Organic Struggle: The Movement for Sustainable Agriculture in the United States

review by Jack KIttredge

orbach-bookObach, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, is a student of social movements who has also written about the labor and environmental movements. As any scholar would, he starts with a history of the organic movement, beginning with Jerome Irving Rodale and his concerns about synthetic fertilizers, already used in agriculture in 1942 when “Organic Farming and Gardening” was first published, and the proponents of natural and spiritual approaches to farming such as Albert Howard, Rudolf Steiner, Eve Balfour and Ralph Borsodi. Come the nineteen sixties and seventies, of course, the advent of Rachel Carson and Cesar Chavez’ indictment of agricultural chemicals and the growth of the counterculture seeking an alternative to a cor-rupt commercial society came together to create the back-to-the-land movement of food coops and communal farms.

Organic sales, going from the insignificant output of a fringe movement in 1971, when NOFA began, to a still small but obviously growing market worth $1 billion in 1990, not only selected for hardworking and business oriented farmers but also was attracting the attention of outsiders. At first denouncing organics as a ‘food fad’ and threat to good nutrition, establishment figures such as Cornell’s Kenneth Beeson and Harvard’s Jean Mayer and Frederick Stare (whose self-interest in extensive ties to the food industry Obach neatly exposes) were quick to rail against the movement as ‘anti-science’.

As time passed, however, distrust of agrichemicals continued to spread despite the exhortations of the leading academics, certification committees began springing up among non-profits, for-profits, and even state governments to set production standards, some organic companies found comfortable niches and started making serious money, and the sector as a whole became the fastest growing part of the food industry.
At this point, Obach believes, three trends collided and, combined with the above signs of vitality, brought the eyes of the federal government to rest upon the or-ganic movement.

First was the complexity of the organic marketplace. Natural foods retailers were building chains and brand products now and wanted consistency between the various certification programs. The biggest outlier was California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), which allowed transition to organic after only one year as opposed to the NOFAs and most other certifiers that required three years. Certifiers in Nebraska would not permit processors to use strawberries from Golden State soil just one year out of chemicals in tarts made with their 3-year Cornhusker wheat and call them ‘organic’.

Second was the growing possibility of fraud upsetting the organic applecart. According to one report, at the end of the 1970s only 20 percent of organic growers were receiving a price premium for organic products. That changed in the 1980s, however, and success in getting better prices was attracting some unscrupulous actors. By 1989 almost 30 state governments had passed various organic legislation, but no means of enforcement, or funds to pay for it, were really available to the nascent industry. A 1988 case in which CCOF found a fraudulent operator, Pacific Organics, buying conventional carrots from Mexico and repackaging them as organic exposed the weakness of the private organic system.

Finally, food scares were driving people to demand more organic food. The 1989 scare involving a report on the TV news program 60 Minutes that the plant growth regulator Alar, used to control apple ripening, was carcinogenic is perhaps the most well known such event. But it was emblematic of a sense that organic meant food safety and was clearly going to grow.

The long and difficult story of the 1990 passage of the Organic Foods Production Act by Congress, and the many years which followed until the first organic regu-lations were released in 1997, is told in some detail. Grace Gershuny of NOFA Vermont played a central role in that process as a USDA staffer. She has just re-leased a book, “Organic Radical”, that is being reviewed in this issue of The Natural Farmer by none other than Brian Obach. So I will refer the interested reader to that review for more during this period.

When the proposed regulations were released in December of 1997, however, they ignited a firestorm of opposition. Topping many lesser flaws, most organic ad-herents felt, were three egregious insults to the basic integrity of organic food. The first draft of the regulations allowed ‘The Big Three’:
use of irradiation on certified organic products,
use of sewage sludge as an organic fertilizer, and
use of genetic engineering (GMOs).

The deep anger about these 3 clearly unacceptable proposals united the organic movement and resulted in our one big political victory. Over 275,000 comments from opponents flooded the USDA – the most ever received by a government agency on a proposed regulation to that point – and it was withdrawn. When an en-tirely new regulation was proposed in 2002, the big 3 practices were now prohibited.

Obach continues the story up to the present, discussing the division among the two fundamentally different constituencies in the organic movement, which he calls the ‘spreaders’ and the ‘tillers’. By ‘spreader’ he means someone who sees organic agriculture as a more benign system and wants the supply of organic food to grow in the existing market. ‘Tillers’, on the other hand, hope to do more than replace a conventional commodity with an organic one. Spreaders tend to support lowering hard-to-meet standards so that there is a plentiful supply of organic food. Tillers tend to want to keep the standards high and pure and are willing to re-quire consumers to meet them halfway — forgoing “organic pop tarts”, if necessary, because certain coloring agents simply are not organic and should not be al-lowed.

He writes of the various bumps in the road, including the Harvey case, Nathan Deal’s amendment, and various NOP and NOSB minutiae. I was surprised that he left out what was, to me, one of the most upsetting early developments — the case of the Organic Hen, the Massachusetts egg producer denied certification in 2002 by NOFA/Mass for not providing outdoor access for its birds, which immediately appealed to the NOP and won a legal case establishing that certifiers are agents of the federal government and thus subject to its decisions.

For someone interested in a good history of the organic movement, and particularly the history of organic certification in the US, this will be a satisfying book. Many names familiar to NOFA members will be featured, particularly those in Obach’s stomping grounds of eastern New York and Vermont. He also touches on the growth of the Organic Consumers Association, the Agricultural Justice Project, the Domestic Fair Trade Association, the National Organic Coalition, the Or-ganic Trade Association, the Farmer’s Pledge, Certified Naturally Grown, and of course several NOFA chapters.

