The Purpose of Soil

To take an object, a thing, and prescribe purpose to it is to treat it teleologically.  Pre-Enlightenment Europeans were said to consider the universe with a Aristotelean teleological scholasticism, which means there was a dominant school (scholastic) of philosophy based on the purpose-driven ideas of Aristotle.  The classic lived example of this philosophy is Thomas Aquinas asking for a favor from a rich friend to buy him all the caged birds at the marketplace.  His friend gladly does so and Aquinas promptly opens all the cage doors, for what is a bird but to fly?

The teleological cynic in us immediately says ‘ah-ha! What about penguins?’  There is no over-arching purpose in a bird to fly because we know of lots of examples of flightless birds.  Also, the anti-ableist in us says ‘slow down, a bird that has lost it’s ability to fly, from an accident, could still live a long, healthy life on a preserve.’ It’s wrong to prescribe purpose to things, in particular living things, because of the inherently oppressive, short-sightedness of what we perceive to be a thing’s value.  Still there is something compelling about Aquinas setting the birds free, something that resonates as just.  Why is that, if you can’t boil it down to ideas of value and purpose?  It’s a bit more clumsy to say what is a bird but to not live in a cage except under certain circumstances where we use other criteria to determine it is within the birds best interest.

A non-living example I like to think of is a house.  What is a house but a place to live in?  Boiled down a house is a non-living thing that’s purpose is to accommodate living things, in most examples in nature for the purpose of creating more living things (bird’s nests, dens, one-family homes).  It’s fair to say that a house is not bound to abide by these purposes.  A house could also be simply a storage facility or it could be a torture chamber, which would be wholly the opposite of a place to live in.  Our society would condemn both of these ideas for a house in various ways.  A house used only for storage on your block would bring everyone’s home values down.  A house used for nefarious purposes would see the owners arrested and the house condemned.  Some events and uses go so far beyond the intention of a building that the building cannot be redeemed.  After the Sandy Hook massacre the entire school was torn down and rebuilt.

A houses purpose is also not to burn down.  You can think of instances when it might be appropriate to burn down a house (for filming a movie or if you are an arsonist) but for the vast amount of homes that are built they are intended to last many years and are intended to avoid destruction.  Think of this when we explore the purpose of soil.

As you’ve probably gathered discussing things in terms of their purposes is frowned upon by modern science because it is seen as antiquated, incomplete, and at worst a fallacious and oppressive way of looking at the world.  Ironically teleology is rife in modern culture and if you are in school studying science, like I did, you will constantly hear teachers chaff as students refer to plants as “wanting to” grow toward the light, or an animal “wanting to do” this or that.  Students were trained well enough never to impart emotion to a butterfly “loving a flower” for this would have been beyond the pale.  No, the teleological slips in the classroom were only slips, nothing that couldn’t be corrected by mechanistic, technical training.  In science’s eyes, this is the human impulse towards anthropomorphism and poetry and should be left to artists to play with and is not a proper way to really understand nature.

How we speak and define soil is an interesting topic.  Regular people like you and me think of soil in simple, pliable terms.  We think of soil as being something that covers the ground and where plants grow or, for that matter, don’t grow, if the soil happens to be exposed or poisoned.  If I held up some farm potting mix or a handful of beach sand and ask “is this soil?” you would probably shrug and say “sure.”  However the definition of soil is more technical and excludes certain things you might consider to be “soil.”  Potting soils for instance, because they are not the naturally occurring result of millennia of erosion and decay, but are rather a human made mix of naturally occurring mineral and organic material, are not technically soil by most definitions.  Even beach sand, though mostly devoid of organic matter, and therefor almost wholly mineral, is still considered soil, even when no plants can be found growing within it.  The beach sand closer to the dunes, where beach grass and other species grow, would be more easily recognized as soil for the presence of plant roots and the beginning of a very remote organic layer.  To many a soil isn’t really a soil until it has become a host to plants, or at least has the potential to foster plant life.

Soil Health is a difficult concept to define and fraught with teleological pitfalls.  Applying the concept of health to non-humans is something that people have not cleanly worked out.  Our dogs and cats are seen as deserving almost the same level of health care as our children.  Farm animals, well, it depends on your point of view.  Wild animals, plants, extrapolated into larger units called ecosystems, are governed by a natural order, one that is beautiful but harsh.  A malnourished wolf or chipmunk is set upon by natural selection, something humans should not tinker with (a common view), except in that we should follow wildlife biologists recommendations and care for these ecosystems as a whole.  “Individual [animals] don’t matter,” my wildlife professor said.  “It is populations of animals we need to concern ourselves with.”  So the health of an individual, sick white-tailed deer is not societies concern, but the health of the white-tail population is.

