Thursday, September 26, 2013

Potato Box

                Earlier this year, I was turned onto the idea of a potato box. What exactly is a potato box? Why a box in which to grow potatoes of course! But that does not truly address the situation now does it? I shall explain…
                I first witnessed the way potatoes grow when I was very young, for my parents grew them in their gardens. Being very young at the time, my memory only embraced the digging up of those potatoes and nothing about how they actually grew. Since then, more specifically, since I have been farming organically, I have raised potato plants for not quite a decade at this point, and as I constantly question about how plants grow… and thrive, I was intrigued this past spring by the notion of a potato box.
                How I was led into this arena, I cannot remember for sure, perhaps a suggestion, again, I do not remember. Nonetheless, I searched on line for an example…  And here it is:  “How to grow 100 pounds of potatoes in 4 square feet” is the headline. Is that possible? I would be happy to harvest that from 50’ of row!
                So, this spring, I decided to experiment with this. Spare lumber was available, along with the incredible curiosity within me that constantly questions on how to fully allow a plant to “achieve its best”, if you will. The decision was made. Let’s discover whether this potato box can actually produce 100 pounds of potatoes, or, is it merely another “pie in the sky” claim.
                What really enticed me into investigating this situation was the knowledge I had earned on how certain solanacae plants grow, and in particular, tomatoes. Both potatoes and tomatoes are part of the solanacae family. I have long been aware of the wisdom to “hill” potatoes, that is, mound up dirt over the growing plants to allow for more growth. This is somewhat difficult to explain without witnessing. Nonetheless, tomato plants will develop roots along any part of the stem of the plant that touches the ground. Without having truly investigated potatoes, was it possible that the same situation resulted?
                In order to discover more about the potato plant, a potato box was constructed. Using pine boards, a base was created that was about six inches deep. Inside the base about two inches of soil mix was added, on top of which seed potatoes were planted, one in each corner and one in the middle for five in total. Then three more inches of soil mix was added. It looked like this at that point…

 Making sure it was watered daily, after a few weeks, it looked like this…

Only two of the five seed potatoes actually sprouted and grew. Nonetheless, the experiment was in full flow. Even with only two plants to analyze, something should be learned from the experiment. After a couple more weeks of growth, the second layer was added along with more soil mix…

The two plants certainly appeared healthy and were growing vigorously. Then, the third level was added with more soil mix…

VERY healthy looking potato plants were flourishing at that point! And the growth in the third level went nuts!!!

So a fourth level was added…

At that point I was wondering how many levels would be needed for the rapidly growing potato plants. In my mind, I was envisioning potatoes growing from the vines all the way up to the top of the fourth level, as tomato plants would grow. But I forced myself to stop with four levels. If it turned out to be an amazing success, next year, I would add even more levels.
And so, as potato plants do, they eventually began to “die back”…

…until the plants were completely dead…
          Once the plants were completely dead, it was time to dig up the potato… box to discover the harvest! Here we go!!!
The top level was removed, and as I sifted through the soil mix… almost no potatoes…

The next level was removed, and… hey! A potato!... but that was it!

Another potato appeared as the bottom layer was reached. At this point in the harvest, it was quite clear to me that the multi-tiered potato box was over-kill. The amount of potato plant growth was AMAZING, but only two small potatoes resulted from the upper levels.

The bottom layer was emptied next to reveal… quite a few potatoes! However, some of the potatoes were misshapen due to constriction in the box, but the amount of potatoes was well worth it…

Not at all bad for two potato plants…

…which netted over 4.5 pounds per plant, which is as much as three times what is produced in the field!