I myself hope he is not yet tired of delving into the organic movement. I am sure there is a sequel here which will be as full of hope and struggle as the period he has already covered. Sunset Policy, Organic Hydroponics, Social Justice, and Carbon Farming are just a few of the issues of our day which I am sure will find themselves fought out, at least partly, in this venue!




The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet

By Bill Duesing
I’ve been studying about, working with and excited by soil for over 40 years, yet Kristin Ohlson’s book, The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet produced a number of exciting a-ha moments.

Published just this year, it is a very interesting book about an extremely important topic. Understanding her message and putting it to work in our farming, gardening and grazing should provide many important benefits for us and the planet.

Ohlson writes about scientists who see the potential for, and agriculturalists who are, putting more of the carbon that plants take out of the air into the soil for long term storage with the support of the billions of organisms that occupy the soil food web. This is a strategy to both mitigate and adapt to climate change as well as to encourage plant and animal health.

Learning to store more carbon in the soil not only keeps carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, it feeds the soil food web and allows the soil to absorb and hold onto more water.

The farmers and scientists Ohlson visits and interviews encourage a different approach to agriculture, one that will resonate with many organic folks. In short, disturb the soil as little as possible and keep it covered with a diversity of growing plants.

Ohlson describes her travels to Zimbabwe and Australia, Ohio and North Dakota, New Mexico, Oregon and Vermont to talk to folks who have learned how to manage land in a way that both stores carbon and builds soil health and resilience.

Her engaging style makes for an easy but informative read. Ohlson weaves political and historical perspectives in with the stories of what has led the farmers and researchers to their interest in and success with moving carbon into the soil.

She writes about cover crop cocktails, mob grazing and the length of fungal hyphae in a cubic food of soil, She paints a compelling picture of the way forward.

Ohlson writes about Louis Bromfield and the inspiring books he wrote about his restoration of eroded Ohio farms after the Dust Bowl and about Timothy Egan’s recent book about that period, The Worst Hard Time. J. I. Rodale and Elaine Ingham are included. Toward the end she writes about Eric T. Fleisher, a land care professional who uses these practices and understanding to care for places such as New York’s Battery Park and Harvard Yard with organic land care.

The book ends with descriptions of two exciting developments. One is the trend for carbon farmers and environmental organizations to be mutually supportive and work together. The same practices which store carbon and increase soil health and functionality also protect water supplies and encourage biodiversity.

The most recent research Ohlson writes about is from New Mexico State University molecular biologist David C. Johnson. He found that compost made without turning was lower in salts and better for growing his test crop of chilies in a greenhouse. He thinks it is likely the fungi that make the difference. They are harmed when compost is turned.

He took the work outside, built up soil biology using cover crops, and planted directly into the debris. After two years, he found a 67 percent increase in organic matter and a 30 percent increase in water holding capacity.

He “showed that you can grow more crops faster, better, and with less water on soils where we’ve improved the population of microbes, both fungi and bacteria. The carbon sequestration is the icing on the cake.”

Johnson said “Once that population of soil microorganisms is established, there are greater efficiencies in both growing a crop and growing soil carbon.”

The reality is that if we create the right conditions, nature will move inevitably toward greater biodiversity, will store more carbon and create greater structural complexity, all leading to greater metabolic stability or health.

Although our current knowledge of a few details of soil life and function (a mere glimpse into unknowable and ever changing complexity) is only a few decades old, the idea of treating the soil well and working with nature is not.

In the winter of 1972, I was drawn to NOFA, very soon after it started, in part because of two books about agriculture. In Farmers of Forty Centuries: Or, Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, published in 1911, soil scientist F.H. King, describes his visit to those countries. He brought back a message about composting all organic wastes, using cover crops and growing food locally for a permanent agriculture.

In Pleasant Valley, published in the 1940s, Louis Bromfield inspired me with his descriptions of returning pastures, forests and springs to health and functionality by working with nature.

One of my oldest NOFA conference memories is of Samuel Kaymen, who founded NOFA and also Stonyfield Farm, talking about the importance of soil and recommending the book Soil and Civilization by Edward Hyams. That may have been at the first conference in 1975.

Hyams and Samuel emphasized that no civilization outlasts its soil. Ohlson’s book provides an inspiring primer on how soil can help solve the biggest challenges our civilization faces.

Despite experiencing a few bumps early on as our understandings clashed a bit, I highly recommend this book. It inspired me to expand my growing and eating of perennial crops and to write this blog at http://ctnofa1982.blogspot.com/2014/05/going-underground-by-bill-duesing-ct.html#more




The Beef Industry:

Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 2015, sunstonepress.com
$26.95, paperback, 229 pages
about 70 photos, some color and some black and white
reviewed by Bob Banning

Dr. John Peirce, veteran veterinarian, would like you to listen to the perspective of conventional beef producers. So would I. But I would also appreciate it if he himself spent more time listening. To see what I mean, read on.

Peirce wants his readers to know “what they don’t tell you” about the U.S. beef industry. “They” are the industry’s “critics,” “you” are consumers who object to how the industry operates, and what you need to know that they don’t tell you is accurate information about how conventional beef is produced, information that the author believes will lead you to view the industry more sympathetically, maybe even to admire those who work in it.

Being among the author’s “you,” I approached skeptically. But I kept an open mind and thus learned some valuable things and adjusted my attitude on some matters. Unfortunately, I also found that the book was marred by a failure to engage fairly those who disagree with him and by poor editing. (Disclosure: I am a professional book-manuscript editor.)

The first forty pages of the book blend autobiography, the history of U.S. beef production, and a description of the problem the author intends to address. He grew up on a ranch and has served beef producers for decades as a vet and consultant. He portrays beef producers past and present as smart, honest, hardworking people who love their work.