Soil is an ecosystem, an ecosystem composed of different kinds of organisms, most small and smaller.  It is by far and away the most diverse ecosystem on the planet (fungi alone are estimated to represent between six hundred thousand to ten million species, most having a role in soil ecosystems).  If we were to stick with the definition of health laid out by my wildlife professor we would consider the health of the ecosystem to be based on how “well” the populations of organisms in the ecosystem are doing.  Terms like fitness, fecundity, diversity, reproductive success would all play into the equation.  Generally speaking most of us can think of what an unhealthy soil environment looks like without trying too hard.  A bare, uneven field or yard, for example, with large tracts eroded away from exposure to rainfall or thaw.  The farmer with a sense of soil health can tell just by looking at a field to what degree it is healthy in terms of it’s color, it’s particle aggregation, or the quality of the plants growing on it.  It seems that from agriculture’s point of view a soil’s purpose is to produce crops and it’s health can be accessed by how well it does this.

Leaving the definition of soil here does not take us to the point of fully appreciating the magnitude of the beauty of soil, or it’s higher potentials.  For this we have to step back, stand beside the entire scope of the phenomenon we call soil.  Purpose can be tied to the concept of duty, as if we were talking about the dharma of the soil.  The more we learn about the degradation of our planet’s soils the more we have to give thought to how we have managed our soil’s dharma.  That is to say, are we supporting or hindering our soils in their ability to do their duty?

In Gabe Brown’s book Dirt to Soil he talks about the extent that his home state’s (North Dakota) prairie soil has been degraded from farming over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from having organic matter contents of around 7% down to current averages between 1-2%.  Although this may sound like a small amount of the soil’s volume it is important to remember that soil organic matter is the primary warehouse of soil carbon, each percent containing between ten and twenty tons of carbon in the just the top six inches of soil, and increasing the water holding capacity of the soil by about twenty-thousand  gallons per acre per percent.  Think of all of that land’s organic matter vanishing from the soil and being returned to the atmosphere by conventional methods of farming.  I hear that we have an issue with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?

Since Gabe Brown began farming his land in the early nineties his soil organic matter has returned to those pre-ag numbers, because he is farming with the soils dharma in mind, the soils gestalt, the soils purpose.  Many farmers are trying to regenerate their lands and looking to methods such as Gabe’s for the answers to making soil dharma a priority.

To finish where we began, if we can be forgiven for being a little teleological we might be able to stand a little closer to a better way of conceptualizing our treatment of the natural world, soil in particular.  I once heard an extension agent say, when asked what school children needed to understand about farming, “it’s important for them to understand that farming is not Nature.”  This is exactly the opposite of what we need to be telling young people about agriculture.  It is also exactly the opposite of how agriculturalist should be trained.  Look to nature for your model.  See the tall grass prairie, or the New England wildflower meadow and ask what it’s lessons are.  What do you see: diversity of plants and animals (big and small), balanced ratios of predators and prey, balances of perennial and annual plants, balances of biannual and winter annual plants, carbon cycling through grazing, nutrients cycling through penetrating and diverse styles of root systems, ecosystems buffered against disturbances.

If farmers and extension agents don’t recognize this as a model for farming than the land and it’s soil, with it’s potential, it’s purpose, it’s gestalt, it’s dharma, will continue to be deferred.   Unfortunately we do not have time for the next generation to be so poorly served to believe that mankind’s most intimate relationship with nature, agriculture, is nothing more than an adversarial battle to bend nature to our will.

 

 

 

 

Farming, Life With The Gestalt

Ge-stalt – nounan organized whole that is conceived as more than the sum of it’s parts.

No where among our current modern practices is something more out of whack than agriculture.  If you were going to present a full thesis documenting how humanities intelligence has led the species astray in the twentieth century you would have no finer example than industrial farming methods.  You would also have no better argument to draw upon for your thesis then the destruction of the Gestalt.  The Gestalt is the concept of the indivisible whole.  Of course we conceive of things being made of other, smaller things in often very practical ways, but the Gestalt is the concept that reminds us that without all the pieces the thing is no longer the thing.  

For example, what is a chicken?  Well, in modern terms a chicken is an egg-laying, or egg-producing (to carry it further), machine.  If this point of view is accepted (and of course dominantly, it is) then it makes logical sense to confine chickens to maximize their volume and the production of their mechanical output.  To view a chicken with a Gestalt in mind renders the bigger, more fuzzy picture, of an animal that moves, pecks, sees differently between it’s left and right eyes, responds to a host of signals from it’s flock mates, particularly based on gender dynamics, and can often behave in unexpected ways.

An easier example of the Gestalt perhaps is when you consider a song you love.  Take apart the song to measures and notes and eventually you have all the parts with which you could write an infinite number of songs, but the song you love is lost.  The Gestalt, even when humanity rejects it, still protrudes.  This is the reason why human beings have difficulty accepting that chickens are machines, and this is the reason that industrial producers sometimes loose heart in treating animals as such.

Sadly warfare is the closest equivalent to the dehumanizing nature of industrial agriculture.  Reducing subjects to objects, understanding factories by output and not by human relationship, confining without mercy, killing without pity and laying waste to vast tracks of the planet.  The Gestalt demands the mind fully account for all the variables at play within it, reject the concept of acceptable externalities, and the acceptance of anomalies that are difficult or impossible to explain.  A good example of reckoning with a Gestalt is to make a drive in a heavily commercialized area.  Not like downtown Providence where art is mingled with architecture, living spaces and commercial spaces.  I mean an ugly environment, like Route Two in Warwick or West Main Road in Middletown.  In such a place people inherently perceive ugliness, it is no longer a subjective “eye of the beholder” phenomenon, except in the rare case where profit motivation is considered.  The only person who finds a car dealership beautiful is the one who profits from it.  The Gestalt of the landscape is nearly wholly obliterated, waiting under the concrete and stucco to be rediscovered.

