The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden

review by Jack Kittredge

Those who have read a Dr. Reich book (yes, he does have a PhD – in horticulture), or who have attended one of Lee’s NOFA conference workshops, know the care with which he covers his topics. That approach continues in this, his latest gardening book.

From the book’s earliest essay, on seed sprouting, in which he explains the mysteries of dormancy, stratification, plant hormones that inhibit or encourage germination, and scarification, to its final one, on flavor, exploring the impact of microclimate, pruning for light, soil quality, harvest timing, even the mysteries of terroir on this vital quality, his curiosity and knowledge combine in a speculative blend that fascinates.

Reich organizes this book in sections on Propagation and Planting, Soil, Flowering and Fruiting, Stems and Leaves, Organizations, Stress, and Senses. This makes it easy to find his musings on the subject when some sort of question occurs to you, like: What forms burls on trees? or How Do Plants Handle Heat Stress? or Do Plants Really Respond to Touch? You will find yourself soon deeply engrossed learning about buds which grow inward, or C3 versus C4 photosynthesis, or how to make cucurbits bear more female flowers.

Despite Lee’s conventional training (Cornell, USDA) he favors an organic approach and suggests many natural alternatives for gardeners tempted to reach for a spray to control pests or diseases. I especially appreciate his attitude toward tillage: “Following an initial burst of nutrients, the soil is left poorer… Not that tilling is necessary; many farms these days practice no-till or minimal till, and I haven’t tilled my garden for over 30 years.”

One small complaint for someone at New Society: the indexing was not thorough enough. Neither “tillage” nor “tilling” was listed, although forms of the word occur at least half a dozen times on a single page.

Return to Resistance: Breeding Crops to Reduce Pesticide Dependence

Return to Resistance Coverreview by Liz Henderson

This book has been available for over 20 years, but the theme relates perfectly to the theme of this special issue of TNF, connecting the method of plant breeding that has dominated in the US with the need for the excessive and increasing use of pesticides. Robinson, who passed away in 2014, according to Wikipedia, was “a Canadian/British plant scientist with more than forty years of wide-ranging global experience in crop improvement for both commercial and subsistence agriculture.” He was a practitioner and a champion of horizontal or population breeding, an approach that attempts to replicate the level of resistance to pests and diseases found in uncultivated crops and resembles the way farmers have selected crops for millennia.

According to Robinson, it was J.E. Vanderplanck in Plant Diseases, Epidemics and Control, who distinguished between single gene and multi-gene resistances.  He called single gene resistances “vertical:” they are qualitative – the resistance is either present or absent with no gradations. By contrast, “horizontal” resistance is quantitative and can occur at any level from a little to a lot.  Pedigree breeding, the approach favored by the Mendelian school (followers of Mendel, whose “laws of inheritance” we have all studied in basic biology), is based on vertical resistance, a gene for gene relationship between a plant and its parasite.  This form of resistance is also temporary, requiring the breeder to continually develop new cultivars as the resistance inevitably breaks down, or to resort to pesticides and fungicides to ensure high yields.

By contrast, horizontal resistance is complex and durable, involving many polygenes “controlling many different resistance mechanisms.” (p. 402) Robinson gives many examples of crops that farmers were able to grow for hundreds of years without resorting to pesticides – sugarcane, ancient clones like garlic and ginger, olive trees, bananas, hops, etc. Breeding plants for this kind of resistance does not require that there be a genetic source of resistance which is what the Mendelian breeders need to even begin.

Return to Resistance is a passionate argument for increasing the resources dedicated to horizontal breeding.  Robinson insists that he admires the accomplishment of the Mendelians who have had great success with three of the broad objectives of breeding – “to improve the yield, the quality of crop product, the agronomic suitability…” (p. xiv)  However, he blames the steadily increasing use of toxic pesticides on their failure with the fourth objective: “the resistance to pests and diseases…”

Section one of his book gives a clear explanation of the differences between the two approaches to breeding and the way pests and diseases behave.  Section two give examples of successful horizontal breeding, including his own experience saving the coffee crop of Ethiopia.  There is a fascinating chapter on the history of potatoes, the Irish famine resulting from reliance on only one variety that was devastated when late blight, a new pathogen, arrived from Mexico. Then, as varieties with horizontal resistance were selected to replace the susceptible one, the role of potatoes as a basic crop to feed the poor recuperated.

Section three is entitled “Solutions.” To counter the dominance of the Mendelians, and their offspring, the gmo breeders, Robinson urges the formation of Plant Breeding Clubs.  He believes that only active and organized amateurs together with farmers can defeat the “vested interests,” the major seed companies and pesticide manufacturers who “positively require susceptibility to crop pests and diseases,” to justify their existence. (p. 254) He provides a detailed guide to forming these clubs including a glossary defining all the techniques and materials a club might need along with a warning against wasting energies on crops that are too difficult or require professional training.

In the final chapter, Robinson looks to the future. Optimistically, he predicts the development of a new discipline – “agro-evolution.”  Replacing Mendelian breeding, “it will be based on horizontal resistance, and both pathosystem theory and complexity theory.  The complexity theory will ensure that the screening process takes place at the edge of chaos, and that all factors are allowed to exert their natural influence on the self-organization, the appearance of emergents, and the agro-evolution.” (p. 396) Upon this statement follows Robinson’s lucid analysis of the limits of genetic engineering relying as it does on the transfer of single, or at most, two or three genes. As with vertical resistance, parasites can overcome this simple gene transfer with their capacity for micro-evolution. Robinson predicts the kind of failure we are seeing now with superweeds bedeviling the farmers who are trapped in the tentacles of the Bayer/Monsantos.  He concludes cheerfully “Perhaps plant breeders’ clubs working with horizontal resistance may not be such a bad idea after all.” (p. 403)


Restoring Heritage Grains:

Published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016
$24.95, paperback, 272 pages, 16 page color inset
review by Kathy Morris

Restoring Heritage Grains is a book about a journey; not only of wheat but of the author.  Eli Rogosa began working with wheat in Israel where she moved from Maine to find partners for peace through organic farming.  While traveling she observed farmers successfully growing a diverse variety of wheat without external inputs and saving seeds from the varieties and plants that performed the best under the growing conditions.  This was the beginning of her quest to bring landrace wheat back from the brink of extinction and this book details her quest.  A treasure trove of information, it is filled with the history of the cultivation of wheat; the diversity of the cultivars; the cultural folklore surrounding its cultivation; a ‘how to’ for growing heritage wheat; and finally using the cultivars.  It is also a call to all of us to save seeds (not only wheat); to discover what grows best for us and select for traits that we want.

The first chapter deals with wheat and its evolution since it was first wild-gathered over 23.000 years ago and cultivated over 12,000 years ago; to present day where profit is the overriding goal rather than nutrition.   And, when you consider co-evolution, here is a grain that has evolved over thousands of years with the people who cultivate and ingest it and in the twentieth and twenty-first century it has become toxic to a percentage of those people.  Thus the issue of gluten intolerance and wheat allergies is introduced in this chapter and later in an appendix.

Chapter 2 introduces how Rugosa made her way to the Middle East, the people involved in maintaining gene banks and delineates what Landrace varieties are.  That is followed by a detailed, yet simplified, overview of the different types of wheat based on their chromosome numbers and then by a description (including legends) of the 14 hulled and free-threshing wheat varieties found in Colchis (present day Georgia).  But I like pictures and photographs of each variety along with description would have been extremely useful to me.  There are a few color photos of the wheat (and other things too, like yummy recipes) included in the center section.  The last section of this chapter deals with seed saving and how to produce new, improved (flavor, nutrition, yield, disease resistance) landraces by selective breeding.  This is interspersed with a discussion of the problems of modern day wheat varieties.

For those interested in the cultivation of landrace wheat, the next chapter discusses that in detail.  I have grown wheat, on and off, for almost 40 years.  Our first adventure was to produce enough to supply us with baby food for our growing family.  (We planted 4 pounds of wheat and after all the work, ended up with 6 pounds of clean grain; not an auspicious start.)  After that I grew it for dried arrangements and for sale at the farmers’ market.  It is a lot of work to grow, harvest, dry, clean, bundle and sell a bunch of wheat.  It was at that time that I discovered weaving straw into decorative figures associated with traditional harvest festivals (read value added initially but growing into fascination).  But learning how to grow the grain was not as easy.  I depended on Gene Lodgson’s excellent 1977 book, Small-Scale Grain Raising, which was geared more to larger scale growers.

Eli describes a way to grow heritage varieties.

When we began, we broadcast the seed; then I planted it 1-2” apart in rows 6” apart in a 4’ bed.  After visiting Eli and seeing her wheat trials and communicating with Sylvia Davatz of Solstice Seeds, I began growing the wheat in much more space (still in 4’ beds with 6” between rows but 12” between plants).  I’ve grown a large variety of wheat cultivars garnered from wheat weavers from Switzerland, to Illinois, to England, to North Dakota.  And giving them more space definitely increased the number of tillers (stalks from a plant) and added to its ability not to lodge (fall over in wind and rain).  I don’t under sow my wheat with clover because I weed early and often and don’t have any other equipment except a hoe for cultivation (and a partner who expects weedless beds) but can see the benefit.  Lodging is one of the factors why modern wheat varieties are bred to have shorter stalks.

Another factor is we don’t use straw as much as we did for mulch and bedding; and, in the past for floor mats, bedding, insulation, mattresses, as fabric alone and in combination with other fibers, and don’t forget straw hats.  And for me, a straw weaver, that is one of the most important assets of heritage wheat.  While new varieties may be a foot tall, heritage varieties can stand 6’ tall with first stems of over 3’ and those make for great weaving and spinning long straw threads (that elf in the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin wasn’t the only one to spin straw into gold, well golden threads) and the second and third stems (between the joints) are good for marquetry.   And after reading, Eli’s book, I realized, I have produced my own landrace.  This year the Turkey Red I grew from seed that had been planted alongside all my other varieties over the years had a large proportion of taller, more robust plants with a beautiful burgundy color on the stems.  These seeds were selected as I do each year from what I considered the ‘most desirable’ for weaving and are derived from seeds that I have been selecting and saving for the last 12 years.  I may call my ‘new’ variety ‘Royalston Red’ (just kidding).  But, it is so satisfying — a kind of seed to weaving, akin to sheep to shawl.  I highly recommend it.

The next chapter, “The Journey of the Sheaves,” is a historical travelogue filled with folktales that blossomed around and followed the cultivation of wheat.  It is an epic journey and tale.  I love this as it fits with the stories that surround the traditional designs that I weave with the stalks of wheat.  Eli discusses the different varieties and cultures that make this grain universal.

The last chapter is a wide range of einkorn recipes: beer, sprouted grains, fermented grains, sourdough, salads, entrees, and a wide variety of breads and baked goods.   Eli’s wheat of choice is einkorn and that is her expertise in cooking.  As this is a book about a variety of heritage wheat, I would have liked some recipes using different varieties or adaptations to accommodate other varieties, such as using blau emmer for farro and a durum for pasta. Still, there are a diverse offering of recipes.

Following that are two appendices and a list of resources: the first appendix is on baker’s formulas and the second on why modern wheat is making people sick.  I’ll not discuss either. You can seek out the book and discover the answers yourself.

Rogosa’s book is one of the few books on wheat cultivation (besides textbooks) and a must-have for anyone interested in wheat.  With its scope of the history of wheat cultivation and cultivars, the extensive and diverse discussion of folklore and cultural history, growing methodology, and recipes, it is a mini-encyclopedia of all things wheat.

Pandora’s Potatoes: The Worst GMOs

review by Bob Banning

pandora-potatoesIn this self-published book, Caius Rommens, a former genetic engineer who developed GMO potatoes as an employee of a potato company, wants to warn us about these potatoes. Their claimed benefits, he says, are false, but the harm they can cause to both farmers’ profits and eaters’ health is real and serious. He supports his argument with 109 endnotes, most of which appear to be citing scientific and trade journals.