The rest of the book discusses the following:

  • how beef cattle are raised
  • how beef is processed from slaughter to grocery store
  • how much beef is eaten in the U.S., and in what forms
  • how it’s aged, stored, and graded
  • how and why it’s irradiated
  • the nutritional value of conventionally raised beef
  • the difference (rather simplistically stated) between “conventionally fed,” “naturally finished,” “grass-fed,” and “organic”
  • the personal character of beef producers
  • use of data collection to improve management
  • how industry critics and the media affect public perception of the industry
  • various environmental issues relating to the industry, including climate change.

Peirce argues that knowing about the character of beef producers, what they really do, and why (as opposed to what the media tell us) should lead readers to admire and support them. Unfortunately, “critics” have misinformed many consumers and manipulated their emotions, he says, with the result that they wrongly find fault with conventional producers and instead favor grass-fed, certified-humane, or organic beef.

The author believes, therefore, that consumers’ objections to beef industry practices and their pursuit of alternative meat sources are essentially a communication problem. Most U.S. citizens don’t know beef producers, but he does. So if he represents their perspective to his readers and encourages them to research the matter for themselves, readers will come to admire the conventional beef industry and lose their enthusiasm for the alternatives, which to him are merely marketing ploys lacking a solid foundation in good science and good management.

To enlighten readers, then, he explains things like the following:

  • how his principles of “Genuine Care & Concern for the Individual” (the individual animal) have been adopted by the industry, reducing stress for many beef cattle and leading to higher productivity and profits
  • how well cattle are cared for at feedyards (“like sending your son or daughter off to college—there is an adjustment period” p. 117)
  • that, contrary to popular opinion, antibiotics are actually used very carefully, only with a prescription from a veterinarian, and that “resistant strains [of bacteria] are principally sourced in hospitals, where strong disinfectants are used” (p. 207)
  • that the carbon footprint of conventional beef production is actually smaller than that of grass-fed or organic production.

I credit Peirce with enlarging the gray area for me in a lot of the issues he discusses. He speaks from firsthand experience, and I can’t dismiss most of his arguments out of hand on the basis of what I presently know. I also am inclined to believe him when he says the ranchers he’s dealt with have generally been strong, savvy people who care about the well-being of their animals.

Yet the book’s argument is weakened by significant flaws. Most notably for readers of The Natural Farmer, the author disposes of the significance of organic beef in less than one page. A few years ago, he considered producing organic beef, he says. When he investigated several organic operations, he “was not comfortable” with what he saw. He didn’t believe animals could be well cared for without practices that are prohibited under organic regulations, and he felt the costs would be too high.

Thus he fails to acknowledge any of the scientific and practical knowledge that has accumulated around organic agriculture in the last seventy years. It’s this knowledge, rather than mere emotion, that is the actual basis for many people’s decisions to buy organic beef. The author does cite scientific studies to back up some of his claims, but given the huge volume of literature available arguing both for conventional agriculture and for organic, to claim that the science he cites is the only kind worth listening to is to oversimplify the whole debate. (Peirce could have gained himself some space in the book for a more substantive debate with organic if he had cut about 90% of the text devoted to history and autobiography—including seven pages for the farewell speech of a nineteenth-century ranch manager.)

Peirce urges his critics to limit their judgments to matters within their own expertise and not judge the beef industry if they don’t understand it. He could have enhanced his own credibility if he had applied that logic to the production of his book, requesting the help of a professional manuscript editor. As it is, the book is very poorly edited and proofread, containing hundreds of avoidable errors. A few examples: wrong word choices (“attain” for “obtain,” “infamy” for “fame,” “populous” for “populace,” “principle” for “principal,” and others), a misspelled chapter title (“Beef Handing Techniques”) and subheading (“Brinining” for “Brining”), closing quotation marks without opening ones and vice versa, hundreds of semicolons where commas belong and commas where no punctuation is called for, dangling participles (“when thoughtfully consumed you will . . .” p. 24).

The Natural Farmer readers may wish to read this book to challenge themselves with a perspective different from the kind they get from literature preaching to the choir they already belong to. The voice of conventional beef producers does deserve to be heard, along with all other voices, and we can thank Peirce for slightly amplifying that voice. I only wish that before he had published his book, he himself had really listened to those who know organic farming, and to a manuscript editor.




Farming While Black

review by Anna Muhammad
Farming While BlackFarming While Black is a great resource that provides both ‘how-to’ for the new and novice farmer while giving historical context to injustice and theft of lands from Black farmers and farmers of color.

In Farming While Black, Leah Penniman provides historic notes and clear explanation on the damage that white supremacy and racism has done to Black farmers and farmers of color. At the same time, Leah provide resources for farmers to plan the farming enterprise in detail, look for funding (there are listings of crowdfunding organizations, USDA farm financing agencies and other organizations can provide funding for new farmers.) Leah also gives a clear description of the road that she took to establish her farm and the community drive that encourage her to take on such a great task. Her story and the book provide real world examples of the pitfalls, mistakes and missteps that slow down any new farmer.

Lastly, between the resource listings and budget planning, Farming While Black lists how African, Latinix, Caribbean and other people of color grew food using age-old organic practices. There are constant references to how food was grown organically by various communities of color (Yoruba, Haitian, Cuban, Ghanaian, Native American and US Southern farmers). Critical information for planning crops, soil testing and sampling, soil enhancements, and cover cropping are included that both the new farmer and experienced farmer can learn from. Wonderful recipes from the African Diaspora complete the readers’ travel experience and acquaints them with what freedom feels and tastes like.