Commercialism is not itself the sin, just as raising animals for food is not wrong.  In fact the phrase “raising animals for food” is itself against the Gestalt.  Any small scale stock person, and many large scale ones, you meet will eventually show you what really motivates their work:  a joy of seeing animals thriving on their farms, seeing whole landscapes respond to healthy practices, knowing that what we blandly call “food” is an amalgamation of billions of organisms competing and benefiting from each others presence.  Human beings are one of those countless creatures involved in our food supply.  The “consumer” (and how does the Gestalt like this term, do you think?) benefits from the nourishment of the meat, the vegetable, the egg, the grain, but even more they are preserved by the environment the farmer has created, or molded from the clay of creation.  The Gestalt of the community is unfinished without living landscapes.  And when the farmer learns your first name you are no longer a consumer but more a responsibility, a friend, eventually even family.  So many titles, like “employee” or “boss” are removed from the Gestalt and can inhibit the development of relationships like I mentioned.

So much of our world is dominated by the powers of reductionism.  The thing that passes for work for many of us is also atomized into a disembodied loop.  Many of those who do work within context of the Gestalt are often charged with reparative work.   People like my wife who’s job as a psychotherapist and social worker constitutes of reorienting peoples understanding of the self.  No work of the mind can be operated without stepping back to see the whole.  One interesting phenomenon in our world today is that people trained as social workers are charged more and more with the work of psychologists since they are able to bring more fully to bare the health of the mind in terms of it’s relationship to class, race, gender, and ability.  The human being is a symphony, a Gestalt.  If one violin is out of whack the entire symphony suffers and becomes a rabble.

Farming more than any other discipline I know is one that benefits by the degree to which it partners with nature and falters to the degree it pushes back.  Think of a rocket ship.  So many major aspects to it’s success are in fighting with natural systems.  To propel itself it must fight against gravity.  It does so by burning inconceivable amounts of fuel and sheds it’s weight as it soars.  Once in orbit it fights against the vacuum of space and astronauts bodies struggle with the degrading effects of space on the body.  Throughout the twentieth century farms have behaved as if they are at war with nature.  The organic movement in farming was born out of conventional agriculture as an alternative, but like Janus, still harkens back to that which it opposes, still depending on aggressive tillage, processed fertilizers, chemicals to fight insects and disease, and accepting crops of low nutritional quality.  Even small scale growers operating in a more conventional organic model feel set upon by the resistance to their efforts by their farms.  But the truth is clear thanks to many, many examples of the alternative.  If we step back and view our farms in terms of their Gestalt we can move into their current and flow with them, instead of always against them.

Drawing attention to the impact that a more modern agriculture, one that reaches for or “stands near” the Gestalt, is wholly appropriate.  Regenerative farmers speak often about the need to address global climate change in terms of agricultural policy.  We must continue to do this.  Let us not forget about the Gestalt, within it somewhere the spark of life, that keeps us in the profession we love.  Share the deeper satisfaction and frustration that a life in farming provides.  Let’s try and understand how the difficulties of raising nourishment for others can be just as motivating for young people to hear as the benefits might be.  Promote this lifestyle.  It is one that can provide, like that of a doctor, the most intense emotions available to human beings: crushing disappointments and blissful satisfaction, enormous responsibility and the power of your neighbors deep appreciation.   In my view encouraging a life that can provide so much benefit to oneself and one’s community is worth the inherent risk that farming includes.

Being near the Gestalt, of any process, wether the human anatomy or the cultural phenomenon of farming, is not static.  It is always changing.  In such we can work for and demand that farming be an easier career to get involved with and a more secure type of work financially.  These demands are being made all the time and will continue.  That is the beauty of the Gestalt.  You are not the same person each day, each moment, but a new collection of all that surrounds you.  Your farm is a new farm every season and every day.  Is it more in line with the Gestalt?  Or is it slipping apart, being taken into atomized pieces of disembodied successes and failures?  Farming too is changing and will change.  We are among the many who see the tipping point, the edge of the cliff, where our displacement from the Gestalt as a species is taking us.  The looming age-crisis of agriculture, the aging of farmers, is a crisis that needs to be taken as seriously as any other national or global problem.  We look to the future and ask what does the Gestalt demand of us?  Is it full automation of our agricultural landscapes, perhaps where the chicken and the farmer are now both machines?  Or are we and our children to be among the billions of living things directly involved in making our farms and our communities a place we dream of living in?

 

 

 

2020 CSA Wrap-Up

What Does This All Mean?  Our intention every CSA season is to give you more than what you pay for (aka a return on investment).  You committed to help us through the 2020 growing season(s) and so we committed to prioritizing your shares (within our business plan) and bringing you as much bounty as we could grow and could afford.