In the book’s foreword the author relates that over several years while working for his now-former employer he gathered observations about unintended effects that his work had on potatoes. He left his employer because he couldn’t in good conscience continue to do the work that his position required.

In the introduction, Rommens states that the two main problems the potato industry struggles with are (1) coping with loss from diseases, pests, and handling and (2) convincing people that French fries are healthy so that they buy more of them. The main chapters explain how the author engineered potatoes to deal with these problems and how the results led him to believe that the potatoes he was developing were bad for the potato as a species and also for consumers.

Chapter 1 discusses the “silencing” of a gene called PPO. PPO causes potatoes to bruise under stress. Blocking PPO was supposed to eliminate bruising. According to Rommens, however, PPO silencing hides bruises but does not actually eliminate them. Thus the people who sort potatoes at various stages of processing will not remove bruised potatoes since they don’t see the bruises. Diseases will develop at the sites of the bruises, and as those potatoes are processed by machinery, the machinery will be contaminated by pathogens, which will then also contaminate healthy potatoes. The author also claims that several toxins develop in PPO-silenced potatoes.

Chapter 2 explains that genetic engineers silenced the ASN gene to reduce the amount of acrylamide in French fries on the grounds that acrylamide is a carcinogen. Rommens counters that a person would have to eat at least a thousand times as much acrylamide as there is in regular French fries to be in danger of cancer. Meanwhile, when ASN is blocked, it can’t play its important “role in the [plant’s] assimilation, storage, and use of nitrogen.”

Chapter 3 evaluates the silencing of the INV gene, which is responsible for the plant’s production of glucose and fructose and thus for the color, aroma, and flavor of potatoes. Because INV-silenced potatoes produce less of these nutrients, they don’t smell or taste as good as nonengineered potatoes, the author says. Glucose and fructose are also important for the health of the plant, and INV-silenced potatoes tend to be delayed in field emergence and may be compromised in fertility, according to Rommens.

Unlike earlier chapters, chapter 4 concerns the insertion of a gene rather than the silencing of one. Rommens begins by alleging that the gene “was isolated, without authorization or compensation,” from a plant in Argentina and that therefore the company that took it out of Argentina and used it to develop traits for U.S. potatoes violated the international Convention on Biological Diversity—an act of “biopiracy.” VNT was introduced into potatoes, he says, because it’s a resistance gene, or R-gene, that has been found to confer some resistance to late blight in potatoes. According to Rommens, however, this resistance will be short-lived, because the late blight pathogen will evolve resistance to the R-gene; and even if engineers replace this R-gene with a new one or even if they “stack” several such genes, they won’t be able to keep up with the pathogen’s ability to evolve.

Chapter 5 argues that genetically engineered potato varieties produce lower yields and smaller potatoes, that the new traits are unstable, and that the altered genes in the potatoes can contaminate the DNA of pollinators.

Rommens concludes with a brief chapter arguing that potatoes should be bred for genetic diversity rather than uniformity, because genetically diverse potatoes will be more tolerant to stress as a crop and more nutritious and flavorful as food. He recommends “methods such as hybrid-seed technology.”

I’m not qualified to evaluate this book in scientific terms, but I do believe its arguments give reason for being suspicious of the claimed benefits of, and possible harm from, genetically engineered potatoes. Given other things I’ve learned from my reading and through NOFA, the kinds of things Rommens says happen when potatoes are engineered seem like the kinds of things that would happen. Even if I don’t know enough to accept all Rommens’ arguments with certainty, he’s given me a new set of questions to ask about the potatoes I buy.

In order to pursue their own questions, readers may be interested to know that the GMO potatoes mentioned in the book are called White Russet, Innate Potato, and Hibernate. From the internet I learned that Rommens’ former employer, the producer of these potatoes, is the J. R. Simplot Company. You can search for the above names to find out more about the dialogue between Rommens and J. R. Simplot.

Interestingly, although much of what Rommens writes is in harmony with principles of organic/regenerative agriculture, he assumes that pesticides are needed to combat insects, fungus, and disease. He seems unaware of research showing that healthy plants effectively resist these pressures.

The author would have enhanced his credibility by investing in a good editor and book designer (full disclosure: I’m an editor). The text contains many avoidable errors, including grammar, punctuation, and spelling mistakes and confusing and illogical sentences. In reading the first two pages of endnotes, I found eight errors on the first page and nine on the second. The author also has a loud, grade-school-like way of using boldface, italics, underlining, and capitalization for emphasis. On the other hand, the author uses many graphics and helpful analogies to clarify scientific and other data. On the whole the book manages to communicate pretty well what the author believes is wrong with GMO potatoes and will help you ask your own questions.

Global Eating Disorder

reviewed by Billy Wilson

As a student of anthropology who is slowly finding his footing somewhere in the world of sustainable agriculture, I can’t say I’ve recently happened across a book whose content I’ve been more excited to digest than Global Eating Disorder . I was actually surprised at myself. The book looks at the globalized food system—it’s development, it’s footprint, it’s human-impacts—predominantly through a social scientist’s perspective.

As implied by the title, Global Eating Disorder seeks to convey the pathologies intrinsic to our industrial food system. There are the easi-ly-stated-but-not-so-easily-explained agricultural pathologies, such as 1) international markets demanding the flow of cheap foods causing farms to become bigger, while specializing in a few commodities—I mean “food”. This up-scaling is known in agro-business as “market rationalization”. Involved here are also GMO seeds, an unsettling reality, taking monoculture to greater heights. Ninety percent of US-grown soybeans are GMO crops. 2) Land use alterations worldwide se-riously skewing the distribution of US farmlands. Two-thirds of New England used to be farmed. This was all changed with urbanization and residential building. Farmland itself urbanized in the Midwest where tracts were cheap, abundant, and eventually consolidated. No wonder the quantity of chickens produced in the US increased fourteen-fold while, simultaneously, the quantity of chicken farms decreased by 98%! This explosion of chickens, by the way, is very much related to the explosion of GMO soybeans.

Furthermore, we also encounter 3) the various environmental pathologies resulting from modern agriculture practices: carbon-emitting diesel and plowing, soil-degradating herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers—all of which are practices heralded as “advanced”, “efficient”, and seemingly rewarded, even though they’ve successfully contributed to the loss of “one third of American topsoil”. Globally, between five and ten million hectares of farmland are compromised annu-ally from soil degradation.

So there’s a disagreement between what’s ecological and what’s economical. “We squander the capital of nature for short term gains”, Rundgren states, “in what sense is this efficient?” This is perhaps when we reach the core of Rundgren’s message. He wants to illuminate how our modern, commercialized food system mu-tated into what it is today; reveal how social institutions permit outrageous crimes such as seed patenting, which most consumers support unknowingly; relay how the cycles of water, nitrogen, carbon, oxygen and so forth are interrupted and off-set by what has become regular human activity. Most of all, Rundgren proposes our systemic, disorderly food system is not so much a result of technological innovation, but that it is a by-product of the current economy. The market is the culprit for our chaotic food system, and yet the market makes this world go ‘round.

Rundgren acknowledges the influence that technology has had in our modern farming culture. He recognizes that N-P-K inputs essentially obviate the need for hu-man waste as a soil amendment. He recognizes that mechanized agriculture drastically increased one laborer’s capacity to work, releasing a significant population to work in other sectors. He understands—having been in food policy for forty some-odd years—the phenomenonal feat of carrying this many humans on the planet. But he’s likewise aware that our technocratic, industrialized food system—which to previous generations would seem other-wordly—is taxing our planet at a highly exploitative rate. Further mechanization isn’t the answer. Rundgren discusses progressive CSA communities and transition farms, but states conclusively that “changes in our food system will have to be combined with changes in values, and a situation where man’s wealth neither results in nature’s poverty, nor the pov-erty of other people”. The food system is a symptom of cultural issues, not engineering issues.

As a college student in Boston, I was told directly that it’s the hard-scientists who will save the world from impending environmental havoc. A young civil engi-neering professor said this to me. I wasn’t an engineer. I don’t see modern society in chemicals and energy bonds. Rather, I see culture—and I see it as a duel or dance between modern society and the global environment.

Bringing Back Biodiversity, and Restoring Nutrients to our Food

reviewed by Jane Hammer

You know that first warm, sunny morning of the New England spring, where you can finally feel in your bones that yes, the seasons keep on turning and it will be green again…that is how I felt reading Cows Save the Planet. This book presents the first real message of hope about our future in the face of weather extremes and global warming: how people from North Dakota to Australia, New England to Zimbabwe are cooling their local climate naturally, regenerating their soil and water resources, and sequestering carbon for the betterment of their own lives as well as global systems. It’s a pretty quick read—succinct, inspiring, well designed and not preachy. Readers receive a thorough introduction to many of the pioneers of soil carbon farming and a good explanation of how carbon and water cycles are related to soil health, food security, climate stability, and rural livelihoods.

While the ambitious and lengthy subtitle is true to the important and wide-ranging content, the quirky main title (“Cows Save the Planet”) aptly hints at Judith’s concise and entertaining style, which makes this pithy subject matter very approachable. A lot of ground is covered, in depth (literally!), with choice descriptiveness and skillful wording—readers easily join her in a satisfying journey to learn and understand. We get up-close, personal introductions to the farmers, ranchers, their lands, and those that help them to push the boundaries and document their progress.

Expert journalism makes this an excellent introduction while also getting into many of the details. Judith has done the work of going on location and asking the hard questions as well as doing her own “reading up” so that she can convey some of the underlying science and also the results and on-the-ground evidence. Her reporting is in depth but hardly dry, such as when she refers to Australian soil scientist Christine Jones’ “article called, ‘Carbon That Counts’, passed around soil circles like a 1970s rock bootleg among music fans”. While Judy is adept at giving the bottom line to the layperson, for example, “the bumper sticker version: ‘oxidize less, photosynthesize more’”, she is able to give more advanced explanations clearly. For example, ”without plant cover, soil carbon is prone to bind with oxygen and go airborne” and “…in high carbon, high functioning soil with the liquid carbon pathway intact, soil microbes, are able to fix nitrogen and release phosphorus and other elements, making them available in a plant-accessible form.”

Through every chapter we get down-to-earth stories of how it’s done: capturing carbon and nurturing biodiversity to make the soil a nutrient-generating, fertile sponge which proofs farmer livelihoods against drought, floods, pest and disease pressure, temperature extremes, all the while enhancing fertility and food quality. We get to know some of the thoughts, personalities, and history of people who are pioneering soil regeneration on tracts of thousands of acres and on as little as a fraction of an acre at a time. Woven throughout and repeated helpfully is the common story of plant-microbe relationships, carbon streaming into the ground well below where we usually think of carbon content—and staying there because of and for the benefit of healthy, deep rooted plants that are approaching their photosynthetic potential.

In the introduction, she dives right in to clarify and answer, and does not waste our time reiterating the gloom and doom realities of climate change.

The first chapter we meet Peter Donovan and Abe Collins, who teach land managers and others how to think about the carbon cycle, that “water follows carbon”, that plants and soil life actively work and that we have a power as humans to positively effect these, with proper management and monitoring. Peter teaches farmers and ranchers how to monitor soil improvements through the Soil Carbon Challenge with baseline plots all over the country—to document, but most importantly to constantly correct the steering of land management. Here we start to get the gist pretty quickly, aided by short captions like Peter Donovan equating bare ground (where oxidation is the dominant process) as a “sunshine spill”, its energy getting re-radiated as heat instead of binding it into the soil biochemically. At the close of the chapter there are sidebars about cows and methane and about biochar.

Chapter 2, about nature’s version of carbon trading, takes us to Australia to meet soil scientist Christine Jones, the “liquid carbon pathway”, humus, mycorrhizal fungi, glomalin, and how the carbon transfer takes place under ground. In this chapter we begin to understand how we can be free from the widely held view that soil generation is something that can only occur over geologic time scales. “One farmer…put it more succinctly, ‘You build soil where the roots go—down!’” This chapter ends with a side bar about the impact of high nitrogen fertilizers on soil microbial life and soil carbon and water retention.