This book is certainly a complete anthology into the footsteps of the ancestors through tragedy and triumph of farming, while celebrating the freedom and liberation of people of color. It gives any potential farmer or active farmer the needed knowledge, history and tools to be successful and assist with dismantling racism in US Farming practices.




Mycorrhizal Planet:

published by Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT
2017, 256 pages
review by Julie Rawson

As the wife of the editor I see all the books that come in for review – and I get to cherry pick the ones I want to review. When I saw this title, and its author, I knew it would be well worth my while. Thank you, Michael, for your dedication to Jerry Brunetti — “You walked the walk with cows and herbs in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. Your green insights and cheerful tenacity will long be appreciated. Godspeed brother.” Jerry Brunetti became a good friend and colleague of mine. His far-reaching vision, and his insights regarding soil, animal and human health have informed much of what NOFA/Mass does today.

Phillips has a playful, poetic style, and he anthropomorphizes soil micro-organisms. At times I found this style confusing, but in large part I enjoyed his light touch. He succeeds in disseminating complex scientific information in a manner that kept me attentive and often chuckling. Take, for example, his first sentence: “Mycorrhizal fungi have been waiting a long time for people to catch on.” It turns our usual interaction with soil on its head. I have walked away from this book with my thinking inherently changed; I can’t walk anywhere now without considering the ones under our feet who really run the show — if we let them. I look forward to this spring, to work with the mycorrhizal fungi and all the others living down there.

Chapter 1 explains how mycorrhizae work. In short, mycorrhizal fungi are the ticket to healthy plants. As Phillips puts it, “The fineness of hyphae in comparison to the relative blunt hairs on feeder roots reveals how mycorrhizal fungi can access diverse nutrient niches.” He presents a long list of symbiotic benefits to plants, including increasing surface area of nutrient uptake, unlocking phosphorous for plants, acquiring nitrogen from organic matter, improving uptake of trace minerals, and enhancing nutrient density of crops. In seedlings, these fungi prevent damping off disease, reduce transplant shock and support root initiation with cuttings. In field and forest they stabilize soil aggregates, sequester carbon, improve plant growth and yield, deliver moisture as needed, augment deeper root penetration, and suppress root pathogens. Practically speaking, they mediate heavy metal toxicity, help plants deal with soil salinity, break up subsoil compaction, suppress non-mycorrhizal weeds, cut fertilizer requirements and improve tolerance of high soil temperatures. They improve photosynthesis, provide a co-factor role in protein synthesis, reserve energy and stimulate induced systemic resistance. Finally, mycorrhizal fungi are networkers that ensure balanced nutrient uptake, healthy forest succession, facilitate plant to plant communication and are the foundation for ecosystem resiliency.

Mycorrhizal fungi come in a variety of formats, from tree-oriented ectomycorrhizal fungi on one end, and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi – often associated with vegetables – on the other end of the spectrum. Mycorrhizal fungi can be “ecto” or “endo”, developing on the outside of plant roots or within the walls of the root. Soil microbiologists count some 150 species of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi that colonize the roots of plants, all with specific roles to play in nutrient and water transport. Fungal hyphae systems are capable of fusing together. This facility to build bridges of a common mycorrhizal network can literally link the roots of all plants at a site.

As a grower seeking best practices for keeping the mycorrhizal community strong all year long, I found it useful to learn that “endo” species will stay alive in plant roots for a period of time, whereas the “ectos” die off more quickly, with nothing to eat when there is no photosynthesis. I gave up pulling plant roots a couple of years ago, and, newly re-affirmed, will continue this practice.

In Chapter 2, Healthy Plant Metabolism is discussed. Phillips establishes a first principle, namely that pests and pathogens are symptoms of a breakdown of natural systems. His antidote to this is healthy plant management, involving complete metabolism pivoting on mineral availability and mycorrhizal collaboration. Or, as he labels it, “Vibrancy, Vitality, Joie de vivre.” In this chapter he discusses photosynthetic efficiency, protein synthesis, co-factors of plant enzymes, fat energy and biological reserves. I recognized a lot of the work of John Kempf in this chapter. I underlined this statement as an important farmer take-away – “…when plants begin absorbing the greater portion of their nutrition as microbial metabolites, the ‘energy efficiency quotient’ of biosynthesis goes through the roof…” In other words, I must put my energy into providing the workspace for the microbial underground to work as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Foliar feeding is discussed as a way to keep track of the arboreal colonization that goes on above ground, and to design your foliars with the health of these microbial friends in mind. He goes on to discuss systemic acquired resistance (SAR) and induced systemic resistance (ISR), two forms of resistance whereby plant defenses are preconditioned by prior infection or treatment that results in resistance against subsequent challenge by a pathogen or parasite. This chapter ends with discussion of those wonderful Plant Secondary Metabolites that bring the extra flavor, aroma, vibrant color and disease resistance that comes with maximum plant health.

Underground Economy comes next. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” This is the stuff that really excites me these days. I never did put much thought into roots and what they were up to until recently. Roots come in contact with nutrients in three different ways. The first is through direct interception — primarily Ca, Mg, Zn, Mn — with the help of organic acids, chelates and bacteria on the scene. Mass flow occurs when nutrients are delivered via water movement in the soil, which shuts down during drought. Minerals that are delivered this way include Ca, Mg, Cu, B, Mn and Mo. Diffusion delivers nutrients by means of a concentration gradient for P, K and Fe. But enter a healthy microbial community and roots will get 80-90% of their underground mineral nutrition through their relationship with the soil food web. The main course is organic matter created by plants through photosynthesis and is managed in large part by bacteria in collaboration with fungi. The second trophic level (each of several hierarchical levels in an ecosystem, comprising organisms that share the same function in the food chain and the same nutritional relationship to the primary sources of energy) is comprised of decomposers, mutualists, pathogens and parasites. The third includes shredders, predators and grazers. The whole family of bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, along with higher level predators like roly polys, spiders, millipedes, centipedes, spiders, earthworms and ground beetles are involved in the decomposition process.