 

Below is a breakdown of how the 2020 Summer/Fall CSA season came to pass.  The dollar value per week numbers are for full shares.  A half share value is half and a three-quarter value is three-quarters.

(i.e: Week X = $30… full share for week x was $30, $15 for half-share, and $22.50 for three-quarter.)

 

 

 

You paid for 26 Weeks of Produce: Full: $29.80/week Half :$15.38/week Three-Quarter:$23.07/week

 

You received : Full  $32.59/week Half : $16.39/week Three-Quarter: $24.44/week

 

Full Share received a $72.04 return (9.3% return on investment), roughly two free weeks of produce

Half-Share received a $23.52 return (8.8% return on investment), roughly one and a half free weeks of produce.

Three-Quarter Share received a $35.28 return (8.8% return of investment), roughly one and a half free weeks of produce.

(Half Shares and Three Quarter Shares are 3.2% more expensive than a Full Share which is why the numbers don’t break down by clean percentages… i.e $775 for a full share is less than double $400 for a half-share).

 

Week 1: $36.98

Week 2: $33.23

Week 3: $29.98

Week 4: $31.40

Week 5: $36.73

Week 6: $32.08

Week 7: $37.27

Week 8: $30.90

Week 9: $31.71

Week 10: $34.35

Week 11: $33.46

Week 12: $48.25

Week 13: $32.46

Week 14: $29.67

Week 15: $35.36

Week 16: $33.17

Week 17: $32.81

Week 18: $34.28

Week 19: $34.51

Week 20: $34.71

Week 21: $36.00

Week 22: $29.72

Week 23: $28.97

Week 24: $33.32

Week 25: $35.72

Week 26: canceled

Total Value of 2020 Full Share: $847.04

Return on Investment of $775 per Full Share: $72.04 (9.3%)

Return to Entire 2020 CSA Summer/Fall Season : approximately $8,000

Fruits and Vegetables

I’m going to tell you how a butternut squash can be a fruit and a vegetable at the same time.

Many, many plants reproduce by creating seeds, which is an embryo (or germ) locked inside a nutrient package surrounded by a casing.  Ferns and mosses are the most familiar plants that do not create seeds.  These plants reproduce in a more primitive fashion, in a manner using dispersal of spores.  The vast majority of plants on earth, both terrestrial and aquatic (algae are not technically plants but pre-plants), reproduce by seed.  And the vast majority of seed-making plants are of the flowering clade, the Angiosperms.

All, and I do mean all, of the crops we grow on our farm are angiosperms.  Every crop we grow reproduces by first making a flower, then making fruit which contains seeds.  A familiar example is the tomato, which blooms yellow flowers in clusters.  Soon the yellow blossoms drop away and the incipient tomato (the fruit of the plant) begins to fill and eventually ripen.  During the green phase of the tomato nutrients are being shunted to this part of the plant to make viable fruit (fruit that will grow to maturity without rotting or being aborted) and viable seed.  Once the tomato fruit is ripe its seeds are viable and you can take the seed from your favorite tomato and, often, grow the same type of plant from the seed.

Now we all know that tomatoes are considered vegetables colloquially.  They are not referred to as fruit because, again colloquially speaking, they are not super duper sweet (like apples, mangoes, raspberries, and blueberries).  But tomatoes are technically fruits and just as entitled to the term as any sweet fruit is.  The same is true of cucumbers, zucchini, corn, wheat, peppers, eggplant, okra, rat-tailed radish, and butternut squash.  All of these vegetables have to be grown and tended with flowering and then fruit-development in mind.  Like I mentioned earlier all of the crops we grow are angiosperms.  This means they are all flowering plants and, there for, fruiting plants.  Let me explain:

Many crops are harvested prior to flowering (such as leafy greens, lettuce, carrots, beets, etc) and others are harvested during flower development (such as broccoli, cauliflower, celtuce, etc).  These plants are not permitted to “go to flower” because their culinary appeal is not related to their fruit-production.  For instance you have probably never eaten lettuce fruit, carrot fruit, or turnip fruit.  Growers who are interested in saving seed from these types of crop do allow them to “go to seed”, and the seed is always found inside a fruit.  This means that vegetable fruits will have seeds inside (like peppers or butternuts) while vegetable non-fruits will not (like broccoli or a carrot).

Fruits come in a enormous diversity of shapes, sizes, densities, and with varying water content.  It is easy for us to relate a tomato to an apple because they both are relatively similar in shape and both have a high water content and both can be bitten into without any processing.  Acorns on the other hand are a different matter.  Acorns are fruit.  They have a seed inside of them but they are more than just seed tissue.  Let me explain:

When flowers develop they often have both male and female organs present in one blossom.  The female organ is typically in the center of the blossom and looks sort of like a vase, with a fat bottom, a skinny stem, and a fat lip at the top.  The fat bottom portion is what we need to look at.  This is the ovary of the flower and, like a human ovary, it contains unfertilized eggs (or ovules).  Each ovule, when fertilized, becomes an individual seed.  Some ovaries have many ovules (like a tomato) and some ovaries have only one ovule(like an oak tree).  The ovary is important because that is what will become the fruit of the plant.