The other odd thing was that the potatoes had less color than the ones grown out in the field.
                So, the potato box did not work as I had envisioned. And, the “grow 100 pounds in four square feet” claim is a false one. Nonetheless, if one is a patio gardener, this could be an easy means of growing your own potatoes, only I would cut back the layers to maybe just one extra. I guess it would be possible to stagger the plantings, that is, adding more potato seed to the second level…
                All in all, I have definitively learned how a potato plant grows through this experiment. Potatoes are definitely a straight forward plant that has a specific grow period. The farmer/gardener can assist the plant by mounding soil and such, but there is no need to build a tower around it. And after all has been said and done, as a person who has never met a potato I have not liked, I now have 9.17 more pounds of Kennebec potatoes to devour!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Post Industrial Agriculture - Plant Genetics

                Here is the next installment on “Post Industrial Agriculture”. In this entry, the focus will be on plant genetics in regard to organic seed saving in a post industrial fashion.
                To begin, before agriculture became industrialized, seed was saved from a season’s crops and selected along the lines of the healthiest looking fruit. It was a simple theory of saving seeds from the best crops and thus, over countless generations, those crops grew to be what are commonly known as “heirloom” varieties today. “Heirloom” varieties were almost eradicated over the past fifty plus years due to industrialized agriculture, although thankfully, some die-hard farmers and gardeners kept these amazing strains of vegetables and fruits alive.
                Once industrialized agriculture entered the scene, no longer was the health and the flavor of a given crop viewed as important. Instead, what was deemed important was only along industrialized lines; ship-ability; that is, being able to be shipped long distances without rotting or damage from stacking in crates, etc., uniformity in appearance; seemingly correct color and shape; and productivity, how much can be produced and harvested off of one plant, etc. Flavor, that which tells our taste buds that a given vegetable is healthy, was deemed unimportant, just so long as the vegetable “looked” right after being shipped vast distances and were not noticeably bruised, etc. This is just the start of how seed saving changed over the decades through industrialized agriculture.
                This particular entry was inspired by an article I read in Acres, USA magazine. The article appeared in the January 2013 issue, and was titled, “Modern Seed Movement”. Essentially it was an interview with plant breeder, John Navazio, co-founder of the Organic Seed Alliance. I was absolutely inspired but what I read, and following on the heels of Joel Salatin’s situation as described in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, it fell neatly into the situation of Post Industrial Agriculture.
                When it comes to current industrialized agriculture, genetically modified seeds are the norm. Almost all of the countless fields of corn and soybean across the country come from genetically modified seed. And almost all of that corn and soybeans are actually inedible for humans without heavily processing with the use of lots of chemicals… But I won’t get into that here. How that “food” which is actually… literally, poison is manufactured, etc. will be dealt with in another entry.
                However, when it comes to vegetables that consumers purchase in a grocery store, not all of those originate from genetically modified seed, and it is rather difficult to discover which ones actually are genetically modified. Some of those varieties actually start from “real” seeds…
                But let’s get back to the seeds. Putting genetically modified seeds… behind us, industrialized agriculture seeks those characteristics listed above, ship-ability, uniformity in appearance, productivity, etc. Taste, flavor is of no concern. The bottom line from this approach is simply how to make the most money with the least effort possible. And to continue with the simplistic level of thought here, genetics, that is, the diversity in genetics which has everything to do with adaptability is not even an afterthought, but I will dwell on that a little later.
                One hundred years ago, seeds were saved almost exclusively from “open-pollinated” plants. This simply means that the plants were “open” to the natural means of pollination, whether from wind, bees and other insects, or even self-pollinated as some plants actually reproduce. It takes little thought with this process, simply let nature do what nature does. And, that little thought is OH SO MUCH wiser than ANY of industrialized agriculture’s thoughts. But I digress.
                The problem with “open-pollinated” seeds from the industrialized agriculture point of view is that any gardener or farmer can easily save seeds from those crops, and then plant their own saved seeds the next year. Where is the money in that? Hmm? The point, once again, is to make as much money as possible. The answer to that question is hybridized seeds. A hybrid is the result of taking pollen from two parent plants and creating a specific offspring that has the traits… ship-ability, etc. desired by the large seed companies. The resulting plant will NOT produce seed that reflects the same characteristics. Only by crossing the two particular parent plants can that offspring actually be developed. These are also known as F1 plants or hybrids. If a farmer or gardener grows F1 plants, saving seeds from those plants will result in nothing close to the plant they hoped.