I think it is somewhat important to understand the four families of fungi. I learned just recently, for example, that the white mold on the surface of my wood chip compost on the garden beds is a saprophytic fungi. These are the decomposers. The mutualists are the mycorrhizals that form the relationships with the plant roots. Pathogens we all know about and parasites can be working for “good or ill” from the human perspective. For the true student of fungi and their roles, Phillips goes into somewhat greater detail about the dual roles of saprophytic fungi in living and dead plant breakdown.

Plants get 95 percent of their nutrition from air and water – carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Roots work best to get the remaining 5% of their nutrition when in collaboration with mycorrhizal fungi. Photosynthetic rates determine the amount of ready carbon that roots have to trade with the fungi. Phillips postulates that the effectiveness of any one plant will be improved in its connection to the other plants in the soil due to the intricate hyphal networks that provide a balanced array of mineral nutrition to all the plants as long as their needs are met through optimum photosynthesis. Hyphal pipelines move nutrients from areas where resources are high to areas where resources are low. The bottom line is that everyone is working together.

Michael’s list of suggestions for those who would honor their mycorrhizal fungi are enumerated here. “Whatever you are doing now you can undoubtedly do better” says he.

  • Fungicides, herbicides and insecticides no longer have a place in agriculture.
  • Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are directly tied to the decline of soil carbon.
  • Tillage reduces the efficacy of mycorrhizae by disrupting the extraradical hyphal network.
  • Conventional monoculture needs to be seriously reconsidered.
  • Animal husbandry needs to be an integral part of long range fertility strategy on diversified farms once again.
  • Farm consolidation to the detriment of vital rural communities was a big mistake.
  • The mad destruction of forests worldwide needs to stop.

The remainder of the book is about practical ways to support the mycorrhizal world as a farmer or any type of land steward. Addition of the use of fermented plant extracts to fungal products for use in inoculating seeds is covered. As he is an orchardist first and foremost, he goes into great detail about the best timing and methodologies for mycorrhizal “accrual” in the orchard. There are some good tips for gardeners too. My main take-away in that realm was to be more generous to the perennial plants in my otherwise annual system. I plan to add at least one bed of flowering perennials in each of our approximately 1/2 acre pieces of vegetable growing area. These can be cut and sold for flowers or medicinal herbs and also provide pollinator and beneficial habitat above ground, as well as a permanent root system underground. We have moved to no-till on our farm, which opens up a lot of opportunities for mixing and matching in a previously traditionally annual system.

In addition, I learned about the timing on the root flush in apple trees, which happens in spring after blossom time as well as by the end of August, when terminal buds on shoots actively stop growing. Considering that fungal growth will accelerate at this time, he suggests that cutting the grass under trees right after fruit set will provide the fungi the extra carbon needed to thrive. He is strong on lipid-based food sources for fruit trees, and prefers fish hydrolysate and neem oil in foliar applications.

Michael ends the book with short sections on edible mycorrhizal mushrooms, animal culture, cover crop cocktails and finally a Soil Redemption Song. “Perhaps the real gift of the fungi and the plants isn’t the ‘carbon solution’ as much as it is showing us a way forward. That to cooperate is to find bounty for all involved… Beneath our feet is the teaching and the blessing.” That message makes me smile, and also makes me think about how I can support the mycorrhizal fungi in doing what they do best. As above, so below – because cooperation in my daily life is just as important above ground.

Michael Phillips will be running an all-day seminar at the 2017 NOFA Summer Conference on Friday, August 11 followed by the evening’s keynote address (www.nofasummerconference.org).




How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, De-pression, and Transcendence

How to change your mindReview by Jack Kittredge

This is an intriguing book. Of course that is not a remarkable thing to say about a work by Michael Pollan. He has established a reputation, at least among folks I know and respect, for thoughtful analysis of important questions. Prior books like “A Botany of Desire” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” have secured a place for him as a person who asks the right questions and probes far enough below the surface to reach answers that truly satisfy.

Even so, this is a new direction for him. As an intellectual, he rightly prizes his mind, gravitates toward scientific explanations of phenomena, and readily admits he doesn’t think he has ever had a ‘spiritually significant’ experience. As he puts it: “My default perspective is that of the philosophical materialist, who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws it obeys should be able to explain everything that happens.”

So why is he investigating something that flies in the face of his background, training, and comfort zone?

He was drawn to this topic in 2010 when reading a NY Times front page story: “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again” detailing how researchers at Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and New York University had all been giving large doses of psilocybin (a psychoactive compound found in some mushrooms) to terminally ill cancer patients. The results were striking. Many patients said they had ‘reconceived’ their cancer and the prospect of death, several said they lost their fear of death completely. The reasons given for this transformation were elusive but intriguing to Pollan. One researcher put it this way: “[Under psilocybin] Individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states…They return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.”

History, Literature, and Chemistry

As befits a topic as broad and challenging as psychoactive substances, Pollan deals thoughtfully with their history, literature, and chemistry. In addition he personally experiments with several of them, describing his “trips”, findings and theories from the experiences.

Certainly many cultures in history have adopted the use of natural substances that were hallucinogens. Whether for ceremonial, sacred or more immediate purposes (divination, healing), Central and South American people ingested psychoactive mushrooms and plants, often doing so with established rituals and protocols to protect against the “Dionysian” energies they might release in users.