Turns out, building soil, biologically, can happen very rapidly, by inches, and percentage points of carbon content, on the order of a few years to a decade. Covered here is the introduction of the keyline plow by P.A. Yeomans and subsequent work by his son, Allan Yeomans. The book goes on to document many cases of this. Colin Seis is building soil on a 2,000 acre farm in New South Wales using pasture cropping which improved ecological function, resistance to drought, and greater diversity after just 2 years, and developed a 200 percent increase in soil carbon levels over ten years. Courtney White of the Quivira Coalition runs a non-profit in Sante Fe training farmers and ranchers and educating the rest of us about how it is possible and necessary to rebuild grasslands. Farmers and ranchers explain some of their techniques and often astonishing results: Gene Goven of North Dakota employed his soil system to build 6 inches of topsoil in one season. Abe Collins saw an increase from 8 inches of topsoil on top of gray clay to 16 inches of topsoil in one year. Judy also reports about Jay Fuhrer and Gabe Brown, now famous, of the Burleigh County soil conservation service, a hotspot for soil building on the ranch and larger farm scale.

A whole chapter goes into the work of unmaking deserts in Africa, thanks to the work of Allan Savory and the Africa Center for Holistic Management. Here is explored the grazing paradox–higher stocking rates, managed properly to mimic large wild herds of ruminants, can lead to land regeneration on the scale of thousands of acres in less than a decade. The factors of disturbance, decay, and brittleness are explained—these factors are critical to understanding desertification and soil regeneration in seasonally dry lands (which make up most of the land area of the world).

Another chapter introduces us to the scientists and political activists who, as a “group of friends” together promote the New Water Paradigm: Michal Kravcik, Jan Pokorny, and Juraj Kohutiar in Slovakia. They have connected the dots among the biosphere, hydrology, and climate. Not only are they doing things locally in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but also are researching and engineering in Africa, and have been actively promoting the role of water in the climate at Copenhagen and on the world stage.

The chapter entitled “Beyond Eat Your Vegetables” goes into how restoring the soil microbiological system and increasing soil carbon leads to higher food quality, as well as higher fertility, disease and pest resistance, and overall resilience. Many may recognize Dan Kittredge who heads the Bionutrient Food Association, training farmers and educating consumers here in New England and across the country about the intimate link between soil nutrition and food quality.

Interweaving more individual stories, including some of the people and places key to the ongoing success of the Grassland LLC experiment in the west, Judith also delves into exposing the problems with biotech, backwardness of chemical fertility, and mounting evidence of the huge mistake that policy makers have made in supporting genetically engineered crops. She doesn’t finish without consulting with the New Economics Foundation and the Schumacher Center, encouraging us to think here about what money is and to explore how carbon is the real currency. The idea is that if we pay attention, we may be able to re-align with the real economy and harness the power of bio-ecological systems on a large scale to reverse global warming and sustain ourselves.

Although this is not in the book, this quote from the Quivira Coalition website is a good summary: “Today, the only possibility of large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is through plant photosynthesis and other land-based carbon sequestration activities. Strategies include enriching soil carbon, farming with perennials, employing climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving natural habitat, restoring degraded watersheds and rangelands, and producing local food. Over the past decade, many of these strategies have been demonstrated to be both practical and profitable.”

This book is a gift of hope that shows the path by which we thrive into the future and a call to action. It so satisfyingly explains how we can do something about climate change, and it’s all about the soil.

Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World

This is an excellent book.

Water in Plain Sight Hope for a Thirsty WorldJudith is an easy-to-read writer who has a knack for discovering people who are doing ground-breaking environmental work. She visits them, relates their story, explains the insights they have had, and shows us how their work can restore the natural order. You will be wiser and much more hopeful when you finish reading it.

The topic of Water in Plain Sight is, of course, water scarcity, which is growing worldwide. Schwartz travels to many places where water used to be available and is no longer. She meets with people who understand what has changed, have a solution, and are implementing it.

In chapter one she visits Allan Savory in Zimbabwe and witnesses firsthand the remarkable restoration of a desertified and degraded land that his work has achieved. In the case of Zimbabwe, as with all the cases in this book, the problem is not the disappearance of water. The problem is that we, through not understanding the consequences of our actions, have disrupted natural cycles. The consequence is that where there used to be adequate water, now it is no longer available.

In the case of Zimbabwe, as in many rangeland areas, the key to having available water is the presence of herds of large ruminants and their predators. Nature used to supply them in large numbers. They would overrun an area, eat much of the grass, trample the rest into the soil, defecate and urinate heavily, and then raidly move on, always driven by the fear of the approaching predators. The result of this process was that soil surfaces were heavily penetrated by hooves so that when the rain came it would soak into the ground rather than running off. In addition, the supply of carbon provided to soil microbes by trampled grass, manure and urine resulted in a large flush of soil life. The consequent plant-microbial symbiosis promoted vigorous grass regrowth and sequestered large amounts of carbon, which in turn was able to store large amounts of water in the soil when it rained.

Our mistake, speaking for conventional ranchers, was to turn cattle loose on large areas and leave them there for long times. That resulted in degradation of the grasses as favorite varieties were destroyed by overgrazing and rejected species were left to spread. Worse, cattle did not visit most of the area, choosing to deposit fertility only where the favored grasses grew. When rains came, most of the soil was crusty and the water ran off without infiltrating. Without carbon and water, most of the microbial life stayed dormant and grass regrowth was lackluster. After only a few years of properly managing cattle by moving them rapidly from small paddock to small paddock, land that had been desert was seen coming back into lush pasture.

Chapter two looks at Southern California, which is well known for its elaborate systems of transporting water for hundreds of miles — and also well known for both droughts and floods. The problem in Southern California is not too little or too much rain. The problem is that the rain it gets does not go into the ground. Los Angeles gets 13 inches of rain a year, about the same as Athens, Greece. Why is that not adequate? Visiting a fascinating group of people we learn about:
• the beavers who used to construct wetlands on an astonishing 10% of the land in America and are being brought back to places like Nevada,
• soil aggregates, held together by fungal secretions like glomalin, which enable a soil to hold 20,000 gallons of water per acre for each 1% of carbon it contains,
• the built environment of impervious surfaces (roofs, roads, parking lots, and many square miles of highly compacted land) which prevent water from entering soil to instead enter another built environment of drains and culverts, and the activists who are planting trees, building swales, collecting water from roofs and designing incentives to encourage infiltration on private land.

Chapter three takes place in the Chihuahuan Desert. A several year drought has resulted in low land prices and failed ranches are being sold for low prices. Potential buyers include Mennonite farmers who will dig deep wells to irrigate crops there, further stressing the water reserves, and energy speculators looking for new lands to frack. But her host, a Mexican rancher, tells Judith the problem is mismanagement by continuous grazing, as happened in Zimbabwe. He and a few other ranchers on 260,000 acres are bringing back biodiversity, tall grass, birds, and flowers by slowing down the water cycle – getting it to infiltrate the soil via hoof prints, prairie dog holes, animal action – and thus cool, enliven, and even pool on it’s way to the ocean.

Chapter four explores the brand new field of bio-water production. In case after case modern development has meant cutting down trees. An unintended consequence a generation later is water shortages and drought. This is not news – the ancient Greeks wrote about deforestation and the loss of water resources. The reasons are clear, too. Tree roots stabilize soil against erosion, the canopy intercepts rain’s fall and delivers it gradually as well as shading and cooling the ground to prevent evaporation. The tree itself retains thousands of gallons of water and slows its flow to the sea. Transpiration is a key dynamic now getting study. It is the ability to use solar energy to vaporize water, cooling the forest and storing the heat in the vapor. This transpiration “pump” from vegetation accounts for 90% of all moisture rising from land, storing huge water reserves in aerial lakes and rivers that are then moved vast distances by wind currents before actually evaporating.

Chapter five focuses on farming and water use. The featured host is John Kempf, a remarkably knowledgeable Amish farmer in Ohio. John is a proponent of working with the soil microbial community to provide plant nutrition, and believes that the microbes use far less water in this process than conventional farming which works with water soluble simple ions of minerals. But he doesn’t stop there. John is also concerned about the source of water. Hard water, that carrying mineral salts, requires more energy to use. That means some of the nutrition going to the plants is being wasted on processing the water they take in. Which, in John’s view, means they cannot achieve maximum vigor and health. Hard water picks up those salts by dissolving them over time from the earth, so pure rainwater, which has recently been distilled, is still soft and much better for use with plants.

Chapter six, one of the most fascinating to me, discusses the role of condensation in moving water around the globe. The site this time is West Texas, that low rainfall area where an enterprising couple have devised a way to harvest the dew. Inspired by the Namib Desert beetle, the Ottmers have created a roof structure in which the upper one superheats but shades a lower roof. Air from the top one flows through a system of vents onto the lower one, where the high level of moisture it contains is condensed and runs into a cistern. They get about 60 gallons a day from this simple, passive device driven by temperature differentials. To give a sense of scale here, Schwartz cites the fact that there is five times as much water in the form of vapor in the air than exists in all the world’s rivers! We also learn about the tiny particles required for vapor to condense in the air into droplets and form rain. The size and source of those nuclei determine whether rain will form or only a haze.

Chapter seven takes us to Kimberly, in Western Australia, where we learn about the role of fire in shaping that continent’s prehistory. Our host here grew up in Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe and knew of the Savory paddock system. He is applying it with cattle and restoring grasses, getting a dried creek to flow again, and seeing more birds and trees. But the original Australian megafauna were wiped out by early Aboriginal immigrants and the remaining soft-footed native ruminants have no hooves to puncture the soil. Thus grasses did not thrive and forest growth was managed by intentional fires.

Chapter eight, the last, returns to Africa to look at the way land degradation has cheapened the price of land, resulting in land grabs and water privatization, and how some of the world’s poorest people are intimately affected by the resulting water stress. Once again, we see the restorative effects of Savory grazing on land quality and understand how easily we can return a water cycle that slows, uses, and stores the precious moisture coming from the sky.

We in the Northeast don’t have the same endemic water shortages we read about in this book. But we certainly have floods and droughts occasionally. What we learn about the water cycle and how to keep our soil hydrated is crucial to managing those events.

I don’t believe you will ever think about or discuss water in quite the same way after you read this book. Read it, and give one to every thoughtful friend you have.

Fruit from the Sands:

Fruit from the Sands cover copyPublished by the University of California Press, 2019
hardcover, 392 pages, $29.49
review by Jack Kittredge

For anyone interested in the history of food plants and how they have influenced human culture, this book is full of discovery. Spengler, an archaeobotanist at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Human History, proposes that the Silk Road and the botanical exchange it facilitated between East Asia and cultures in Central and even West Asia prefigured the Columbian Exchange by thousands of years and was as significant for the human diet today as was that pivotal event.

Spengler is well acquainted with the writings of early travelers along the 7,000 kilometer long route, which is in truth more a network of routes running from China all the way to the Mediterranean. Although organized trade (associated with military outposts and government taxation) along the Silk Road dates to the Han Dynasty around 200 BC, exchanges had been taking place along it for three thousand years before that.

The current desolate terrain of Central Asia – seemingly endless craggy mountains and vast deserts – emerged from the glaciation at the end of the Pleistocene in about 12,000 BC as an expanse of lush shrubby forests, many producing nuts (pistachios, almonds, walnuts), and fruits (wild cherries, apples, peaches, plums, apricots, mulberries). Although the landscape gradually became more arid, orchards and gardens had been established in oasis towns and fabled garden cities like Bukhara, Tashkent and Samarkand long before the first millennium BC.

There are many accounts from traveling authors of the botanical wonders along the Silk Road — beginning with the spread of Islam and continuing through the empires of Tamerlane, Babur, Genghis Khan and countless other conquerors. But not much in writing predates the Islamic period despite such memorable events as the triumphal visit of Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser in about 1100 BC or the conquest of Samarkand by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. For the earlier years, we have to rely for information on archaeobotany.