                Whenever I peruse seed catalogs, which for me are often exclusively organic seed catalogs, I grow extremely frustrated over the vast number of hybrid (F1) seeds offered. The write up in any given catalog swears by certain traits that are reliable with the hybrids, but I cannot see beyond the F1 in the name. There are two things involved here. The first is MONEY. The main aspect behind hybrid breeding is that the breeder can essentially patent their seeds without actually obtaining a patent. Only one entity has the two parents and that entity owns that particular hybrid. The second is that that particular hybrid is by nature inferior to “open pollinated” varieties, ALTHOUGH, they pronounce themselves to be just the opposite. The main issue with all of this is that humans think they can improve on nature, WHICH THEY CANNOT… and that is the error that has decimated our food situation as it currently stands.
                When I read the Acres, USA article on John Navazio, I was immediately enamored with the substance of what he had to offer. In essence, this is not incredibly complex stuff,… but it is COMPLEX in its own right. By comparison to the industrial agriculture approach, which is essentially producing food stuffs through poison, resulting in food that is… POISON, Navazio’s approach is from a straight forward genetic stance that accepts what nature offers and attempts to steer nature toward traits in produce that would better benefit us.
                I will pause here to state that when it comes to the plant kingdom and seed production it is extremely versatile and diverse. There is no ONE way plants reproduce, and as mentioned above, some reproduce through wind, some bees and others insects, and some can do it on their own. However, in order to attempt to relay a more “simple” example, I will use the example in the article, which was zucchini.
                Navazio worked with an organic zucchini farmer who grows a couple of acres of zucchinis. The variety was Black Eel. Out of the plants he grew only one in four would produce a quality zucchini, which is often a HUGE disadvantage in organic farming with open pollinated seeds. Navazio provided a means to help this situation.
                Seed was saved from the best 26 zucchini plants grown, only instead of tossing all of those seeds in the same basket, as was the process in our past, the 26 groups of seeds were kept separate. The next year, one row each was planted from the 26 batches… and the result astounded the grower! Some of the zucchini were vining squash instead of bushes, some were yellow in color… what the…? The farmer was exasperated, but Navazio reassured him that that was the point of the procedure. The point of the procedure was to cull out the bad traits of that particular zucchini strain and keep the good traits. So, all of the vining plants were destroyed, along with the yellow or misshapen plants. In all, six rows were deemed the “best” and those were allowed to cross pollinate and produce the next season’s seeds. As a result, the ensuing year produced much more reliable zucchini than any crop previous.
                This may sound rather simple, but the scope is EXTREMELY large. The point presented by Navazio is that no one outside of organic farming would exert the effort to improve the natural genetics of an “open pollinated” variety. There is simply no money in it. Instead, the money invested in plant geneticists is spent on creating hybrids, which no one else can duplicate… and… equals… MONEY!!!
                The point behind the scientific genetic approach as described by Navazio is a healthier plant. While certain traits that are unwanted, like yellow zucchini or vining squash, the remaining plants are still “open pollinated” which maintains a wide genetic diversity. And this is key. While the large companies attempt to manipulate nature into producing a particular type of fruit, Navazio’s approach merely steers it. Instead of limiting the gene pool to the size of, say, a wading pool, the gene pool remains that of an ocean. As the climate continues to change rapidly, a farmer has no idea what one season will do in comparison to another. It could be a cold rainy year. It could be a hot dry year. By allowing for genetic diversity, the plants are more adaptable to the varying climate.
                This has been a rather brief description of what is involved in the organic approach to plant genetics. Each species of plant has a different means of reproduction. The entire process is EXTREMELY COMPLEX. However, the process of reproduction is not… so long as we allow nature to do what it has done for countless years! The point is to work “with” nature and not to attempt to “manipulate” it. There is a vast chasm of difference here and it all revolves around money.
                The fact is that industrial agriculture is NOT sustainable… and EXTREMELY destructive to our species’ health, the health of all the other animals on the planet… and EXTREMELY destructive to the environment from which all life still clings to… life! If we steer away from the shortsighted and simplistic approach of industrial agriculture, through true science, we can use our knowledge of plant genetics, not to modify those genes in some macabre gruesome nature that leads to a myriad of health ailments, but to allow nature to create plants that, as food, will better allow our bodies to keep healthy… merely by eating what nature provides!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Intruder Alert Field 1!