Analysis of the literature (other than that of Christian missionaries and monks who describe Peruvian ayahuasca as “the work of the devil”) by Pollan includes extensive discussions of the thoughts of William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902), Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception, 1954), and Stanislav Grof (Realms of the Human Unconscious, 1975). He also has read and incorporates in his presentation dozens of scientific papers reporting on research into the self-described experiences of volunteers ingesting psychoactive substances under controlled conditions, often with the benefit of equipment able to track brain and physiological activity.

The chemistry involved, for Pollan, boils down to various ‘molecules’ which sometimes had natural origins in plants, sometimes not, but which, in miniscule amounts, could unleash symptoms ranging from mystical consciousness to psychosis. This discovery fundamentally altered the psychiatric establishment and inspired interest into the neurochemical basis of mental disorders.

In this book Pollan is talking primarily about:
• LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), first synthesized in 1938 by Albert Hofmann while working for the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Sandoz,
• Psilocybin, (called teonanácatl by the Aztecs) produced by a little brown mushroom and used for thousands of years by indigenous people of Mexico and Central America as a sacrament,
• 5-MeO-DMT (the smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert toad Incilius alvarius) which is one of the most potent and fast acting pychotropic drugs discovered, and
• Ayahuasca (a tea brewed from two Amazonian plants, one a vine and one a leaf) central to some Peruvian shamanic traditions that creates physical discomfort when swallowed because of its viscous feel and acrid taste.

The Garden, Our Expulsion and Likely Return

During the nineteen fifties and sixties the role of neurotransmitters in the brain revolutionized brain science, and numerous efforts to treat disorders such as alcoholism, depression, and anxiety were started, often using psychoactive molecules. Most of these were easily available and many researchers considered them akin to miracle drugs. Despite encouraging results, however, the connection between psychotropic substances and a counterculture which used them for expanding consciousness became a major concern as stories of ‘bad trips’, flashbacks, psychotic breaks and suicide were pushed in the popular press.

By the end of the sixties psychedelic substances were outlawed and popular proponents such as Timothy Leary (of ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out’ fame) at Harvard were called to testify before Congressional committees, dismissed from their jobs, and if they continued were given stiff prison terms for drug violations.

It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that psychedelic researchers began to resurrect the field, quietly, getting licenses to experimentally use these class one drugs at universities and hospitals. Part of Pollan’s book describes the remarkable progress made in this work treating addiction, depression, and terminal illness.

Toward the end of the book Pollan describes the 2001 discovery of the DMN (default mode network). This is the set of brain areas linking the cerebral cortex to deeper and older brain structures involved in memory and emotion. It was initially discovered by use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) equipment that measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. It relies on the fact that cerebral blood flow and neuronal activation are coupled.

When volunteers sit quietly at rest to establish a ‘baseline’ for neural activity, it is the DMN that lights up with activity. It seems to be the set of brain areas that work at a remove from processing sensory inputs, instead engaging in such ‘metacognitive’ processes as day dreaming, self-reflection, moral reasoning, and mental constructions. The DMN isn’t operational until late in a human child’s development and has been described as the brain’s ‘orchestra conductor’, charged with ‘holding the whole system together’ so that chaos is averted. Some see a strong resemblance here to Freud’s construct of an ‘ego’ whose responsibility is to maintain the boundaries of the conscious and unconscious mind, of the self and the other, the story of who we are.

At the time of these first fMRI/DMN experiments, the assumption was that brains would exhibit increased activity in the DMN areas, similar to dreaming. But when the data came in, it became clear that brain activity decreased in the DMN when hallucinogens were used. Could this be the mechanism by which ‘selfhood’ is minimized and union with a larger whole is felt?

Pollan’s Trips

Much of the rest of the book describes Pollan’s own interest in trying these ‘molecules’. The common experience that many users described on returning from a psychedelic experience was of a falling away of selfhood in favor of becoming part of a much larger unity. This is, of course, almost a classical description of a mystical experience. It also helps explain the therapeutic progress made by addicts, those with depression, and terminal patients. Somehow, to disempower the ego, so careful to insist that things be done a certain way, is to open up room for a more playful and unifying version of reality.

Pollan’s own experiences with the four drugs are quite descriptive, both of his inner thoughts and concerns, as well as the practical realities of ‘set and setting’ (Pollan’s term for the environment of the experience and the support systems and people – music, eyeshades, experienced ‘guides’ etc. – available should trouble arise.)

I will not try here to summarize his experiences and thoughts about them. Suffice it to say he stays in character and, despite worrying about his heartbeat and his sanity, is never at risk of losing either. Anyone who has taken psychedelic substances is, I submit, likely to have had similar trips.

It is wonderful to see someone like Michael Pollen, confident materialist and rational thinker that he is, recognizing the limitations our brains sometimes create for us, and exciting to read about the work being done to free us from those constructs when they become too strict. He has really chosen a very apt title for this book.

Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.




The New Peasantries: Struggle for Autonomy and Sustainability in an Era of Empire and Globalization

review by Elizabeth Henderson

In the great cauldron of ideas that stew in our brains, mix Resilient Agriculture with New Peasantries. It may seem far-fetched to bring in peasants, but I urge you to set aside whatever bias you may have about peasants as backwards and primitive, and focus on what you can learn from land-based people who have survived for millennia. After all, organic farming as most of us know it in the NOFA world, grew out of peasant practices in Europe and India. Sir Albert (one of Rodale’s teachers) and Rudolf Steiner (inspiration for Biodynamics) both studied peasant farming, Sir Albert in India and Rudolf in Austria. Most likely, none of the farmers Laura Lengnick interviewed for her book would identify as peasants, yet the practices they use and the changes they are making on their farms to better adapt to climate change follow from the peasant principles and design ideas as delineated by van der Ploeg.