Spengler describes some such surveys in which he participated that excavated “lost” towns up to three miles high in the Pamir Mountains. One, Sarazm, dating to the 4th millennium BC, was a mining town that specialized in ores and smelted goods. Such sites and their manufactures may well have been the reasons travelers were originally drawn to the area for trade.

The plant remains in these towns have been remarkably preserved, likely because of the cold climate at that elevation. Middens (ancient trash heaps) include rich collections of the seeds, pits and shells of apples, peaches, apricots, grapes, melons, cherries, pistachios, rosehips, and Russian olives, as well as peas, chickpeas, wheat and barley.

Of little historical significance (but surrounded by passionate feelings) is the question of Who Introduced Pasta Where? Was it introduced to China from Italy, or the other way around? Spengler suggests all the data is not in on this question, but indicates that the lack of early descriptions of Italian banquets containing noodle dishes pushes him to support the theory that pasta was introduced to the peninsula by Arabic traders less than a millennium ago.

The bulk of this book is composed of careful analysis of a number of common food plants, tracking their origin and progress of adoption and mutation along the Road. They include the Millets, broomcorn and foxtail, Rice, Barley, the Wheats, Legumes such as beans, peas, chickpeas and alfalfa, Grapes, Apples, the family Prunus which includes peaches, cherries, plums, apricots and almonds, other fruits such as melons and persimmons, and nuts like pistachios, walnuts and almonds. Vegetables included hundreds of varieties of lettuce, brassicas and other greens, carrots, turnips, onions and other bulbs, roots and tubers.

Spengler is particularly effusive in his chapter on Silk Road spices, oils and tea:
“When you walk through the market bazaars in Almarty, Ashgabat, Bishkek, Bukhara, Kashgar, Tashkent, or Urumqi, your nose leads you automatically to the tables of the spice vendors – urging you past the butchers with their aged, sated, and cured goat flanks, sausages, and internal organs, and the tables of fermented dairy products, such as kumiss and qurt. The colorful mounds of powdered plants and dried leaves, seeds, fruit coats, stems, roots, and flowers are a feast not only for the eyes but also for the nose and tongue. Their scents mingle with all the other pungent aromas of the market to create the unique smell of the Silk Road.”

Ginger, originating in the forests of Southeast Asia, had made it to the Mediterranean by the first century AD. Black Pepper, 3000 pounds of it from tropical South Asia, was part of the ransom paid by Rome to appease the attacking Visigoths in the early fifth century. The four indispensable spices in classical Roman cuisine were coriander, cumin, dill and black cumin, all traded heavily along the Road. Ultimately the demand for pepper, as well as anise, turmeric, cardamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace and cinnamon, launched the ships of da Gama, Columbus and the other nautical adventurers of Europe’s Age of Exploration.

Oilseed plants were grown and pressed locally in much of western China and included the native hemp as well as cotton originally from India. Sesame, flax, rape and lallemantia were other oils grown throughout Asia and spread along the Road.

Of course, no discussion of the traveled plants of Asia is complete without mentioning tea (Camellia sinensis). Its four main types — white, green, oolong and black – all originate from the same plant and just reflect the degree of oxidation or aging that the leaves go through before drying. Spengler describes in detail the origins of the various methods of drying and compressing the leaves into bricks that have developed over the millennia. One branch of the Silk Road, known as the Tea Horse Road, runs along the southern Himalayas from the Hengduan Mountains to Lhasa.

The conclusion chapter tries to draw important threads from all the information Spengler presents in this book. Italian cuisine does not fare well for originality, I must caution some in this audience. The tomato of course came recently from South America, along with the red pepper, the noodle and brickoven flatbread that forms the basis of pizza came from China via Arab merchants about a thousand years ago, and even polenta and gnocchi are almost always made with corn and the potato, again from South America.

For readers wanting to learn about the history of food, it would be hard to go wrong with this book. But it will also appeal to anyone interested in how the natural environment interconnects different cultures. After all, the Silk Road was the first fledgling example of globalization, and we have much to learn from it.


Grocery Story: the Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants

review by Liz Henderson

Grocery Story coverGrocery Story is a good lively read as is appropriate for a book that the author intended as an organizing tool to boost public awareness of the benefits of food co-ops. I met Jon Steinman when he came to Rochester, NY to speak at the Abundance Co-op, his first appearance on a 300-stop tour of co-ops and bookstores around North America.  Together with Melinda, the Marketing Manager at Abundance, we appeared on Connections, the local public radio talk show. After spending a decade producing a show called “Deconstructing Dinner,” where he took viewers for a close look at all the ills of big food, Steinman wanted to imagine an alternative food system – he found his answer in the network of food co-ops.

The book opens with a concise history of how this country went from small local groceries to chains of groceries to the concentrated supermarket chains of today. Consumer weakness for convenience proved a useful tool in the hands of food industry titans. The first A & P opened in 1859, proliferating over the next decades till there were 16,000 stores in 1929, together with 70 factories assembling products and 100 warehouses.  Kroger was born in 1883; by 1927, its stores numbered 3,749. A Piggly Wiggly was the first self-service grocery, a model quickly taken up by competitors.  A favorite technique for driving out smaller stores was loss leading, until the practice was banned in 1933.  Steinman has an amazing quote from Huey Long, a powerful right wing demagogue: “I would rather have thieves and gangsters than chain stores in Louisiana!” With all his power, Long could not stem the relentless chain store tide that anti-trust actions held back for a while through the 1970’s until Reagonomics opened the flood gates to the mergers of the 80’s and 90’s and the advent of Walmart (1988).

Steinman makes a very good case that the more concentrated the market, the faster prices rise.  From 1983 to 94, overall food prices rose 45%, but breakfast cereal prices, where 4 companies produced 86%, rose 90%.  He also shows how this concentration put the squeeze on farmers to produce more for lower margins, also the more food is processed, the smaller percentage of its value goes to farmers.  By this logic, home cooking from scratch is an effective way to help farmers retain greater power in the marketplace. As retail grocers become more concentrated, they are able to increase their margins on farm products while the farmer’s share shrinks: since 1980, Steinman shows, “mark-ups have risen steadily, to 67% on average. That translate into growth in the consumer-price level relative the firms’ costs of about 1% per year.” (p. 58)

Through a plethora of pressure techniques like slotting fees to even get space on their shelves, corporate chains shape the supply of food available to most people selecting for what is most profitable, not the most nutritious. The grocery chains also suck money out of rural and urban areas – profits go to company headquarters instead of spreading through local economies the way the earnings of independent local businesses do.

The central focus of Grocery Story is the many reasons why food co-ops are such an important alternative to the grocery behemoths with profiles of outstanding co-ops in the US and Canada and stories of new co-op organizing.  Steinman himself is active with the co-op in his own home town of Nelson, located in the Kootenay region of British Columbia.  Having never heard of Nelson before, I now have it on my list of places to visit before I die! It sounds like a little gem of a community created by ecologists, layered over Vietnam War resisters layered over Dukhobors, religious fugitives from Tsarist Russia.

Steinman gives a clear and simple definition of a co-op –“…businesses or organizations founded and owned by the people who directly benefit from their products or services. Co-ops are created to meet member and community needs.” (p. 101)  He argues that co-ops represent a third way – neither capitalist nor communist – that nurtures voluntary action, democratic control and decentralization, spreading power and economic resilience. Decision making in co-ops is guided by shared values rather than by the quest for profit. The “Seven Principles of Cooperation” from the 19th century Rochdale co-ops still hold sway:

  1. Open and Voluntary Membership
  2. Democratic Member Control
  3. Members’ Economic Participation
  4. Autonomy and Independence
  5. Education, Training, and Information
  6. Cooperation among Cooperatives
  7. Concern for Community

With each major downturn in the economy, there has been an upsurge of co-ops of all kinds – credit unions, worker owned co-ops and community food stores – as people seek to wrest control from the failing for-profit market economy. Members invest their own capital in these ventures. Since the ‘70’s, food co-ops have provided an important market for family-scale organic farms. The most successful coops, like that in Viroqua, Wisconsin or the dense network in Minneapolis, become centers of food enterprise development fostering clusters of local farms and valued added food and other businesses.  In the decade from 2008 – 18, 134 new coop opened with a 74% rate of success, with 100 more in the works in 2019.

Food co-ops have a significant multiplier effect in their communities and pay better wages than private grocery chains. As a percentage of sales, co-ops spend 19% on wages compared to 13% for the chains.  Many co-ops put special effort into outreach to low-income people and offer discounts to make healthy food affordable.  GreenStar Co-op in Ithaca, NY, initiated the FLOWER program (Fresh, Local Organic Within Everybody’s Reach) that has been replicated by other stores.  Co-ops tend to locate on main streets increasing the walkability of their communities.  They do not charge slotting fees to suppliers and instead, encourage start-ups. They feature honesty in labeling and advertising.  As an example of that, the produce buyer at the Abundance Co-op does extra research on products in order to distinguish soil grown organic tomatoes from hydroponic. And they provide education about nutrition and the food system and programs for children.

Steinman has an interesting discussion of an issue that has proved a challenge for many co-ops – member labor.  The voluntary work of members has enabled many co-ops to get started and this participation helps to build member loyalty and sense of ownership. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act and many states’ law, however, voluntary work that displaces paid employees is illegal.  Steinman gives examples of co-ops that continue this practice anyway (p. 146) and of some creative work-arounds such as one co-op where the members do not work at the store, but get store credit for work at community projects instead.

Steinman emphasizes out how important coops have been to gaining equity for African American communities and gives many examples of co-ops that have brought relief to food deserts. W. E. B. DuBois was a big proponent of co-ops as a way to combat white supremacy:

“There exists today a chance for [Blacks] to organize a cooperative State within their own group. By letting Negro farmers feed Negro artisans, and Negro technicians guide [Black] home industries and [Black] thinkers plan this integration of cooperation, while [Black] artists dramatize and beautify the struggle, economic independence can be achieved. To doubt that this is possible is to doubt the essential humanity and the quality of brains of [Black people].”p. 292 — W.E.B. Du Bois, 1935

In the final chapters, Steinman takes on the competition from big box stores that has driven out some co-ops. Savvy chains like Wegman’s and Trader Joe’s use promotion language (buy local) and product display techniques (the bulk section) that they learned from co-ops.  Ultimately, though, the benefits leave town for corporate HQ or stockholder dividends, instead of being shared among employees and members. Big box shoppers can never be certain their own health and economic needs will outweigh the relentless drive for profit.

In conclusion, Steinman waxes poetic about the underlying values of co-operation and calls upon the reader to join him in a great flowering of co-ops: “Food co-ops empower us unlike any other space to nurture long-term healthy relationships to our food, communities and the earth. They make it possible to ‘be the change’ and not the sheep. They make it possible to invest our food dollars into the next seven generations. They make it possible to sanctify our supermarkets.” (p. 240) He expresses his hope that his book will inspire the reader to one of three actions:

  1. Convene your community’s first meeting of its first cooperative grocery store, or join up with a group already meeting.
  2. Become a member–owner of an already-established food co-op near you.
  3. Love, more deeply than ever before, the food co-op you already shop at (p. 241)

I must confess that Grocery Story has worked its magic on me!  I have loaded up my bag with Abundance brochures that I hand out at social events around Rochester and I have committed to limiting my diet to what I can buy at the co-op.  If the co-op doesn’t have it, I don’t eat it.  Since my partners and I retired as farmers, Peacework, our farm’s CSA, persists as a buying club that still has its pick-up at Abundance though loyalty has shifted to supporting another local farm – Mud Creek. Cooperation among co-ops lives on!


Restoration Agriculture: Real-world Permaculture for Farmers

reviewer Alan Eddy, NOFA member, Wallingford, CT

restoration AgricultureMark Shepard discusses ideas that he has put into successful practice. There are plenty of opportunities for people to pick up where he left off and ex-pand the ideas further. The book is open-ended.