                In my mind, I hear an alarm going off…BAA! BAA!BAA!... with red lights illuminating the scene and a giant spot light scanning the ground… But such is not the case. Not even close. Here is the story…
                On Tuesday morning, I was weeding galinsoga out of the dill and carrots in Row 2 of Field 1. Field 1 is more like a garden in size and was one of the gardens my parents used when I was a kid. Here is a picture…

Back in the seventies, there was no fencing around Field 1 but the size is about the same. Since I started using the parcel of land for organic vegetable production, erecting a fence to keep out the mammals that love to eat organic vegetables was quickly deemed necessary. All one needs to do is witness the aftermath of meandering deer dining on one’s salad mix to determine that such future dining situations need to be deterred.
                Hence the fence. And it has done an admirable job over the past ten years or so. In fact, it has become quite reliable and I don’t even think about mammal damage in the field… But back to the story…
                Field 1 has only four rows in it. Currently, there is a row of salad mix, a row of kale and red cabbage, a row of chard and a row of carrots, dill, cilantro and… galinsoga.

In this picture, the tall stuff at the top of the picture is the galinsoga I was weeding on Tuesday. Around one o’clock, I stopped weeding and left to go to the Tuesday farmer’s market in downtown Westminster. My return was near 6 o’clock. And what I witnessed in Field 1 was nothing close to what was there when I left five hours earlier.

This may be hard to make out in the picture, but the lettuce at the bottom of the picture is as it should be… ready for harvest. All of the lettuce above in the picture had been devoured. Gone. ALL of the salad mix for Saturday’s market… GONE! There is only one thing that I know that can devour so much salad mix in so little time… a groundhog… a f#$%ing groundhog!
                The damage was extensive, although it did not appear to have touched the chard, kale or cabbage. It definitely had investigated the entire field…

It nibbled the tops off the cilantro, and EVEN some of the galinsoga!

                I had no doubt at all that a groundhog was the culprit, so I searched for the entry point. Groundhogs tunnel under things, in this case the chicken wire buried in the ground at the bottom of the deer fence. And there it was… the entry point!

                This is also hard to make out, but it is a hole through which the groundhog dug its way inside the fence. Nasty, vile, disgusting creatures!
                I will skip to the end at this point. Over the years, I have become quite adept at “containing” groundhogs, if you will. Suffice it to say that the intruder “didn’t make it.” Enough on that.
                The issue behind this entry, yet another Tale of Idyllia, is to reveal to the reader how frustrating farming can be. It is difficult to consider all of the work involved in erecting the deer fence, along with the field maintenance to grow healthy organic salad mix, etc., but it is A LOT of work. And then, from seemingly out of nowhere, your crop is gone. All of the salad mix that was to be sold at the Downtown Westminster Farmer’s Market this weekend… gone!
                (If only the bank holding my mortgage would commiserate with such intrusions...)

