins the preceding fall.
Our fields, such as this one we are growing CBD Cannabis in, receive an annual application of biodynamic compost at the rate of 40 tons to the acre. Lime is spread every few years at 1.5 tons per acre. The acids in the compost act on the bases in the lime to create great growth potential.
Last year’s sweet corn patch was followed by a cover crop of grasses. In mid-May I plowed the field with a chisel plow. The shanks vibrate back and forth because of the springs. The land rests for a few days and then I chisel it again perpendicular to the first pass. After a week or so it gets chiseled in the direction of the first time, and a spike tooth harrow is chained behind the plow.
The waiting days between plowings is important for preserving soil structure. We do a lot to ensure our soils are a live clay/humus complex. This includes remineralizing, cover cropping, and making herbal preparations for the compost piles, all of which foster a vibrant microbial population. These live beings need the air provided for with little gentle tillage, but can be damaged by too much plowing at once. Time between tilling allows the microbes to resettle, hold the soil together, and get ready for the next crop.
Another humus building process we do is burying cow horns stuffed with manure in the fall. When dug up in the spring, the manure has transformed into an enzyme-rich humus material. We stir it up vigorously in warm water for an hour and sprinkle it on the freshly plowed soil before planting.
On June 6 I felt the soil was in good heart so I laid off 14 rows with a farmall 140 cultivating tractor. We planted a row of marigolds for color, and rows of the old-fashioned Tennessee pumpkin along with delicata and spaghetti squash. Two rows were left blank. The pumpkin patch usually ends up with weeds in it, and this year I chose the weed.
Every five or six feet we dug a few shovelfuls of the soft dirt, and then took a digging fork and loosened the subsoil underneath. The deeper the soil is loose, the easier it is for the plant roots to get moisture and nutrients. A few shovelfuls of beautiful black compost was added to each hole, along with a cup of Jersey greensand, a mineral deposit from an old sea bed rich in silica, potassium, and trace elements.
Three things are necessary for growing high quality produce. Gentle tillage incorporates air, which has the nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen that make up 95% of a plant. Minerals and trace elements are needed by the plant to make up the other 5%. And well-made biodynamic compost has microorganisms that help get the air, minerals, and the trace elements into the plant.
We swapped 1000 sweet potato slips for 100 low THC cannabis plants. They were set in the holes before a rain so that they didn’t need watering. I ran the cultivator over the field three times to check evaporation, aerate the soil and take care of weeds. We hoed around them once and added a few more shovelfuls of that great compost, along with a cup of calcium phosphate. Horn silica and horsetail (equisetum) tea were stirred and applied separately in mid-July to help offset the humus earth preparations with silica, a light and warmth preparation that helps plant quality.
The pumpkin and squash vines had to be pulled off of the cannabis a few times. I wanted to keep full production of vegetables, but we certainly questioned the wisdom of this companion planting while rescuing the plants from climbing vines. The soil has stayed loose and friable, a prerequisite for growing high quality plants.
The inspector came August 20th and said they were the healthiest plants he’d seen. Most plants he had seen had been grown in less fertile conditions with hard soil, plastic mulch, and drip irrigation. We rely on cultivation, soaking in of winter rains, and a live, humus-rich soil.
We harvested some on August 27th although we’d planned on waiting until September 20th. The buds were getting thick and I didn’t want them to mold. I strung them upside down in the barn to dry, keeping them close but not toughing.
Hemp is Cannabis drilled close together to make tall, branchless stalks for fiber. Most of the 3000 hemp growers in Tennessee are growing flowers for medicine. The plants are only females. To grow seeds for oils and protein you would need to grow male plants, too. All Cannabis grown in Tennessee must have less than 0.3% THC or it is illegal.
Cannabis is a beautiful plant domesticated by humans before recorded history. I think it would have a place in our crop rotations. I try to grow the highest quality peppers, potatoes, squash, and many other fruits and vegetables, so it has been fun growing this new crop.
I love growing potatoes. They are a fun and early crop for us. This year we planted 1,500 pounds of seed potatoes on an acre below the orchard and another 500 pounds on the south side of Heady Ridge Road.
Fifteen loads of beautiful, black, biodynamic compost were spread with the New Idea manure spreader. It is a 206 model, which I mention for a reason. If anybody has one, we would like to look at it. We bent a rod and don’t remember exactly what it is supposed to look like. We’ve bent it back but it is not quite right.
The chisel plow was pulled through the field very slowly and not too deep, around mid-March. The wet fall and winter have really pugged up the soil. It is packed down pretty hard, so it is plowing up a bit on the cloddy side.