So, what are his techniques? Agroforestry and “perennial polycultures” in conjunction with free-range livestock, are what he recommends. Expanding on the principles of permaculture, he plants nut trees, fruit trees, shrubs, vines, cane fruits, berries, and smaller crops on his 106-acre farm in Richland County, Wisconsin (New Forest Farm). If you are not familiar with permaculture, Wikipedia has a good article.

The opening seven chapters take the reader through the current crisis in American agriculture, the poor track records of civilizations based on annual crops, the history of agroforestry, the natural habitats of post-Ice Age North America, and basic strategies of Restoration Agriculture. The next five chapters cover livestock, bees, and human nutrition. Chapters 13 through 16 are how-to guides for starting a Restoration Agriculture farm or converting a conventional one. There is an entire section of color photos from New Forest Farm — Restoration Agriculture in action. The book includes dozens of examples from the farm, plus citations of agroforestry research and nutrition information. The author notes the absence of waste since the animals eat the produce that is not sent to market or consumed by the farm family. Livestock is treated humanely.

In the climate of Wisconsin autumn cold weather can cause the chestnut husks to snap shut, which ruins the nuts for human or animal consumption. When Mark is collecting chestnuts to use for seed, he selects the early-ripening ones in the hope that the early-ripening trait will be passed on.

Another example is growing culinary and medicinal fungi on dead logs and branches that are by-products of the polyculture system.

Throughout his work, he has used the post-Ice-Age “oak savanna” of North America as a model (based on careful research into prehistoric ecosystems). Each species — chestnut, apple, hazelnut, raspberry, currant, grape, fungi, grasses, etc. — occupies a specific niche and receives a share of the available sunlight.

Mark Shepard does not approve of nibbling hazelnuts and chestnuts at holiday time — he advocates using them as staple foods for everyday nutrition. “We will need to invent harvesting, maintenance and processing machinery for use in polyculture systems”.

If you don’t have time to read the entire book, definitely read the last two chapters: “Making a Profit” and “Creating Permanent Agriculture: A Call for New Pioneers.” These two chapters sum up the author’s arguments and lay out the choices before us. Professional farmers in sustainable enterpris-es will be pleased with his honest assessment of farm economics.

The author mentions the urban agriculture non-profit “Growing Power” as an example of taking action rather than just talking.

The agriculture crisis is serious, but this book is not doom and gloom. “As we begin to upgrade the health of the actual ecosystem it becomes more per-ennial, the soil improves, and the species diversity increases. Then more yields are harvested. The system ultimately creates more niches. More niches mean more livelihoods for more plants and animals — and more niches for people as well”.

The Worm Farmer’s Handbook: Mid-to-Large-Scale Vermicomposting for Farms, Businesses, Municipalities, Schools, and Institutions

Worm Farmers HandbookReview by Ben Goldberg

As an Extension Specialist and head of the Compost Learning Lab at North Carolina State University, and organizer of the annual international NC State Vermicomposting Conference, Rhonda Sherman is a dedicated and motivational voice for vermiculture and vermicomposting. Her book, The Worm Farmer’s Handbook, is the printed version of this dedication. Be prepared to go on an engaging tour of the diverse and fascinating world of worms as Rhonda shares her long-accumulated wisdom about maintaining a healthy and productive worm farm or vermicomposting operation.

As defined by its subtitle, Mid To Large Scale Vermicomposting for Farms, Businesses, Municipalities, Schools, and Institutions, the book is in-tended to be a guide to establishing a successful worm composting venture, whether for profit or ecological benefit. In no way, however, does that lessen its value to small scale worm farmers, or for those who simply maintains a bin down cellar or under the kitchen sink. As the book strongly emphasizes, there is tremendous value in gaining a practical hands-on understanding of worm composting basics before growing in scale. Drawing from her own experiences and those of others, Rhonda offers valuable tips and strategies that are appropriate to all skill levels and sizes of operation. She creates a solid platform of understanding that will help you productively manage not only your worms and system of operation, but your business management procedures as well.

Starting with a brief history and rationale for worm farming, Rhonda clarifies the terms vermiculture, vermicomposting, and vermicast, and sets a path mainly in the direction of vermicomposting enterprise. It was interesting to read that commercial scale worm farming got its start in the 1800’s when people gathered worms from farm fields to sell as bait, which led to entrepreneurial efforts such as the Shurebite Bait Company. How-to’s and guides for successfully growing worms emerged, as did a publishing company specifically for worm growers. Charles Darwin’s famous research notwithstanding, research was also done in the US on worm farming methods in the mid 1930’s, and Thomas Barrett published those discoveries in 1947 in a book entitled Harnessing the Earthworm.

(Just in case you don’t already have a copy, you can download a free pdf version here … https://www.forgottenbooks.com/en/books/HarnessingtheEarthworm_10289486 )

Dr. Barret’s book and Earl Shields’s publishing efforts nurtured larger scale worm farming operations. Eventually the benefits of castings to agriculture be-came known and popularized, and worm farming to produce vermicompost emerged.

Rhonda’s readable science approach offers relevant information about soil chemistry, nutritional qualities, plant health, and pathogen and pest control. Charts and graphs provide useful at-a-glance references. It was interesting to learn, for example, that what worms are fed generates different qualities of vermicast, and in turn, these qualities provide specific benefits to specific plants or soils. Vermicompost can be tailored or blended with other ingredients to meet individual crop or soil needs.

Rhonda’s relaxed tour guide approach takes readers to numerous worm farms and facilities here in the US and around the world. Abundant images and sidebars provide show-and-tell examples of what others are doing in various regions and climates. It was helpful to see the pictures of the various bin and shelter designs at all the different scales of production, from the most basic to the more technologically advanced infrastructure.

It was easy to find inspiration from the interviews Rhonda had with worm farmers from around the world. It was just as helpful to review the business practices and practicalities of these producers. Whether anecdotally, or through step-by-step descriptions, the reader will receive guidance and support for every aspect of a worm composting operation, including the nuances of producing and using vermicast tea, harvesting and storing the vermicast, testing and lab analysis, troubleshooting your system, marketing your products, and so much more.

Rhonda offers a brief discussion on the use of paper products as a feed or bedding stock. While some worm farmers have settled on the use of paper, and many well informed individuals and reputable institutions support it’s use, it remains a topic of concern for me, a one-time printer. Paper and inks were once considered toxic and controversial for composting due to petroleum and heavy metals in the inks, and dioxins and other toxic residue in the paper. While it is correct to say that awareness of these concerns has been raised, and current regulations and practices limit the use of petroleum and toxins in paper and inks, they do not fully eliminate them, so a risk of exposure remains. For example, soy inks are not required to be 100% soy, nor is it practical for them to be. They qualify as such with as little as 7%, and up to 30% to be considered soy ”based”. Nor are soy inks GMO free, if that’s of interest to you. There are still other ink ingredients that control flow rate, drying time, etc. that are toxic in their own right. Printing industry regulations mentioned are for the US. If you are a worm farmer using paper in a country that does not provide similar scrutiny, then it cannot be assured that your paper will be free of toxins. Though it may be true that paper products are an available and abundant resource for your vermi-system, in my opinion, they are not risk free for toxic accumulation in the vermicompost, or for continuous exposure to workers, volunteers, or students. Please use them with whatever level of precaution you believe is necessary for your health and for the health of the users of your vermi-products.

If there is one consistent fact about composting with worms, it would be that no one ever seems to do it the same way. Within it’s great diversity of methods and perspectives, there are some common understandings and practices that will help you maintain a heathy, active, and productive system of any scale. If that is your interest, then Rhonda’s book will be a useful and highly recommended resource for your library.

Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.

Uncertain Harvest

Reviewed by Andy Simon

“Ed stood on the summit — or near enough for a good story when he got back to New York. His open mouth chewed thin air, which hit his throat like liquid nitrogen.” These first sentences of Charles Simpson’s novel hardly seem like the opening of

a book about genetic engineering in agriculture. However, this is only the first of many surprises in this fast-paced, intelligent, political, exciting book. Simpson manages to combine a taut, erotically- charged detective story with a fine-grained analysis of Big Ag and Big Tech’s plot to control global food production. It’s quite a read.

Ed Dekker, the novel’s protagonist, is a veteran journalist working for the fictional Business Chronicle, a small but venerable newspaper in New York. His assignment to cover the invitation-only Global Sustainability Conference at an exclusive Austrian alpine resort seems like a boring, if cushy, gig. An attempt on his life as he skis alone before the conference starts leads Ed into a maelstrom of international intrigue centered on control of genetic codes for agricultural crops. It also gives him the chanceto meet the novel’s love (or lust) interest – the quick- witted biologist Aisling (pronounced ash-leen) O’Keefe, who saves Ed’s life on the mountain.

So far, you might be wondering why this book is even being reviewed in The Natural Farmer. But this is the charm and interest of Simpson’s novel: he is giving us a serious indictment of corporate invention and control of genetically-modified food crops (personified by the mysterious, malevolent biotech company Naturtek) and wrapped in an action-packed story that keeps you turning pages. Ed Dekker is rarely out of danger and is also rarely out of witty repartee, whether with the striking red-head Aisling, his somewhat-estranged brother Bart (a combat veteran and corporate security professional), the various police detectives who don’t quite believe his story, or his jaundiced but supportive colleagues at the Business Chronicle.

It is a tribute to Charles Simpson, a university professor of Sociology, political activist, international educator and avid community gardener, that he is able to mobilize all aspects of his experience and expertise to craft a multi-layered book that is both hard to classify and hard to put down. We follow the dogged protagonist from Austria to New York

to Boston to St. Louis and to rural Mexico in search of his complex story. In all of these locales, Simpson creates convincing, atmospheric descriptions that put the reader into the context immediately. “Slipping his warm pistol into a jacket pocket, Bart turned up his collar and slouched down Boylston Street. An hour later, he stepped off a bus a block from the Marriott. He’d made two transfers to shake off pursuit.”

Most of the biotech content of Uncertain Harvest— the serious structure that this racy novel hangs on — is conveyed through the dialogues that form the heart of the book. Here’s an example of Simpson’s deft, plot-woven exposition:

Between mouthfuls, Aisling outlined Hammer- smith’s research. “Admittedly from a small sample, but he’s concluding the terminator sequence he developed is toxic. At least to honey bees.” She sat back, folding her arms. “Imagine a monoculture

of thousands of acres, and that’s what you get with canola. Wild insect populations would crash. With both wild flowering and conventional crops depending on insect pollination…

“We just cooked the goose,” said Manny, finishing her sentence. Time to stock up on Spam. But why would infertility spread?”


Read Uncertain Harvest for the sheer pleasure of the breathless story, the witty and weighty give- and-take between the characters or the serious condemnation of “terminator gene” technology that seeks to disrupt and control the natural order of plant reproduction. On any of these levels, it will be worth your attention and time, even during a busy farming season.

A Soil Owner’s Manual: How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health

A Soil Owners Manual Coverreview by Liz Henderson

This little book, only 75 pages long, is a great introduction to caring for the health of your soil whether you are gardening or farming, small or large-scale. For non-beginners, rereading this book at the start of each new farming/gardening season would also be a helpful refresher. In Stika’s words, this book “is a soil-centric view on restoring the soil first and then realizing all of the crop production and environmental benefits that will follow.” (xvi) Before taking up a plow or fork, Stika wants us to understand how soils function so that when we maximize productivity, we do not undermine future yields and ecosystem health.

The manual starts by defining soil health as– “the capacity of a soil to function,” and lists the five main functions: “maintaining biodiversity and productivity, partitioning water and solute flow, filtering and buffering, nutrient cycling, and structural support.” (p. 1) To enable soils to fulfill these functions, farmers act as solar engineers, working with the photosynthesis naturally performed by plants to “harvest water and sunlight to manufacture carbohydrates, fat and protein.” (p. 2) Plants exchange the carbohydrates for the nutrients they need, of which 90% cycle through the living organisms in soil before they are available to the plants. As Michael Pollan wittily noted in The Botany of Desire, plants have much more agency than we give them credit for, exercising control by sending chemical signals and adjusting exudates to communicate their needs to the denizens of the soil.