Thursday, September 5, 2013


                Last Tuesday, just after noon, I received a call from Kirk, whose neighboring farm resides one half mile from my own. At the time, I was getting things ready to go to the Tuesday farmer’s market in town. When I answered the cell phone call, Kirk asked me for a favor. It seemed another neighbor had called him to relay that some of his pigs were in the middle of the road and had apparently escaped their confines.
                And thus we have arrived at the title of this entry, “Breakout!”. Escape… freedom! Actually, that is not the case at all, but I will relay that through this entry. But just to ease the situation… before entering it… escape is only when something actually WANTS to leave their confines…
                The reason Kirk called me was that he was at school at the time. Kirk is a teacher with two young daughters attending an orientation at that time. He was over 30 minutes away from his farm. His hope was that I could swing over to his place to ease the situation… whatever situation there actually was.
                Now when one receives a call that relays that pigs are in the middle of the road, all kinds of thoughts arise as to what the scene might actually be. Maybe a pig lying in the middle of the road soaking up rays (which they absolutely hate to do!), or, perhaps… swinging from the electric lines overhead. That last statement is absolutely absurd, but the point I am making here, is that the phone calls are never, “I think one of your pigs has gotten out of their paddock.” It is always along a much more alarming line, such as “Your pigs have formed a goon squad in the middle of Murkle Road.” Of course I jest again on the latter statement, but, from the alarmed informant, not much is actually relayed other than that something trivial or something catastrophic may have happened…
                So, I got in my truck and drove the half mile toward Kirk’s farm. I will pause here to state, that it is not often that some of Kirk’s pigs or cows get loose, but it does happen. And it is not due to negligence. The last time I helped round up some pigs, a tree fell in one of their wooded paddocks on the wire fencing creating a breech that allowed for the escape at that particular time, although “escape” is a poor term, and I will get back to that. Preparing for a tree to fall in a wooded paddock, well, that would be like preparing for a six inch snowfall in October in our Mid-Atlantic region… It has never happened before… and THEN IT HAPPENS! I have brought this up, because some of the thoughts running through my brain as I approached Kirk’s farm was that if a similar breech had been the cause in this situation, it might take some time to fix, and I needed to get to the farmer’s market!
                As I turned onto Murkle Road heading toward Kirk’s driveway, I carefully looked to the right and left and saw no pigs. That was good, I thought. In fact, I saw no pigs as I entered the driveway. I saw chickens as my truck slowly moved up the driveway. Then, as I neared the first pig paddock on the left, indeed, I did see some pigs… and they were on the OUTSIDE of the paddock. It was not a false alarm! So, I pulled my truck into the parking area of the driveway and got out to survey the situation.
                The pigs that had “escaped” were mid-size pigs, easily close to my own weight, and easily twice as strong. (I will relay their strength in a bit.) There were four or five hanging out just outside of the first pig paddock. Many, many questions arose in my mind. It had been a while since I viewed Kirk’s paddock rotation for his pigs, (yes, a healthy pig farm rotates their paddocks), so I was not at all certain from which paddock those pigs had actually “escaped”. And then, the other main thought was that there was a breech in fencing somewhere, and I needed to find out where that was. Egads, but there was a lot to accomplish in a very short period of time.
                There was one major positive on my side in the situation, and that is the fact that Kirk treats his pigs so well. And this is very much key to the success of my simple efforts as will be relayed. I have titled this entry “Breakout!” and referred to the pig’s “escape” on numerous occasions to this point, but that is not at all the case. The pigs LIKE their situation… and they LIKE HUMANS! Even though I may have been completely foreign to them, they did not scurry at my approach. In fact, they followed me as I walked further up the driveway to discover from which paddock they… wandered.
                As I approached the first gated entry to a paddock, I thought about guiding those pigs into that paddock, but again, I was not yet aware of the paddock from which they wandered. I could have teased them into the first paddock, but, first, I did not know if there were another group of pigs in that paddock, or if they had “escaped” from that paddock, they could easily “escape” again. And as I walked further up the driveway toward the other pig paddocks, I became more and more aware that this was no simple task that lie before me.
                At the end of the first paddock’s fencing, I met another “escaped” pig chilling out in the shade. If these were truly “escapees”, they did not escape far. But as luck would have it, by the time I reached the second paddock, ALL of my questions and uncertainties were answered… immediately.