Once a flower is pollinated and the ovules start to develop into true seeds the ovary starts to change.  In a tomato you can watch the ovary grow slowly into a green tomato.  Once the tomato is ripe you can open it up and see all the viable seeds inside.  Each one of those seeds was a microscopic ovule inside the tiny ovary of the tiny tomato flower.  Tomato seed is found inside the tomato fruit.  Oak tree fruit are different in shape, size, water-content, and have a different number of seed inside their fruit.  But they still start out as individual flowers and then turn into fruit (“acorns”) which house the seed inside.

The term for the flowering/fruiting plants, “angiosperm”, means “seed in a vessel.”  “Seed inside a fruit.”  All of the great diversity of flowering plants, from sedges, grasses, and duckweed to magnolias, spinach, and cacti make fruits to house their seed.  Plants like pine trees and spruce trees do not make flowers (and there for do not make fruits) when they make seed.  They are in the gymnosperm group, or the “naked seed” group.

Now to wrap up.  Butternut squash plants make two types of blossoms, male flowers and female flowers.  These different blossoms will be found on the same plant.  When the female flowers are pollinated by a squash bee the large blossoms drop away and the fruit begins to fill.  This is also the time that the seed, or the fertilized ovules inside the fruit, are maturing.  A tremendous amount of nutrition has to be supplied to a developing butternut fruit as they are large and have lots of (also large) seed. Unlike summer squash, where fruit is harvested before seeds are viable, winter squash (like butternut) is harvested after the plant has died back and the fruit has fully matured.  This is why you can save seed from winter squashes after harvest and typically not from summer squashes.  Although butternut squash is very sweet it is still considered to belong in the humble “vegetable” category.  But we know that, really, they’re fruits.

 

Crop Diversity and Breeding

I’d like to tell you how it’s possible that broccoli, cabbage, kale, and collard greens can all be the same species of plant and why you shouldn’t throw out your beet greens.

If you were a botanist and were studying the diversity of plant life that is grown on a farm your first approach would be to categorize all the plants by their phylogenic family, genus, and species.  This is the typical way that all biologists organize life on earth.  We have all been exposed to some of this organizing and re-organizing of the living world.  Of course our own species, Homo sapiens, is included in the pantheon of life, along with the blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata, and broccoli, Brassica oleracea.

The organizing of life starts very broadly and becomes narrow as you hone to the category in which an individual organism belongs.  The final two categories (usually) in the binomial are the genus (meaning “general”, the general category) and the species (the “specific” category).  If two individuals share a genus then they are more similar to each other genetically then they are to a individual in another genus.  Think of a beach rose and a pasture rose.  Both types of roses are in the genus Rosa but they belong to different species categories.  They are different from one another in that they probably will not interbreed and they display very different characteristics.  However they are more similar to each other than they are to another genus in the Rose family (for instance, Spirea or Potentilla).

On the farm we can identify many different families of plants.  Let’s look at a few examples.  Squash and Cucumbers belong to the Cucurbit family (Cucurbitaceae).  Lettuce, Sunflowers, and Burdock belong to the Aster family (Asteraceae).  Beets and Spinach are found in the Goose-Foot Family (Chenopodiaceae) and Broccoli and Cabbage are found in the Brassica family (Brassicaceae).  Within each of these family groups are many genera (general groups) and many species (specific groups).  Many of the wild plants (aka “weeds”) that grow on the farm also belong to these families and cause implications for crop management because of their genetic similarities.

Some of the crops we grow are very genetically similar but look very different.  On the other hand some of the crops we grow are genetically different but look very similar.  Let’s look at squash for a second.  Summer squash and Winter squash are distinctions made between different varieties of squash but they are somewhat arbitrary.  Summer squash and Zucchini for example both belong to the group Cucurbita pepo and their growth habits and fruit structure are very similar.  However both acorn squash and delicata squash are both Cucurbita pepo as well and these are known as Winter Squash because they grow on longer vines and are harvested as a hard skin fruit later in the year.  Genetically the acorn squash and the zucchini are more similar then they are to a butternut or a pumpkin, but we see them as different because of how we decide to grow and harvest them.  Even butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata) and pumpkins (Cucurbita maxima) are different species.

The Brassica family is an example of the other extreme.  Many of the famous brassicas that are grown are extremely closely related.  Broccoli, cabbage, collard greens, Brussel sprouts, kohlrabi and some types of kales are in fact all the same species of plant (Brassica oleracea).  How can that be possible considering how different they are?  This is a very good example of artificially selecting different traits of a plant and breeding these traits “out” to suit different culinary interests.  Each one of the varieties within this species has been bred with a specific trait in mind.  Collard greens and kale were bred for the thick, delicious leaves.  Brussel sprouts were bred for large, fat lateral buds.  Cabbage was bred for a enormous central, leafy head.  Kohlrabi was bred for a fat, juicy stem.  Broccoli was bred to have an exaggerated, tight knit flower cluster.  Each of these varieties provides a different culinary interest to people.  Many of these varieties developed independent of one another in different parts of the world, but they all originated from the same species (not the same individual).