Stika identifies three kinds of disturbance that cause soil dysfunction: physical, chemical and biological, making it very clear that tillage ranks among the guiltiest. Minimizing the physical disturbance of soil through tillage and cultivation is essential to unburdening soil life from human interventions. Tillage disrupts the fungi, especially the mychorrizae, that feed plants and exude the gooey substances that hold soil aggregates together. Most chemical fertilizers and pesticides also disrupt or kill off important elements of soil life. Excessive use of natural fertilizers, too much manure or compost, can also be disruptive.

A common farming error is to use starter fertilizer. The addition of fertilizer as a plant is just beginning to grow shortcircuits the development of the relationships with microorganisms. It takes much more energy for a plant to get them to start up when it needs their nutrients later in the season.

Healthy soil is a miraculously efficient and complex system that human beings have only begun to understand. Plants feed the microherd of visible and microscopic organisms which in turn feed the plants, and very little is lost. Carbon is the most important element – Stika calls it the “currency of the soil.” A diverse food web ensures that despite varying weather conditions, the soil is able to maintain its many functions. Soil erosion, Stika points out, “is not a problem. It is a symptom of unhealthy, dysfunctional soil.”

Although soil organic matter makes up a small percentage of the soil by weight, it includes the many living organisms as well as the decaying and dead organisms that together perform most of soil’s functions. The living fraction takes nitrogen from the air and makes nutrients and water available to plants. Stika sites research that shows that plant roots on their own can only reach 1% of the surrounding soil, but when fungi are associated with the roots, they reach 20% of the soil, enabling them to capture far more moisture and food. In Chapter Four, Stika covers the living organisms from the smallest bacteria through the largest arthropods, and concludes that when a soil serves as a beneficial habitat for all the members of the soil food web, they build aggregates that restore the soil’s capacity to infiltrate water and cycle nutrients.

Fortunately, it is possible to restore degraded soil and there is no limit to what we can achieve if we observe these simple guidelines:

reduce soil disturbance
increase plant diversity
keep living plants growing as much of the time as possible
do not leave the soil naked

Stika does not dictate how to accomplish this on every farm. He urges each farmer to develop the approach that works best for individual conditions and provides some helpful pointers. A key to the decomposition of crop residues lies in understanding the CN ratio: soil microorganisms need a diet with a CN ratio of 24:1. When the ratio is higher or lower either all the nitrogen present will go into breaking down the residues or the microorganisms will quickly consume the residue leaving the soil bare. Once soil has been degraded it takes 3 to 5 years to bring it back, so Stika counsels patience.

Stika concludes his manual with suggestions for assessing the health of your soil. Cornell offers a series of tests for soil biology that cost $110. There is also the Haney test. NRCS has a soil health website with assessment information. I like Stika’s do-it-yourself ideas – take a handful, examine it for worms and other critters, smell it – a healthy soil smells earthy, place some aggregates in water and see how long it takes them to dissolve, dig a small hole, pour water in and time how long it takes to sink in. Read Stika’s little book, be inspired and get started!

Pomona’s Lost Children: A Book of Uncommon Antique Fruits

review by Jack Kittredge

I’ve always had a soft spot for minor fruit – things like paw paws, mulberries, persimmons, elderberries, gooseberries, etc. that taste wonderful and grow easily organically in our area, but for one reason or another have not been bred for market. Some like the paw paws can’t take handling, others take too long to pay someone to harvest and are only suited for kids or homesteaders to pick and eat on the spot.

Stratton seems to be another fan of such fruits. This book contains a chapter on each of the above (except mulberries), plus ones on currants, black cur-rants, quince, blackberries, medlar, jostaberries, saskatoon, and cornel. He also includes a few paragraphs on wild black cherry, chokecherry, mayhaw, rosehips, rowanberry, and rowan dream.

Each fruit is given loving treatment with a combination of childhood memories, fruit descriptions, history and facts, interesting digressions, and then probably the most useful part of all – the recipes. A good third to half of the book is devoted to ways to use these fruits – foods they can go with well, and ways to make simple pastries, jellies, puddings, confections, drinks, sauces and wines.

One can read this casually and just enjoy Stratton’s memories and fondness for these fruits. Or one can easily enough order some of these bushes and trees and soon be picking and making the delicious concoctions he mentions. Even better, if you have some of these already in your backyard, as we do, you can vow to surprise your neighbors next get-together with red currant eggedosis, persimmon pudding, gooseberry pie, or elder fruit soup.

Stratton obviously had a good time writing and illustrating this book (it is graced with nice little line drawings of fruits, trees and bushes, and confections which give it a warm feel). He Is a retired teacher as well as an amateur botanist, farmer, and forester and brings you into his world. It would be a lovely present for a homesteader you know!

Soil 2017: Notes Towards the Theory and Practice of Nurture Capital

review by Jack Kittredge

Woody, studied practitioner of the bon mot, starts this compendium saying “I’m sad as hell and I’m not going to fake it anymore”. What follows, which he terms “a call to farms”, is a booklet of poetic free association/verse and snippets about history, literature, economics, popular culture, natural science, agriculture, contemporary politics and virtually everything else which enters Woody’s wide-ranging mind.

Tasch’s strength is that he conflates diverse ideas from these various streams, many of which turn up topics (soil, microbes, carbon, health, simplicity, life) with which most readers of this journal are quite familiar. This sometimes illuminates truths not contained in any of the individual citations but that are visible for a moment in the flash of something reflected.

Woody’s weakness, however, is a desire to capture and imprison these truths. After a short discussion about economic theory and the earth’s carrying capacity, he ventures: “There is nothing vexing about a small, diversified, organic farm.”

That may be true for the occasional visitor or the poetic visionary, but for most of the small, diversified organic farmers I know there is plenty vexing about it – mud, heat, cold, weeds, rain, sweat, no relief and, most vexing of all, trying to make a living.

MC Escher Day and NightMany readers will enjoy this book, especially literate folks who might appreciate more than a few of his disparate references. One set I especially liked connected the thinking of Wendell Berry with the figure/ground images of M. C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist popular in the middle of the last century. Escher’s creative tiling of artistic space with shapes that are both foreground and background at once suggested to Tasch this Wendell Berry passage from The Gift of Good Land:

“The farmer has put plants and animals into a relationship of mutual dependence…that involves solutions to problems of fertility, soil husbandry, economics, sanitation – a whole complex of problems whose proper solutions add up to health: the health of the soil, of plants and animals, of farm and farmers, of farm family and farm community, all involved in the same inter-nested, interlocking pattern…”

Nice connection, Woody!

I also liked the Happy Planet Index Tasch cites, introduced in 2006 by the New Economics Foundation. Its calculations are only four:

Wellbeing: How satisfied the residents of each country say they feel with life overall, on a scale from 0 to 10, based on data collected as part of the Gallup World Poll.

Life Expectancy: The average number of years a person is expected to live in each country based on data collected by the United Nations.

Inequality of Outcomes: The inequalities between people within a country, in terms of wellbeing and life expectancy, based on the distribution in each country’s life expectancy and wellbeing data, expressed as a percentage.

Ecological Footprint: The average impact that each resident of a country places on the environment, based on data prepared by the Global Footprint Network, expressed as hectares per person.

The first three are multiplied, and then divided by the fourth, as shown in the above equation illustration.

The index does not rate personal happiness, but rather the efficiency with which the planet supports human happiness in different places. Rated on the Happy Planet Index, the US scores 20.7 out of 100, ranking 108th out of 140 countries measured. Costa Rica leads the list with a score of 44.7.

In the last part of this book Woody gets directly to the crux of his message, slow money investing. He details individuals who are doing worthwhile things and have created economic ventures (Anne and Jack Lazor of Vermont’s Butterworks Yogurt are featured, for instance). Ways to invest “Nurture Capital” are encouraged, something that Tasch suggests may be simply a more feminine approach to investing, taking into account the whole, including justice and fairness, and being content with small solutions.

As someone who has tried to do exactly this with very limited resources – Julie and I have lent small amounts over the years to a seed coop, an organic food processing start-up, and a local young dairy farm family – I can testify to the satisfactions of such an approach.

That is what Woody is talking about.

I should close with one of my favorite of his bon mots:
“We are all earthworms. The modern economy is a plow.”

Perennial Vegetable Gardening with Eric Toensmeier (DVD review)

Reviewed by Sanne Kure-Jensen

Gardeners and farmers considering permaculture or season extension will find this film an excellent resource. It features over a dozen perennial vegetables on Toensmeier’s Massachusetts garden. The host also shows high-elevation, temperate gardens at Las Cañadas in Huatusco, Veracruz, Mexico (bosquedeniebla.com.mx). Those growing conditions are comparable to those in the Pacific Northwest. The final segment of the video covered Toensmeier’s workshop at ECHO’s global farm in North Fort Meyers, Florida (echonet.org).

Every spring, perennial vegetables offer growers an extra 4 – 6 weeks of garden fresh foods. Unlike most annual vegetables, many perennial vegetables tolerate full and partial shade and even wet conditions. Toensmeier enjoys supplementing his perennial garden with standard summer annual vegetables like tomatoes.

Perennial vegetables resist annual droughts with deep, established root systems. They resist leaf-eating pests or slugs by growing new leaves using their large root reserves. Unlike most annual vegetables, perennial vegetables resist early or even heavy frosts. Most need less care than annual vegetables.

Toensmeier adds 1” of compost every year or two to his. He said his biggest chore is to harvest food.
One important challenge with perennial vegetables is that you only get one chance to prepare the beds and improve soils. Perennial vegetables need deep loose, fertile soils. Toensmeier adds amendments per soil test recommendations, adds compost and loosens soils with a broad fork.

Another approach is to use sheet mulch to establish perennial gardens or beds for the following season. First kill and remove all weeds, lay down a layer of cardboard as a weed barrier. Cover with compost leaves and wood chips up to 24” deep. It will become a thin compost layer and be ready to plant next year. Lay dry mulch like wood chips on top to suppresses any weed seeds in the upper layers that may sprout.

Growing in polycultures helps to minimize competition and maximize cooperation. Toensmeier trains Chinese yam vines on living trellises for easy harvest of its small berries. He used horizontal bamboo poles secured between Siberian pea shrubs (nitrogen fixers). Late in the season, he placed a sheet under the vines to catch the harvest of yam “berries.” Under all this, he grew ramps as an early season ground cover, which disappear before the yam harvest.

Toensmeier’s perennial vegetable garden includes an edible water garden. Plants attract and feed beneficial insects. This helps balance his garden with natural pest control. He recommends using pots in a water garden for easier harvest and containing running plants like water celery.

Be especially careful with non-native water plants, he advises. Do not plant them in natural waterways, streams or ponds where they might overtake a natural area or escape downstream. He uses a closed pond with a rubber liner and has enjoyed success growing in kiddy pools.

Perennial vegetables can include trees or large shrubs. Coppicing encourages young growth at an easy harvesting height.

Three Brothers. Sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes take the place of corn. A mint relative with edible tubers, Chinese artichoke takes the place of squash. Groundnuts take the place of beans. Toensmeier eats this like spicy refried beans. He surrounds this garden with root barrier of 18” aluminum flashing. At the end of the growing season, these plants offer huge yields.

The Carbon Farming Solution:

review by Jack KIttredge

I have always enjoyed reading Eric Toensmeier. His enthusiasm for perennials is infectious and we have planted several varietal selections found in his 2007 book “Perennial Vegetables” on our farm in Barre, MA. The amazing 1/10 of a acre he and Jonathan Bates planted to perennials in their back yard in Holyoke, “Paradise Lot”, is a wonder of diversity.

Many of us in NOFA have been focused on developing practices and tools that sequester carbon and mitigate climate extremes when raising primarily an-nual crops, especially those grown in the northeast. The term “carbon farming” has been used for these practices (although often, according to Toensmei-er, it is associated with direct compensation of the farmer for such sequestration.) Now Eric has taken on the long-needed task of analyzing perennial plantings from the same perspective.