The bottom white horizontal board was not there when I approached this paddock entry, nor was the roll of wire fencing. However, there was a pig lying just below where the roll of wire fencing is in this picture… and another pig laying half inside and half outside of the paddock directly below the missing white horizontal board. I may not be all that brilliant, but it was quite easy to determine the “escape” point and which paddock was the origin. So, quickly… how to fix the situation…
                The first step was to get the pigs inside the paddock, and more specifically, the one wallowing in the mud under the fencing out from under it. After retrieving some feed in a scoop from Kirk’s barn, I entered the paddock and proceeded to toss some on the ground… And here is where it gets really interesting to me. The pigs have a constant source of nourishment through a feeding set up that I cannot explain. Those pigs were not hungry… at all. It was quite easy to determine that they look at humans as benevolent creatures out to “give” them something, whether it is food they already have or not. Anyway, my simple actions of entering the paddock with feed, and tossing some here and there, aroused the pigs to not only follow me into the paddock, but to steer their attention away from the gate through which the pigs and I entered, AND the breech in the fencing.
                That was when the roll of wire fencing joined the fracas, although fracas is a terrible term for what transpired. I realized I needed to “plug” the whole in the fencing… with something HEAVY. I estimate that roll of wire fencing to be at least fifty pounds, and naively, I jammed it through the opening as positioned in the picture above. The first curious pig walked up from the inside of the paddock and with its snout pushed the fence roll a foot without any effort. Damn but those pigs are strong! In order to thwart another “escape”, I tweaked the roll of fencing so as to pin it against the board fencing and that seemed to do the trick.
                Phew! The pigs were contained… or were they? How many pigs should be in that paddock? I called Kirk. He understood immediately what had happened and why. I asked him how many pigs were supposed to be in that paddock. Thirteen was his reply. I started counting, one, two…,eight, nine… I reassured Kirk that the situation was stable and hung up while a neighbor from two doors down walked up the driveway.
                The neighbor was concerned, and I still have no idea how she was aware of an “escape” issue in the first place. I asked her if pigs were in her yard and she assured me that that was not the case at all. Nonetheless, she was there, and I suspect that our dialogue was a very good thing… I explained what I had done, and entered the barn where perhaps the other four pigs could be hiding. Upon entering, I saw one snoozing immediately. Then, I leaned over the railings to peer around the inside barn corner and saw two more snoozing. Twelve. There could easily be another one around that corner out of view and that would make thirteen! Job done! Time to get to the farmer’s market!
                “Here comes another one!” shouted the neighbor from two doors down. By the time I exited the barn, another pig rounded the corner from the house! Now here was the REAL “escapee”. And as the pig approached us, that creature had no interest in re-entering the paddock from which it “escaped”.
                I will pause here to reassert how creatures, in this case, pigs, that are raised “humanely” view situations outside their confines, their paddocks. They are not looking to “breakout”, to “escape”, they are merely curious as to what is out there. Those pigs are kept in wooded paddocks to keep them out of the sun. Pigs cannot sweat, and direct sunlight is unbearable to them. Those pigs that “escaped” were not at all happy in that new HOT environment. And the last thing to mention is that pigs are incredibly social creatures. They LOVE companionship, even human so long as humans treat them well. And I am convinced that the reason that “breakout” was corralled so easily was because of how well those pigs were treated. The final pig to be corralled, number thirteen…

…I suspect it was this one… followed our voices because, once again, a benevolent posse, that is, human voices were heard. The pig sauntered up to us unconcerned. I grabbed another scoop of feed and offered it to the wayfaring pig. It did not seem overly hungry… but it did follow that scoop of feed… and me back into the paddock… most of the way that is. I had to prod its hind portion… easily inside so that the gate would close.
                Job done. Thirteen pigs once again were contained within their given paddock…

…and they immediately went about their normal routine. As the picture relays, a couple of pigs in the top of the picture dined from the feeding mechanism, the one in the middle foraged on dirt (that is not at all unusual for pigs), and the one on the bottom left of the picture wallowed in mud… oh so cooling!
                Kirk later thanked me profusely for my efforts, which were quite minimal indeed. I have to thank  Kirk for raising his pigs so well that “breakout” is not a concept. If these pigs had escaped from a confinement lot situation, as is most pigs’ situation, this story would have been extremely different!