Another example of this selective breeding can be seen among beets and swiss chard.  Grown side by side you would notice that these two plants look very similar except for some striking differences.  The chard would have taller, wider, often more colorful leaves and no visible tap root.  The beet on the other hand would have relatively stouter leaves often of darker color and a visibly large taproot.  Chard and beets are the same species (Beta vulgaris).  They have become different varieties of the same species based on an interest in having a culinary option for a milder leaf (the chard) and  the culinary option for a large, nutritious root (the beet).

Now to wrap up.  When people breed plants they inadvertently make them less nutritious.  We breed vegetables often to maximize the pleasant, sweeter flavors and to wash out the wild, bitter flavors.  A perfect example of this is Swiss chard.  The more nutritious, stronger tasting beet greens have been “watered down” to grow large and mild.  By continuing to select for a milder, larger leaf people have bred  some of the nutrition out of the beet and given us Swiss chard.  This has been so effective that many people don’t even consider eating their beet greens and toss them out.  But beet greens are in fact one of the most nutritious vegetables you can grow (up there with turnip greens and dandelion greens) so perhaps try cooking them or sprinkling them on a salad next time you get some beets.

 

 

Pigments and Tomato Color

I’m going to tell you why a tomato can be green and ripe at the same time.

Plants use pigments for various advantages.  Green is of course the most prevalent color that we see when we look at plants.  The green color we observe is a reflection of light cast at our eyes by the plant pigment chlorophyll.  Chlorophyll is the most prominent pigment in plants and dominates plant tissue so that nearly all non-woody tissue appears green.  Think of a tomato plant.  Except for the flowers which are yellow the entire above-ground plant is green, with leaves and stems and unripened fruit full of chlorophyll.  Chlorophyll appears green to the human eye because the rest of the light spectrum is absorbed as an energy source (in particular the red and blue spectra).  Plants use the energy they capture from red and blue light to split water which begins a complex carbohydrate-forming process called photosynthesis.  Photosynthesis is the most important chemical reaction to life on earth and has the magical power of turning gaseous carbon dioxide into solid plant matter.  Think of a wooden chair.  Nearly all the material in the wooden chair was constructed from gaseous carbon dioxide, literally being formed from thin air.

Chlorophyll is the most dominant plant pigment but it is not the only one.  Plants present other colors to  us.  Two examples would be the red or pink in a red onion and a red, ripe tomato.  Although both of these pigments appear red to us they are actually quite different and serve different functions for the plant.  The red color of the onion is from a pigment called anthocyanin.  Anthocyanin is water-soluble and is used by many, many different plants to protect against solar damage (injury from the sun).  Anthocyanin has certain health benefits for our diets and imparts different flavors.  Another example of a similar, but unrelated, type of pigment is found in beet roots.  Anyone who boils beets knows how quickly the color of the beet will mix with the boiling water.  That is because the betacyanin pigment in the beet is highly water soluble.

The tomato is different.  Inside of most tomato fruit are little packets of oil called chromoplasts.  When the tomato is young and green the chromoplast, or plastid, is immature and lacks color (in fact it might actually be a photosynthetic chloroplast to start).  But when the fruit begins to mature the plastids’ pigments mature and become colorful, often red.  These plastids are found in the fruit packed in oil and are oil soluble.  Think of making a tomato sauce and how well olive oil mixes with the sauce.  Now think of pouring oil into a pot of boiling beets.  The oil will sit on top of the purple water and not mix with the pigment of the boiling beets.

Chromoplast pigments are functionally different from anthocyanin pigments.  Instead of protecting the plant from harm (from the sun, for example) the pigment inside a ripening tomato fruit is used to attract animals in order to spread the plants’ seeds around.  The oil-based nature of a plastid is a result of their complexity compared to simpler structures like anthocyanin pigments.  Not all fruit have oil-based pigments (many actually use anthocyanin), but tomatoes do.

Color is also a strong attractant to human beings and we get excited about new and unusual colors.  People are often surprised when they encounter heirloom tomatoes for the first time because they are not used to seeing tomatoes that are not red in color.  Its fun to know that ripe tomatoes can come in a spectrum of color: white, pink, yellow, brown, purple, even green.  Tomato color is determined by the blending of pigments in the skin and in the flesh.  Think of a red tomato.  It’s skin is actually yellow, not clear.  And it’s flesh is pink, not red.  Laying the yellow skin over the pink flesh gives you a red color.  Pink tomatoes on the other hand have a clear skin over a pink flesh.  This becomes more complicated as you get into varieties like Striped German which has multiple colors in it’s flesh and variegated skin (clear and pigmented).

Now, to wrap up.  A ripening tomatoes chlorophyll breaks down as it ripens and chromoplasts take over (giving the plant color).  Some chromoplasts are themselves green in color, or yellowish/green.  So when a tomato that has these green-chromoplast genes begins to ripen it’s flesh softens (like any other ripe tomato) and it’s green color lightens as the dark chloroplasts give way to lighter chromoplasts.  Although the tomato is not brightly colored we can identify that it’s ripe by it’s softness and by light shades of yellow or pink mixed with the green color.