A few days later I criss-crossed the first plowing, still very slowly but a little deeper. I like to go deep but not if it pulls up wet, shiny clods. I keep my hand on the lift and am careful not to replow what I’ve just been on.
In early April the last pass with the chisel plow went over the field like the first pass, but deeper and with a spike-toothed harrow behind it. This left the field in pretty good shape. I then made rows with the Farmall 140, using the middle busters behind the wheels to create furrows.
A dedicated crew dropped the potato pieces, cut to the size of a hen’s egg, about one foot apart, and then stepped on them to firm them into the soil. Meanwhile, I finished fitting the other field for planting. It still had quite a bit of the rye cover crop left in it.
After they are planted, I straddle the row with the cultivators down and cover them up. Helpers showed up in time to get us finished right before dark. The varieties are Kennebec, Red Pontiac, and Red La Soda.
Ten days later I pulled the harrow over the rows. After another ten days the potato plants started appearing and I pulled the harrow over them again, this time with the cultivators down. A potato can be raked over, it will just pop right up the next day. Harrowing and cultivating keep the moisture in the soil by creating a soil mulch, and it takes out the small sprouting weeds in the row.
Subsequent cultivation happens every time the soil dries up after a rain. The first cultivation is very slowly in first gear, but as the plants get taller I can go in second gear, and this throws soil back on the row and plants. Potatoes can be covered, but this smothers the weeds.
The next time over them will be with disc hillers. I’ll have to go in first gear the first time, and this will throw a ridge up along the potato stalk. A final pass later with hillers, with a little more speed, will lay the crop by.
All that is left to do then is watch them flower, fade and die. The old potato digger will then lift the potatoes out and onto the ground for us to pick up and put into baskets. The baskets get put on a truck, and then stacked two baskets deep. We rest the top basket on the sides of the bottom basket so we don’t scratch the potatoes.
You don’t have to understand chemistry to learn how to grow plants. The earth, rain, atmosphere and sun work together and you just need to plow, fertilize, sow, and tend the plants at the right time. But learning a little chemistry is necessary to learn how plants grow.
In atomic theory, atoms are the smallest building blocks of matter. They are called the elements and are made of a proton and neutron surrounded by electrons orbiting around their core like planets around the sun. If the outer orbit of electrons is incomplete, in other words it is missing electrons, then the element is reactive and wants to join with another element which also has an incomplete outer orbit of electrons. These electrons are available to be paired with other available electrons.
An example is water. “H” stands for hydrogen and “O” stands for oxygen. A hydrogen atom has only one electron, and oxygen has two available electrons. So two hydrogen atoms readily join with an oxygen atom. When this happens water is formed and it is called H2O, because it takes 2 hydrogen atoms for every one oxygen atom. Hydrogen and oxygen readily form bonds with many elements.
Hydrogen was discovered in 1766, and oxygen was discovered in 1774. In 1772, nitrogen was discovered. Nitrogen’s outer orbit needs three electrons to complete it, and readily finds them in another nitrogen atom, forming N2. “N” stands for nitrogen.
Our atmosphere is 78% N2, which is an inert gas so strongly bonded to itself it is extremely difficult to break free. It must be free, as plain N, so it can react with other elements to grow plants. Bacteria, living organisms in the soil, can do this and are called nitrogen fixing microbes. Other soil organisms, called protozoa, eat these microbes and excrete N that plants can use.
Carbon was discovered a few years later in 1789. It is written as “C”, and has four unpaired electrons. Together with hydrogen and oxygen, carbon forms all life as we know it. We are carbon-based life forms on this planet.
Carbon dioxide, CO2, in the air joins with water, H2O, to form carbohydrates in plants. This happens in a leaf when the sun shines, and is called photosynthesis. These carbohydrates (carbo- for carbon, -hydro for hydrogen, and -ates for oxygen) feed the plant and go down a tube in the plant called a phloem. They exit the plant’s roots, called a root exudate, and become food for the microbes living nearby.
In addition to nitrogen, soil microbes also supply the plant with minerals, which are always in combination with oxygen. Water and these nutrients go back up the plant in different tubes, called xylem. Fungi, the non-flowering plants that make mushrooms, have roots underground that stretch throughout the soil and connect to soil particles.
Besides bacteria, fungi, and protozoa, many other microscopic animals live in the soil and help plants grow. The grains of soil are coated with a waxy, black substance called humus, which is where most of these microbes live, get food for and from the plant, and reproduce.
Sulfur, S, was known to ancient people and is the “brimstone” of the Bible. It evaporates from the ocean as a gas produced by phytoplankton, providing a dilution of sulfur in rainfall everywhere. Sulfur has four unpaired electrons and joins with oxygen to form SO4 in the soil.