The book is organized into 5 detailed sections plus some useful appendices, sources, etc.

The first section, fifty-some pages in all, explores the “Big Idea” behind the book: the good news of carbon sequestration. An introductory chapter ad-dresses climate change, its causes (including agriculture) and impact on people around the world, and the need to sequester greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere as well as drastically reduce emissions. The second chapter relates in some detail how good agriculture can manage this, both by reducing agricultural emissions and by increasing yields via agroecological intensification. But the primary focus here is to explain how carbon is sequestered via photosynthesis with the assistance of an amazing microbial ecosystem belowground.

The third chapter follows up on this by looking at various crops and cropping systems to see which have the greatest sequestration potential. He discusses here some of the complexities involved in arriving at useful numbers in such analyses: climate variability, soil versus biomass carbon, depth and tech-niques used in measurement, etc. The fourth chapter in this section goes into detail on agroforestry and perennial crops and systems, distinguishing among various types and subtypes. Finally, a chapter on carbon farming and its multifunctional benefits finds its roots in permaculture design principles, con-trasts it with geoengineering, and talks about its benefits to the ecosystem, the farm, and society.

The second section, a little over sixty pages, is the Global Toolkit mentioned in the book’s title. Starting with chapter 6 on annual cropping Eric lays out its current dominance in food production (89% of global cropland) and mentions his own preference for a transition to agroforestry-based perennial systems. Toensmeier discusses various ways of using annuals including Conservation Agriculture, Rice Intensification, and Organic, then devotes more than half the chapter to ways of integrating perennials with annuals (strip intercropping, alley cropping, hedgerows, pasture cropping, etc.) Chapter 7, on livestock systems, addresses the various ways that 12 billion acres around the world are used for pasture. This includes discussions of integrating livestock and crops, managing for pasture improvement, silvopasture (integrating pasture and trees), fodder trees and green corrals. Chapter 8 on perennial cropping looks at agroforestry, monocultures like orchards, bamboo, herbaceous biomass crops, aquaforestry, and perennial grains. A following short chapter 9 on additional tools to deal with specific problems delves briefly into topics such as rainwater harvesting, terracing, keyline design, biochar, and indigenous management.

The concluding chapter ten in section two is on Species. This is an effort to prepare us for the next two sections, which deal with perennial staple and in-dustrial crops. In this chapter Eric defines the categories he uses to classify cultivation status for perennials – such things as scope of plantings, wildness, whether newly developed, experimental, etc. In addition he lists 10 climate categories – tropical, highland, boreal, arid, etc. – he uses to classify growing conditions. An interesting section here talks about breeding perennials. Toensmeier feels a real sense of urgency in this task as climate change mitigation needs to happen quickly and breeding a perennial variety of what we know as an annual can take 5 to 10 years for a crop like rice and a generation or more for something like maize. He also singles out efforts to breed better varieties of existing perennials such as: Roger Leakey’s farmer-driven plus-trees at the World Agroforestry Centre, perennial grain development in Salinas, Kansas and in China, and hybrid swarm breeding of nuts in Minnesota.

Section three deals with Perennial Staple Crops, the tree and other long-lived plants that provide the human diet with proteins, carbohydrates and fats. These once fed much of the world’s population, but were ultimately out produced by annuals, particularly annual grains. Now oil palms, coconuts, bana-nas, olives, dates, avocados, and many nuts are eaten by billions daily, but occupy a far smaller portion of our diet than annuals. The first chapter intro-duces these crops and their groupings. The following chapters focus on crops for starch, carbohydrates, protein, protein-oils, edible oils and sugars, re-spectively. These crops are discussed regarding their uses, yield, harvest and processing, carbon farming aspect, and crop development. ‘Carbon farming aspect’ here is usually what you might get in a normal gardening book as information on how the crop grows, other uses than human food, whether it tol-erates shade or cold or wind or coppicing, fixes nitrogen, needs trellising, likes certain companions, etc.

Section four focuses on Perennial Industrial Crops much as section three did with Perennial Staple Crops. Industrial crops are those used for materials (lumber, paper, textiles, plastics, rubber), chemicals (paints, soaps, glues, lubricants, dyes, medicines, solvents, stabilizers, flocculants) and energy (fire-wood, charcoal, illuminating oils, alcohols.) The introductory chapter makes this clear and features the example of the osage orange. A cold-hardy mem-ber of the mulberry family, its fruit is inedible and somewhat toxic. But it has promise as a source of oil, hydrocarbons, and sugar. Dried, the fruit is 16% protein, 15% sugar and 18% oil. The seeds are 34% protein and its oil is being looked at as a biodiesel feedstock. Its wood makes great archery bows and is the best firewood in the country.

Toensmeier suggests that developing plants like this can result in a whole bio-based economy replacing today’s fossil fuel-based one. He cautions, however, against industrial scaled monocultures of any crop –those have created many of the social and environmental ills of the past. He also warns against trying to continue our level of energy consumption, instead getting what we need from wind, water, and solar. For materials and chemicals he would rely on perennials grown on diversified farms and processed locally using appropriate technology. Following this stimulating introductory chapter are crops raised for biomass, industrial starch, industrial oil, hydrocarbons, fiber, and other uses. As in section three, Eric analyzes scores of crops in great detail, citing interesting uses, facts, and histories.

Starting with chapter ten on Species and running through the seven chapters on staple crops and the seven on industrial ones, this text runs almost 200 pages and could clearly make a wonderful book of its own on the potential for transforming our society through research, breeding, growing and using perennial crops. Toensmeier is at his best here, informative and inspiring both.

The book’s final section of 30+ pages consists of five short chapters on policies needed going forward. Eric’s 3-point plan to promote carbon farming is
to support farmers in making the transition,to finance effective carbon farming efforts, and to remove policy barriers.

Toensmeier repeatedly asserts that we are living in the last days for effective action against climate change. He rightly feels that many farmers and others have already gotten the message and are developing and practicing carbon farming systems. He finds inspiration in the example of Cuba, learning virtual-ly overnight to transition its industrial agricultural system to one functioning without fossil fuels. Many indigenous communities also exhibit sophisticated agricultural management, balancing human needs with biodiversity and ecosystem function. He calls for stopping the feeding of annual grains to livestock, with ruminants to subsist on pasture, monogastrics on perennial grains, and insects to be developed as both food and feed. To support farmers he feels lo-cal perennial nurseries should be encouraged and simple farmer-based carbon measuring tools developed.

To finance carbon farming Eric believes we need to spend far more to cover the costs of transitioning to a low-carbon global economy, especially agricul-ture mitigation work. He finds that carbon offsets are ineffective in reducing greenhouse gases, that few carbon funds go toward agricultural practices, and those that do require huge land areas to be attractive. He would like to see financing go to small-scale and grassroots farmers. Toensmeier also sup-ports carbon certification programs like the one proposed in Vermont as a way for market forces to provide price incentives to responsible farmers.

Barriers to carbon farming, he feels, are created by trade policies promoting mono-cropping, mechanization, and agrichemical use. Small farmers, wom-en, and indigenous people are often the ones who are most productive and can implement new practices most easily. Perhaps they should be paid to in-crease carbon soil content in whatever ways work for them? Ninety-two percent of farmers occupy only 25% of farmland. Perhaps land itself needs to be more widely distributed?

Eric sees the need to educate governments and policy makers about the basic facts of carbon farming. The individuals, journalists, farmers, students, ac-tivists, NGOs, agencies, businesses, funders and investors of the world all have a role to play, which he lays out for them on the last pages of this book with hope and energy for the transformative challenge it will be.

I did have some issues with this book, however. One misprint I noticed makes me wonder if others might also have missed the editor’s eye: a key graphic, Figure 3.1 on page 31, was mislabeled so that the source of the studies (single study versus review or estimate) was reversed.

A more significant issue is whether carbon sequestered as aboveground biomass in living plants should be equated with carbon sequestered in soil. Eric discusses this and makes clear that he considers the two equally valid. I think carbon flow is quite nuanced. Biomass crops are limited carbon sinks, planted for the purpose of later harvest and consumption, at which point they release their carbon back into the atmosphere. Soil carbon, on the contrary, is an almost limitless sink and can be rebuilt – as our geological history has shown – by natural processes to astonishing levels. It is important, to my way of thinking, for the reader to be informed whether the values cited as sequestered carbon are soil-based, biomass-based, or both. But the book does not make this clear. You have to go to the studies Eric cites to learn that many of the high carbon numbers he presents for annual sequestration by agrofor-estry, for instance, derive from biomass increase rather than soil building.

Another issue is the impact of methane given off by ruminants. Christine Jones and other scientists feel that methanotrophs, microbes that feed exclusively on methane and are present in any healthy soil, will quickly digest and break down this potent greenhouse gas. I saw no accounting of this natural process in Eric’s treatment of the subject in chapter seven.

Despite my concerns, however, a work of this size and significance is an impressive major effort and Toensmeier is to be thanked for putting it forth. Por-tions of it, especially those showing the depth of his knowledge of perennials, are quite illuminating. I am sure it will be much read and studied. It is an important addition to the canon of carbon farming and especially perennial literature and I hope the paperback is soon available.

Organic Hobby Farming: A Practical Guide to Earth-friendly Farming in any Space

review by Richard Robinson
Hobbies are respectable enterprises, and everyone should have at least one. But nonetheless, the phrase “hobby farm” grates on me like fingernails on a chalkboard. It’s a phrase I have only ever heard from the mouths of people who are not farmers and have done no farm work, and in fact are deeply alienated from the work—physical, mental, aesthetic—that farmers do every day to make food, and beauty, from the land they care for. To me, a more-than-part-time-but-less-than-full-time farmer, “hobby farm” evokes a combination of condescension and cluelessness, such that I am predisposed to reject out of hand a book that calls itself “Organic Hobby Farming,” even when it follows that up with its more promising subtitle, “A practical guide to earth-friendly farming in any space.”

But authors don’t always choose their titles, and this book is part of a series from a publishing house called Hobby FarmsTM, so I gave the author, Andy Tomolonis, a pass as I dug into his book, to see what it might offer its intended audience: “backyard organic growers, experienced hobby farmers, and those who are dreaming of the day.” And for that audience, this book may be a valuable acquisition, despite some limitations. Mr. Tomolonis is clearly not alienated from farm labor, and clearly knows his way around the organic garden.

At 353 pages plus another 25 of resources and index, the book is big. It also aims to be comprehensive, covering topics from assessing new property to how to grow individual crops to marketing opportunities. It succeeds in at least one respect, in that it gives those who aren’t yet farming a big-picture idea of how much the farmer must think about and plan for and do to keep all the balls we juggle up in the air throughout the season. If you are thinking about farming and are trying to get that big picture, you could do worse than to read this book cover to cover. On the other hand, if you are a serious gardener who is planning to scale up to farming, this book will probably not offer you the in-depth knowledge you will need to succeed (and perhaps no single book can).

As you would hope in a book of organic farming, it has a good chapter on understanding both the mineral and biologic aspects of soil, and in its 40 pages, you can get a pretty good introduction to these critical topics. Mr. Tomolonis presents a month-by-month overview of farming activities from seed starting to insect control to harvest, which can give the novice the feel for the rhythms of the year. There are many (many!) sidebars and boxes along the way to highlight topics such as basket weaving tomatoes, stale bedding, and other practical information.

Growing information on specific crops may be useful to the novice gardener, with basic information (e.g., “one cauliflower plant produces just one harvestable head”) and growing tips (“Use floating row covers over young carrots, especially when sown in the spring, when sawflies are most active”), but my guess is that this section may be less useful to even intermediate gardeners, who will have their own stockpile of experience with most common crops, and will have learned to find more expert information elsewhere. There is also a survey chapter on fruit crops, 20 pages on chickens, and a brief introduction to bees, rabbits and goats. Aspiring farmers who want to think hard about the business side of the operation will find a quick introduction to marketing, but will need much more information from elsewhere to feel confident about their business plan.