He highlights peasant emphasis on craft, their own talents and capacities, making choices calculated for long-term results instead of quick profits, less cash and more human effort, working closely with nature, using the resources at hand instead of imported inputs or outside financing. “By slowly improving the quality and productivity of the key resources – land, animals, crops, buildings, irrigation infrastructure, knowledge, etc. – and by means of a meticulous fine-tuning of the process of production and a continuous re-patterning of relations with the outside world, peasants strive for and eventually obtain the means for enlarging their autonomy and improving the resources base of their farm units.” Where all too many in our modern world look down on peasants and view peasant work as repetitive and unskilled, van der Ploeg elevates the value of daily work in nature – skill constantly growing through observation and practice. He defines this as co-production – “the ongoing interaction and mutual transformation of man and living nature.” The organic and biodynamic emphasis on the farm as a whole, integrated organism where you reduce outside inputs to the greatest extent possible is a peasant way of patterning.

Most of The New Peasantries is devoted to stories of peasant struggles to avoid control by globalized multinational corporate agribusiness, the forces of what van der Ploeg calls “Empire,” in Latin American, Italy and Holland. No longer does Empire operate by conquest and occupation. Instead, it imposes

sets of generalized rules and parameters that govern specific local practices. These sets of generalized rules represent the core of Empire. As a result, Empire … takes over once relatively autonomous and self-governed local constellations …and reassembles them in a way that ensures controllability and exploitability. In so doing, it eliminates the local, transforming it into a ‘non-place’”.

To illustrate Empire’s ruthless quest for dominance, he recounts the remarkable story of Parmalat’s attempt to foist on the public “Fresh blue milk,” highly processed milk protein that is not fresh and consists of molecules derived from actual milk.

In this era of corporate dominance, many in NOFA will relate to van der Ploeg’s descriptions of peasant distrust of outside interference, their resistance to both industry and government regulation and their constant striving for autonomy, what we would call farmer freedom. In his analysis, peasants concentrate on and sometimes defend fiercely the area that they can control: “…the labor process is a very important arena of social struggle for the peasantry. … Social struggle is also to be seen in the sturdy striving to improve available resources, making small adaptations which together contribute to the creation of better well-being, improved incomes and brighter prospects. Cooperation is often a key mechanism in this respect.” Though his language is often dense, van der Ploeg’s recognition of everyday actions as acts of resistance underlines the significance of all the little tasks involved in growing and distributing food through direct sales. When consumers support our farms, they join in this resistance and together producers and consumers connect with peasant farmers around the world.

In designing our farms and deciding whether to adopt new technologies or marketing approaches, we would do well to examine each new silver bullet with a peasant’s distrust born out of millennia of surviving in hostile environments. In their relations with markets, peasants try to avoid dependency and “to allow for maximum flexibility, fluidity and autonomy.” Trade-offs and compromises are often necessary in the face of the general tendency in the global economy to unequal and deteriorated conditions of sale, rising costs and worsening terms of trade. Like peasants, we may do better having a family member work off the farm, or engaging in more “entrepreneurial” marketing, scaling up to sell to larger stores or processors. In analyzing choices, peasant questions would serve us well – Where does it come from? Where will it lead? What are the costs and benefits? Who will reap the fruit? How to expand the wiggle-room for our own control and autonomy? Success is never guaranteed. In farming there is no tenure. The potential for failure is everywhere. So we must make our decisions carefully with full awareness of pitfalls and unintended consequences.

Combined with Whole Farm Planning, these two books suggest a way to improve decision making on existing farms and training for new farmers. And they offer hope that, as van der Ploeg puts it, “through hard work, cooperation, joint actions and/or overt struggles, progress might be wrought.”




Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom

review by Jack Kittredge

Fred Provenza is a lifelong westerner. Born and educated in Colorado, he was a university professor for 35 years in Utah before retiring to Colorado and Montana. He brings an amazing observational acumen, as well as a thorough knowledge of plants, herbivores, and their grazing habits on both wild and domestic fodder, to this book.

His basic insight about the existence of ‘nutritional wisdom’ is something most of us at some level already know. He perhaps states it best early in the book, discussing his experiences as a young college sophomore, collecting and identifying hundreds of plants along a Colorado stream and meadow.

“Plants are the glue that links soil with herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores. Land is a cascade of energy, flowing from the sun through plants into soil and animals below and aboveground. A species is a strand in a web, linked with millions of other strands.

“Plants are also the founders of the feast – all creatures ultimately eat plants. So no discourse on nutritional wisdom can be complete without considering not only how animals eat but also how plants procure the sustenance they need. And beyond that, we must also consider: How do plants manage to provide for the needs of animals and also sustain themselves?”

The most important way that plants have managed to do both through the last almost half billion years of life on earth has been to evolve themselves as organic chemists. A typical example, one of the earliest plants to appear in a Colorado spring, soon after snowmelt, is the pasque flower Pulsatilla ludoviciana. Fresh pasque parts are toxic if eaten or even touched to the skin. Dried, however, the plant is used as medicine in Europe and North America for menstrual pain, skin diseases, asthma and eye infections. It is also used as a diuretic and expectorant to clear airways. Homeopaths used it for measles, toothache, earache and indigestion. It contains compounds found to be antibacterial, antimalarial, antifungal, and to have cytotoxic effects as well.