This dissolves in water and brings oxygen to the surface of soil particles, where the humus and microbes are. Sulfur makes the soil elements more available and is the catalyst for biological activity.
Hydrogen, the smallest element and first on the periodic table, makes up 98% of the universe and is what the sun is made of. Oxygen (oxy- means acid and -gen mean “maker of”) is the basis for acids in chemistry and joins with the soil’s elements in living organisms. Nitrogen is the basis for our DNA, our nervous system, and protein formation. Carbon provides the structural framework for the forms of all life. Sulfur, in much smaller quantities, helps get the air with these other four elements into the soil’s life processes. H2O, N, C, and S are provided for freely from the atmosphere for plant growth.
If you garden in Middle Tennessee, here are a few ideas to consider.
In April, plant a few rows of Detroit Dark Red beets, an old fashioned, tried and true heirloom. We have learned to make a four inch wide furrow and sprinkle the seed in it, firm them in, and then cover lightly. Thin them so they can make a three inch beet. The tops are edible as greens, and the roots make great pickled beets, if you don’t eat them all while fresh.
By August they’ll be gone and the same rows can then be planted in kale. We grow a flat-leafed variety called Smooth German that we’ve saved seed from for 35 years, besides Siberian, Red Russian, Lacinato, we also love Georgia Collards.
Firm the seed into the soil and enjoy greens all fall. Then cover them with row cover and harvest in winter. In March and April enjoy the new growth and especially the flower buds that look so much like little broccolis that we call them brokalees. The ones that escape eating will flower and make seed you can save by the end of May. After pulling up the plants, which are laid on a tarp in a shed to dry, these rows are ready for slips of the Golden Nugget sweet potato, the variety most grown in Tennessee back in the 1800’s.
Golden Nugget is a crow-foot leafed heirloom that is dry, yellow and has a flavor that will knock your socks off. They are planted in ridges around Memorial Day. They taught me that with just compost and lime, and a little labor, that an acre can produce 500 bushels and cost very little money.
Kennebec potatoes came out on top of our extensive potato variety trials during the 1980’s, and we still love to grow them. To plant, cut them so each piece is the size of an egg and has a couple of eyes. We try to get them into well-prepared composted soil around the end of March, stepping on them as we drop them in the furrows every foot or so. We cover them and then drag a rake over the rows 10 days later, and then again just as they are visible. The rake, but moving the soil, disturbs sprouting weed seeds in the row but doesn’t bother the strong potato shoots. We pull soil towards them as they grow to hill them up.
As soon as they are dug in late July, the rows are ready for October beans. They are the old fashioned Taylor’s Dwarf horticulture bean and quickly sprout up. They are also hilled later on and make a great yield of shelly beans. We also eat them in the green bean stage before they have matured.
Happy gardening, Jeff
I left my cabin at 4:15 and stopped at Shrums to get some tractor parts and vetch seed. At that time, the barn was fine, and no one else was at the farm. Phil had gone home for the day and Anthony and Kristina had gone to Cookeville.
I drove back to the shop where a garage door was being replaced with a wall. Steve informed me my barn was burning down. He had gotten a call from Kristina who had gotten a call from Paula that the barn was ablaze.
My driveway was full of emergency vehicles and the fire department were busy containing the fire. What a blessing it is to have such committed volunteers and they did a great job.
Paula noticed the fire soon after getting here a little before 5:00. She called 911 and took a picture showing the loft in flames, but not the tractor underneath. I keep the battery disconnected, so that was not the cause. The barn has no electricity, so we don’t know what could have caused the fire.
What was in it? All of our seed garlic which I have been saving for over 35 years, over 100 square bales of hay, a tractor, various tools including ones that I got from my father who is long gone now, a few instruments, a few tents, and various other items.
We will build a new barn for the onion, garlic and hay storage, along with a shop for storing and working on equipment. We are hoping to do this before Spring.
We will also build intern housing, which we already have the foundation built for. It will have four bedrooms and be a temporary home for future organic farmers and visitors. We will build this with local, rough cut lumber during the off season this winter.
Our farm has always been open to the public because of my belief in the importance of sharing organic farming knowledge and experience. We are extremely grateful to all who have helped us in the fields over the years, which allows me time to write, lecture, consult, and help other organic farmers. Our gratitude would greatly increase with a show of public support for what we do with any and all donations to our building projects.
The beneficiaries of this funding will include the interns and farm visitors who come to learn first hand from experiences organic farmers. Instead of a loft in a barn or tent, they will have a home with a bathroom and kitchen. We can increase the number and quality of our intern program with this. Whoever they eventually grow organic food for will also benefit.