I was surprised at a few things I read, and a few I didn’t. I would not recommend heirloom crops to beginning farmers, who will have all the challenges they can handle just getting their systems in place without trying to succeed with the slower growth and greater disease susceptibility of older varieties. I don’t know anyone in the Northeast who plants a late-season crop of snap peas; in my experience the seed rots in the warm soil of August, and the shoots grow too slowly in the dying light of October (perhaps others have more success, and I’d love to be wrong). There is no mention of downy mildew on basil, which will take most of your crop after July. But these are relatively minor quibbles in a section that is otherwise solid, if necessarily limited.

The biggest surprise was the almost complete absence of discussion of season extension techniques. Row cover is discussed primarily as an insect control strategy, and, remarkably, hoop houses are not discussed at all, despite having become a centrally important tool for market farmers to increase their profits—for many farmers, including me, they have made the difference between succeeding and not. Yes, there are other books that present the principle and practice in depth, but the absence of even a brief introduction here may leave the reader who is trying to see how the whole farm puzzle fits together missing a very large piece.

So, should you buy this book? If you are a serious gardener looking to make some money on your (ahem) hobby, I don’t think this book is likely to give you what you likely need most, namely practical advice on the business side of farming.

If you are a homesteader hoping to expand your knowledge of growing crops and whole-farm systems, this might be useful as exposure to crops and techniques you haven’t tried yet. If you are still shaping your farm in your dreams, I’d recommend it, to get an overview of the many, many activities and decisions and considerations that go into farming at any scale.

In a world in which there is a firehose of information at the touch of button, but only a trickle of wisdom, it is a good thing to have this kind of survey—broad, relatively complete, and reasonably authoritative—all together in one book. I commend the author for undertaking it, and, despite my reservations, I hope it finds its audience and has its intended effect, to increase the number of people who practice organic farming.


Fertility Farming

Reviewed by Noah Courser-Kellerman

Fertility farming author Newman turner“When I came to Goosegreen farm” Newman Turner begins the 1951 classic Fertility Farming, “the first calf was born dead. Disease was already master of the farm. Was I to be man enough to face such a master and turn his efforts to my own advantage?”

This book is part memoir, part practical guide and part fiery manifesto. It is about the power of good farming to resuscitate a dying farm and a vision for a new, regenerative agriculture based on biological principles, keen observation, respect for the land and hard work. I believe that Turner’s work is not as well known as it should be, and that his writings deserve a place in the canon of visionary organic writers in the company of J. Russell Smith, Masanobu Fukuoka, Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, Rudolf Steiner, William Albrecht, George Washington Carver, Edward Faulkner and others.

I was given a copy of this book as a beginning farmer, trying to grow good vegetables, grain and beef on land that had been farmed conventionally for generations. This book spoke to and inspired me through the struggles of starting a farm on land exhausted by chemical farming, not only for its practical value but also by its attitude of irreverent innovation.

Newman Turner didn’t let the limited technology available to him at the time hamper his drive to innovate and care for his land. He didn’t wait for no-till drills to be invented so he could reduce tillage. Instead, he repurposed disc harrows to get seeds into the unplowed ground. He didn’t wait for polywire to be invented to practice long season intensive rotational grazing. Instead, using solid steel wire, he moved fence daily in a zig-zag pattern up a field. Instead of waiting for plastic films to be invented to ensile forages at their peak nutrition in cheap trench silos, he packed a layer of chalk over the surface to keep air out. In short, he was a visionary who was willing to bend old technologies to fit the needs of regenerative farming, creatively making do to get the job done.

Turner, a conscientious objector, was assigned to run an ailing dairy and grain farm in Somerset, England in lieu of military service in 1941. He inherited soils devoid of organic matter, crops devoured by insects and disease, and a herd of pedigreed Jersey cattle rendered almost infertile. Rejecting the reductionist “scientific” tendency of his time to see each of these problems as separate and in need of their own chemical fixes, Turner understood that his farm’s problems were really symptoms of degraded soil. With the understanding that there cannot be plant, livestock or human health without soil health, he set about finding a way to farm that worked financially and ecologically.

Regenerative agriculture is a term that has only come into wide usage in the last few years. Its core tenets are reduced tillage (non-disturbance), keeping the soil covered, diversity of plants and animals, maintaining living roots in the soil, and the integration of livestock in farming systems. Turner understood and applied each of these principles on his farm over seventy years ago.

Unlike Edward Faulkner, Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour and Juliette de Bairacli Levi, authors Turner greatly respected and was inspired by, Turner was first and foremost a farmer. His lived experience of the sink or swim reality of farming forced him to synthesize the theoretical, ethical and practical in a way that non-farming authors cannot.

For Turner, financial, environmental and agronomic sustainability were one and the same. The book is interspersed with enterprise budgets, laying out detailed justifications in pounds and shillings for the adoption of regenerative practices. While the specific financials of 1940s Britain are no longer directly useful, Turner makes a compelling argument, similar to the writings of Gabe Brown or Richard Wiswall, that good farming and good finances must go hand in hand.

Fertility Farming is written in five parts: Part one, “Why Fertility Farming?” tells the story of
Goosegreen Farm, and provides an overview of his farming system, Fertility Farming. He writes how “Nature does not plough; she employs the earthworm and soil bacteria, together with deeply penetrating roots, to do her work” and of the “recuperative benefit of variety” in regards to both soil and livestock health. “But it is not in increased yields, or in costs, that I measure success of this organic fertility farming…It is the health of all living things on the farm…” Turner’s tone is self-assured but not self-satisfied. The pursuit of good farming is not one that he is ever finished with.

Part two, “Practical Farm Management,” is just that. Turner goes into detail of his cropping system involving perennial pastures rotated with grains, potatoes and annual fodder crops like kale and turnips. He explains his fertility management and the difference between true nutrient deficiency in soil and lack of availability on soil tests. He points out that soil biology is more important than chemistry in plant nutrition. (Interestingly, John Kempf delivered a keynote speech on this same subject at the most recent Acres Eco Ag conference. He reached the same bombshell conclusions, more or less, that Turner did 70 years ago.) He also explains his use of a deep bedded pack for wintering cattle, and making compost in a static heap. Weeds as dynamic accumulators, the importance of trees for ecosystem services (a term not yet coined) and planting “herbal leys”, multi-species multi-year versions of todays “cover crop cocktails” are all explained in concise, practical detail.

Part three, “Going Fertility,” is about conversion to regenerative farming from chemical-intensive conventional agriculture. Turner provides what he sees as the ideal way to transition a farm. A plan for the entire first year of the organic transition, week by week, is provided in great detail. While not directly applicable to many of today’s farm, I found this chapter really fascinating as a way to understand British dairy farming as it was practiced over 70 years ago.

Parts four and five, “The Livestock” and “Animal Diseases,” delve into the importance of livestock on the farm both as products themselves and in their role in cycling nutrients in an agroecosystem. While some of the information in this chapter is very dated, Turner’s mastery of cattle genetics and conformation and his explanations of what makes a good cow in a grass-based dairy system are still spot on and useful for anyone breeding their own stock. Turner also touches on the use of poultry in processing compost, as well as the intensive use of pigs in kickstarting the fertility building cycle on severely degraded land. “I have criticized the plough in various ways,” Turner writes, “…But this demonstration of ‘ploughs’ which need neither petrol, nor oats…and which in the process of this powerless ploughing, spread fertility over the soil [and] produce pork and bacon as a by-product leaves at least one type of plough for which I have nothing but admiration.”

The chapters on livestock disease are useful to anyone trying to move past the allopathic paradigm in their own or their livestock’s health (Though I will probably pass over the use of enemas in my own practice). Through the use of good nutrition, sound husbandry and herbal remedies, Turner claims to have successfully treated such “incurable” cattle diseases as Johne’s and tuberculosis. These claims will be met with some skepticism, but Turner’s central hypothesis, that true health is more than the absence of disease, and that healthy animals can overcome disease is true and important in today’s troubled world.

It is clear today that organic, regenerative agriculture is the model we need for the love and care of vast areas of land that has been unloved and uncared for for too long. Even as regenerative farming continues to evolve and adapt, I believe that Fertility Farming is a book that can inspire and teach for generations to come. Fertility Farming is a compelling story, manifesto and practical guide to regenerative farming that today is as radical, visionary, and provocative, and, I believe, even more timely, as it was when first published in 1951.

Noah Kellerman is a NOFA/Mass Board member and raises produce, grain, and beef at Alprilla Farm, in Essex, Mass.

Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science

copyright 2016, 456 pages, paperback, $38.76
review by Jack Kittredge

When I saw this book I knew I had to read it. Although published in 2016, long before the Corona Virus jumped species and created such havoc in our world, I suspected that the tale it tells of the evolution of viruses like our current nemesis is an all too common one.

Rob Wallace is a serious journalist. An evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer (one who studies the historical processes responsible for the contemporary geographic distributions of individuals), he is presently at the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota. Wallace has consulted for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is co-author of Neoliberal Ebola: Modeling Disease Emergence from Finance to Forest and Farm, and of Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection.

So why don’t I like this book more? Rather than a narrative about the evolution of virulent influenzas such as Covid-19 among factory farmed animals, it is a collection of reports from his website (blogs, really). As he puts it: “Some of the pieces were written with a public audience in mind. Some were mere notes dashed to myself.” Too many, I’m afraid, were in the latter category.

The book badly needs a consistent thread. Wallace clearly believes that the growth of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the mismanagement of their filth, concentration, and poor ventilation have fueled the growth of deadly diseases, and those “zoonotic” diseases (those pertaining to animals but transferable to humans) are jumping species barriers to bring infection and pandemic to humans. But instead of simply narrating this development, the book uses a microscope to follow disease outbreaks in Chinese CAFOs and the efforts of local authorities to cover them up. But for me such behavior is not shocking, it is expected, and a microscope is the wrong lens — too much detail and not enough big picture. I would prefer a much wider angle.

That said, let me try to cover some of the points Wallace stresses:

1) Southern China is a historical hot spot for disease evolution because of the intense concentration of hog and poultry agriculture in CAFOs there. In the last 30 years in Guangdong and Hong Kong SARS, H1N1, and H5N1 were among the area’s contributions to epidemic history.
2) There is a relationship between disease virulence and transmission. A disease must be virulent enough to infect the number of hosts that guarantee its transmission, but if too virulent it will promptly kill the host before it has a chance to transmit the infection via coughing, sneezing, or physical contact.
3) As long as susceptible hosts exist, their supply will enable voracious strains to compete without cutting off their own transmission chains.

Pretty clearly it is the concentration in CAFOs that makes them so dangerous. It turns out that space is expensive and things like sunlight, fresh air, and distance from another creature’s excretions would make feedlot animals too costly for our global cheap food system. As Wallace prophetically puts it:

For the long term, we must end the livestock industry as we know it. Influenzas now emerge by way of a globalized network of corporate feedlot production and trade, wherever specific strains first evolve. With flocks and herds whisked from region to region – transforming special distance into just-in-time expediency – multiple strains of influenza are continually introduced into localities filled with populations of susceptible animals. Such domino exposure may serve as the fuel for the evolution of viral virulence. In overlapping each other along the links of agribusiness’s transnational supply chains, strains of influenza also increase the likelihood they can exchange genomic segments to produce a recombinant of pandemic potential. In addition to the petroleum wasted and the loss of local food sovereignty, there are epidemiological costs to the geometric increase in food miles. We might instead consider devolving much of the production to regulated networks of locally owned farms.

As a small scale family hog and poultry producer, the obviousness of this thought has long been clear to me. But it is nice to have it stated so succinctly!

Anyone who is not familiar with the horrors of industrial animal production will have his or her eyes brusquely opened by Big Farms Make Big Flu. If you have lost anyone to the Corona virus you may be angered as well. The task is to put that knowledge and that anger to use effecting change. Small, local farms can raise animals in healthy conditions — on pasture, with adequate space to perform their natural behaviors, on high quality feed and humanely treated their entire lives. We simply must want it enough to demand it.