This is just an example. Provenza details how plants, ‘dumb’ organisms as they are, create not only primary compounds containing the energy, proteins, vitamins and minerals they need to grow and reproduce, but also create secondary compounds – such things as phenolics, terpenes, alkaloids and many, many more metabolites – which inhibit competing plants while increasing their own strength through drought tolerance, pest resistance, larger tiller numbers and biomass, greater seed mass and quantity, and faster germination rates.

 

Some of these compounds, like lignins and tannins, help build soil organic matter and humus. Antioxidants protect plants from free radicals produced during photosynthesis; flavors, aromas and colors attract pollinators and fruit eaters. Other metabolites boost recovery from injury and enhance regrowth. Secondary compounds also serve to regulate loss of plant tissue to predators – bacteria, fungi, insects, birds and mammals – by limiting how much each can eat before experiencing ill effects. Limiting intake results in encouraging diversity among grazed species and locations.

Just as plants, as stationary organisms, evolved their thousands of secondary metabolites to attack and defend, entice and repel, heal and sicken, the herbivores eating them equally evolved responses to help them sort through the hundreds of unique grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees in any meadow or glen. Animal nutritional needs change seasonally, with age and condition, when pregnant or infested with parasites, when ill, hot or cold. To meet their changing needs, herbivores must sort through a bewildering array of biochemically active plants when making grazing decisions.

Certainly grazers need to make the right primary choices, fluctuating daily as they do, for energy, protein, vitamins and minerals to survive. But these choices necessarily include the secondary compounds in every mouthful – some parasiticides, some analgesics, some stimulants, some sedatives, some bitter, some sweet – often with several metabolites combining to create uniquely new effects.

Do herbivores wander aimlessly through these choices? Certainly not, Provenza shows. Evolution is too tough a master. The continual contest between secondary metabolites and grazer intelligence quickly abandons those who do not keep up. The many animal behavior studies Provenza discusses are convincing evidence that animals have evolved very sensitive preferences and feedback loops which guide every choice of mouthful.

Some of his most fascinating stories demonstrate this ‘nutritional wisdom’. For starters, far more animal nerves ascend from the gut to the brain than the other way. Is the body voting what sorts of information are the most important? Many studies in animal behavior show the clear preferences of grazers for certain plants at certain times, with those preferences changing based on what has just been eaten. These choices of animals are not inherited but learned, as many cleverly designed studies show. Sheep or goats newly introduced to an area will sample the fodder naively until post-digestive body feedback kicks in to inform them about what they have just eaten. Kids grazing with their mothers will quickly pick up the maternal preference patterns and repeat them, whereas those separated from such instruction will struggle to find what satisfies and what disturbs them.

In some of the more unusual of Fred’s stories he cites the well-documented cases of food preferences associated with organs or even cells. It is not uncommon in transplant cases, he shows, for the recipient of a new organ to have strong cravings for food items that person has never preferred and in many cases had disliked. When investigated, it turns out the previous owner of the organ expressed exactly those strong food preferences!

Provenza also discredits the widely held practice of creating animal rations based on an ‘average’ livestock animal. The range of variation among individuals in a herd, he says, is so large that any one nutrient can be needed by one animal at a rate five times as high as another similar animal. Since animals will eat until their nutritional needs are met, if given ‘total mixed rations’ (TMR) some will overeat nutrients for which their need is small in order to satisfy their need for others. Each animal in a herd given rations on a ‘free-choice’ basis, however, will consume what it needs and no more, averaging a 24% savings in feed costs over a herd given TMR.

Does this ‘nutritional wisdom’ carry through to omnivores, carnivores, and humans, you ask? Without a doubt, Fred feels. Plant secondary metabolites are passed along up the food chain and their presence or absence is well documented in human food cravings such as for vitamin C among sailors with scurvy or iron for women suffering from anemia or vitamin B12 for vegetarians. (Interestingly, Provenza is opposed to most food supplements and fortification, feeling that vitamins and minerals should come through the food chain in a natural form, produced by living organisms.)

 

Fred is well aware of the forces that militate against humans exercising their innate nutritional wisdom. Human food quality has fallen significantly in the last generation or two, because of choices by plant breeders to select for crop size, yield and appearance as opposed to healthful qualities such as secondary metabolites, the use of artificial compared to natural forms of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertility the marketing requirement that crops be picked green and shipped to market rather than fully maturing before harvest, and  elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide that has resulted in lower crop protein levels

These losses in crop quality (Provenza has a simple definition of quality in crops — it is equivalent to phytochemical richness) combined with the efforts of the food industry to refine, sweeten and otherwise alter foods to confuse our innate sense of taste have badly damaged human health by disconnecting our ability to discern healthy foods. This, of course, is a fundamental problem that must be addressed by returning to eating whole foods raised in a more natural state.

It is hard to give justice to this book. I took many pages of notes, so many things were interesting that I wanted to return to again. His story is told intermixed with tales of his life experiences in the mountains and high plains of the west so you get a good sense of the man, the living landscape which shaped him, his love for nature, his inexhaustible curiosity about life, and his Zen-like ability to observe and learn from what is around him.

In his eighties now, Fred writes the last chapters as if he wanted to leave more than a scientific testament. Exceedingly well read, he reaches into various religions and cultures for wisdom, citing philosophers and psychologists and physicists and seers as needed.

This is a hopeful book, at bottom. You cannot read it without a deep sense of the wisdom of nature and how mankind’s efforts to thwart and control it must seem to be laughably childish when looked at clearly. Provenza is well acquainted with the Earth’s great extinctions, recognizes that 99.99% of all species that have existed are no more, and yet has a convincing faith in the vast power of nature and life to continue to manifest their beauty and mystery.




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.




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.




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!