 

Water and Growth of Plants

I’m going to tell you why it’s helpful to cut the greens off your carrots before you store them in your refrigerator.

Plants exhibit two types of growth.  Primary growth is the type of expansion that happens at the tips of stems and from lateral buds found at the intersection (the nodes) of leaves and stems.  Think of a basil plant.  It’s green growth expands from the tip, the top, of the plant to produce more stem and leaves.  Eventually that growth tip will change and produce a bud where flowers develop.  At that point growers often pinch the upper stems of their basil.  This produces a hormonal change in the plant that causes the buds at the lower nodes to begin “branching out”.  This lateral bud growth is also an example of primary growth.  In order to get the plant to produce more stems and leaves (the primary reason for growing basil) you removed the top stem which has stopped it’s primary growth and encouraged the lower incipient stems to start their primary growth.

Secondary Growth is the process by which plants reinforce their stems by growing outward.  The most striking example is the amazing production of wood and bark by plants that have evolved into trees.  If you think of a trunk that has been cut (a stump) then you are thinking of a cross-section.  Towards the outer circumference of a tree trunk is a thin ring of cells called the vascular cambium.  This ring of cells is a chain of growth points which cause the tree to produce cells both behind the ring and in front of the ring.  As tree grows up (by primary growth at the tips of it’s twigs) all the old stems from previous years are getting thicker and thicker because of the vascular cambium producing secondary growth.  The cells that grow on the inside of the cambium produce water transporting tissue.  The cells that grow along the outside produce sugar transporting tissue.  Both of these tissues we’d recognize as “wood”.

Plants much smaller than trees produce secondary growth.  The term herbaceous is often used to describe a plant that only grows by primary growth.  Basil, for example, grows without ever producing wood.  Other plants that we might think of as “herbs”, or herbaceous, will produce woody tissue in their stems, even if they will not have living, overwintering stems.   Goldenrod is an example of a plant with a persistent woody stem in the winter but, unlike a tree, only the root system contains living tissues.

Carrots are herbaceous plants their first year of growth.  They put out a rosette of leaves at ground level with leaf stems that can grow very tall if left un-dug, weeded, and well fertilized.  These leaves never become woody and if allowed to grow into winter will be killed by a heavy frost or freeze.  The root however can survive and during a carrots second year of growth the plant create an elongated stem with more traditional leaf/stem patterns (cauline leaves).  These stems will flower and go to seed (Queen Anne’s Lace is the wildflower wild-type of our domesticated carrot).  Once the flowers have matured the stems will become woody and hard.  This is an example of secondary growth.  Again, unlike a tree, the vascular cambium and all the above-ground parts of the carrot will die.  In fact, after the carrot plant sets seed during it’s second growth season, it’s root will also die.  This type of growth pattern (taproot and rosette growth in year one, stem, flower, and seed production in year two) is called biannual growth.

So, during the first year of our carrots life it produces the characteristic tap root that we love to eat.  As growers we allow that tap root to form and the leaves to grow before we pull out the root for eating or selling.  During the first year the growth of the carrot is all the result of primary growth and all the vegetative parts (above ground parts) are leafy and green.  This means that all the leaves of the carrot conduct a lot of water from the soil through the root.  Water is drawn out of the soil through roots by a process called evapotranspiration.  Primary growth produces leaves and stems that perform this process.  The water turgor that results keeps herbaceous plants upright but every cell in the herb needs to be well supplied with water.  This is why a seedling wilts when it does not have enough water.  Secondary growth produces tissue that conduct far less water and instead uses the woody growth to support the plants upright posture.  This is why a tree trunk does not wilt and sag when it’s dry although the tree’s leaves and stems do.  Woody plants have evolved to grow tall without needing the massive amounts of water an herbaceous plant their size would require.

Now, to wrap up:  When you remove a carrot from the soil with the leaves on (the result of primary growth) evapotranspiration is still occurring.  This will eventually dry-out your carrot until it becomes flaccid and wobbly.  Now if you remove the tops you remove that pumping action that pulls water from the root to the stem and leaves but you will still loose water from the surface of the bare root.  To avoid this you put your carrot roots into a plastic bag or humid container.  This produces an equilibrium gradient (100% outside, 100% inside) that keeps your carrots turgid.  By storing washed and topped carrots at the appropriate temperature you can keep your carrots firm and tasty for many, many months.  If you succeed in keeping your carrots alive in the fridge or root cellar until the spring you can re-plant the root and watch the process of primary growth and then secondary growth play out as the carrot goes through it’s second year of biannual growth to produce flowers and, eventually, seed.

For Our Members

Very briefly, we want to reassure you that despite any economic, or medical hardship you may be enduring right now we want you back in the CSA and will work with you to make sure you have access to healthy, organic food.

We are willing to be patient with your early payments and are committed to making sure all our members get the full extent of their shares in 2020.  We are happy to accept partial payments and payment plans for any of our returning CSA members.