As the organic movement spreads, the benefits will include more local jobs, better health for people and a healthier environment with less dependency on chemicals. With increased help on the farm, I will be freer to help other, younger farmers by lecturing, consulting, researching, organizing organic conferences, writing, producing television segments for PBS, and making biodynamic preparations available.
A new barn will benefit the cows, our customers, the mechanics, and those who come here to learn about how a farm operates, because farms need barns.
Table to farm is the name we’ve given to September’s labor day event. Twenty folks from the staff of Husk restaurant spent the day at the farm. In light of the popularity of Farm to Table dinners, the importance of restaurants learning first hand how food is produced seems paramount.
I was picking tomatoes with Gordon, a former Husk employee who just happened to be visiting, when they arrived. We moved to the shade of a big oak tree and I explained what they were observing. Agriculture arises out of how the growth of plants and the digestion of animals work together to create and maintain soil fertility.
Questions started coming and never ceased. Why does the farm have to have cows, how can you grow eight acres of vegetables with no irrigation, what does Biodynamics mean, and how we keep the soil so loose and free of weeds were but a few of the topics I addressed. We discussed the soil food web and the feeding of microbes through photosynthesis to explain what was happening.
There was surprise when I mentioned that a live humus soil contains as many microbes in a spoonful as there are people on the planet, 7,000,000,000. These carbon-ingesting microbes live off of what exits the plant roots, which are the carbohydrates formed from the photosynthesis that occurs in leaves. This is where hydrogen from the sun joins with carbon dioxide from the air. Microbes work of eating atmospheric carbon helps get the excess in the air back into the soil.
The mystery of nitrogen required clarification. As the inert gas comprising 78% of air, nitrogen is the tightly bonded to itself and difficult to break free. Life in the soil can do it, and that’s how it was always done until 1914, by all farms having animals, and growing legumes.
Germany was blockaded by England at the beginning of WWI to sources of nitrate, a necessary ingredient for gun powder. Scientists there figured out how to synthesize nitrogen from the atmosphere and weapons facilities sprouted up all over Germany. They sold weapons to the German military, and England’s, too, thus prolonging WWI for five more years. A new power structure emerged and then enlarged after the war as these facilities became fertilizer factories.
Gun powder and fertilizer are made from the same three elements: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. As these in the salt form as fertilizers destroy the soil’s microbial ability to feed plants, use of them created a dependence on them. Agricultural education then shifted to crops with chemicals and animals in confinement.
After helping harvest tomatoes, we toured the various gardens and fields, admiring the compost-rich soils teeming with life. Nitrates uptake in plants cause sugar to be used up and make the plants less sweet. So our farm uses no composted chicken litter, fish emulsion, cottonseed meal, leather or feather meal, or chilean nitrate, all of which are allowed on organic farms. We never spray anything for bugs, but rely on healthy soil instead.
It was hot and I was getting boring, so we went for a swim in the beautiful Long Hungry Creek. After touring more gardens and feeling soft, deep soils, I was asked about irrigation. We don’t need it because with deep tillage and shallow surface tillage the annual rainfall soaks in, is conserved, and then waters the crop with mineral-rich subsoil moisture that rises up through capillary action.
Where is the greenhouse? We don’t have a plastic hoop house, or plastic mulches with plastic drip tape underneath. We farm in a very traditional, old-time way, growing in-season vegetables. The herd of cows were enjoyed, and I explained that the rise of civilization depended on cattle’s unique ability to make more land fertile than their own needs required.
Back at the barn we enjoyed tomato and ham salad sandwiches, potato salad and watermelon. This event was free, as we’d been shown that food on a farm has little to do with external economy. Everything needed for agricultural production comes from within the farm’s borders. We would be honored to host any other restaurant staff for a fun, educational day at a table to farm tour and dinner.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In nature, as with life, everything is connected. Symbiotic relationships are ever-present.
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.
- What is Tennessee’s crop land being used for now, and how is it being managed?
- Where does Middle Tennessee’s food now come from?
- If properly managed, how could middle-Tennessee’s farmland provide a large portion of middle-Tennessee’s diet?
- 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?
- It’s hard to change a diet, or a farmer.
- A highly centralized and extremely profitable (for a few) system is already in place, with overwhelming political, economic and military clout.
- 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.
- The food system in place is not set up for the distribution of healthy, local food.
- There is a lack of education and training for farmers beginning in organic agriculture.
- Nashville has recently become a city noted for local food.
- Agriculture pollution is rampant, rural economics are devastated, and our population’s diet of products grown and processed elsewhere is creating serious health problems.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Nitrogen fixing microbes die, because they can’t survive singing in their own excrement and dead bodies.
- Fungal activity is compromised because nitrate is antagonistic towards silica.
- 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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!
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.
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.