Although we are still holding pick-ups for Winter and Spring in the parking lot, Bell Street Chapel is currently closed until further notice.  If there is any scheduling delay to the start of our Summer/Fall CSA we will either pro-rate shares, bulk up shares in the summer/fall, or extend into the late fall/early winter if necessary.

We need your support and you need good healthy food.  Let’s work together to make sure we have a healthy and productive 2020.  Please Sign-Up Today

 

Cultivating the Young

I’ve had the privilege of working with Dawn King from Brown University’s Engaged Scholar Program over the last several years.  It consists of pitching project ideas to teams of students who pick projects based on their own interests in the topics.  Last year I worked with two young women, Hailey and Nadine, to try and organize food waste relocation onto the farm to supplement our chickens’ diets.  In year’s past I’d worked with students around greenhouse construction and compost tea brewing.  This year I am excited to be re-exploring an old goal of BTF to expand the amount of people using EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer, aka Food Stamps) in our CSA.  The idea had been to organize and educate organizations in the community that work with EBT recipients to, when appropriate, steer these individuals and families to CSAs in their areas that accept EBT payments like BTF does.  Since CSA members routinely get a return on their vegetable share investment every year (2019 saw a 2-5% return according to share size) and also considering that the Bonus Bucks program provides EBT recipients with a 50% discount, people who receive food stamps stand to reduce their cost in CSA membership significantly.

Another project we have cooking is organizing a long-term, on-farm, multi-student, multi-grade level research project around soil health and crop production.  I am always trying to cultivate interest in students of any grade level in using BTF for research projects.  Last year we had a high school student from Ponagansett (Glocester High School) FFA working on a foliar feeding senior research project.  I am really excited to work with Brown to streamline some projects that would be available for students to step into, collaborate on, and expand.

Dawn was kind enough to invite me to speak to her class today.  I always start with my usual pitch about farming which is to ask the class if they are familiar with the concept of a guaranteed income.  The nut of the question is what are we going to do with ourselves once we’ve allowed silicon valley to automate us all out of work?  I posit this question to the class and then give me them an answer:  many people are going to come to work for me.  For free.  We turn away volunteers every spring due to over saturation.  I have one of the only jobs in the world where people are lining up to work for me for free and it’s not because of some moral obligation like you might see in a cat shelter or in a hospital.   It’s because farms offer something unique and special and farming is an enviable lifestyle.

It’s not always such an easy message to get across considering the stigma that still persists about this lifestyle:  thankless, penniless, back-breaking, endless drudgery are the stereotypes that come to many people’s minds when they think of farming.  Icy wind and snow turning to freezing rain and mud to blistering hot summers back to drenching fall downpours.  Yes, many uncomfortable, stressful days weave through the farming season but when your farm has the support of committed people, both in your labor pool and through your markets, and you’ve learned over the years to work smarter and not harder than farming changes from an agrarian nightmare to a joyful endeavor.  We are at the cutting edge of everything that is important on this planet from the immediate to the philosophical.  Farming more than any other industry has the power to mitigate climate change while improving our food and soil quality at the same time.  Farming has much to teach us and say about the intersection of work and purpose, stewardship and self-worth, nature and humanity.  Farmers have much to share with their communities not the least of which is providing beautiful landscapes for us all to enjoy.

Another scripted part of my talk is an anecdote I always employ when speaking to a group.  I take a head count, in this case forty students, and I ask twenty percent of the group to stand up.  In this case eight out of forty students stood.  I tell the class that the eighty percent of students still sitting represent the amount of farmland that Rhode Island has lost since World War Two and that the precious few still standing represent what we have left.  It is little use for me to try and inspire young people to consider farming as a viable career if we can’t hold on to what little farmland we have left.  I think that preserving open space and farm land is important for several reasons.  Farmland in particular supports both body and mind in the products they produce for us and for the reprieve their green landscapes provide for our minds.  I can’t think of any other land management strategy that performs both of these tasks in tandem.  Farmland is precious and it’s protection needs to be prioritized at the same time that young people need to be inspired to consider farming as a viable, fulfilling career.  As we look to the jobs and lifestyles that the twenty-first century is offering us we need a new narrative for farming.  It is one that many successful farmers are eager to share.  We need to quit with the simplistic caricature of what a farmer and farming is.  We have to explore why people are drawn to this lifestyle and what kind of life is possible when we work and prioritize the stewardship of the land and the health of our customers.

I sometimes wonder if I’m being irresponsible when singing the virtues of a life committed to agriculture.  After all I’ve had a few close calls financially and more than a few bouts of despair over disappointing years and projects.  But I always think about Gabe Brown when I heard him say “on our farm we want to fail a little every year.  Otherwise we’re not trying enough new things.”   It’s little mantras like this that expose that silver lining of what farming can be: an endless opportunity to learn about nature and sound
land management that has woven into it’s fabric, I believe, humanities salvation and more than a little joy.

Reflections on 2019

The instances that appear at the forefront of my thinking when I reflect on the past year are often non-events: ideas of a better world and my place and my farms place within that world.  They’re instances of goals unfulfilled within the context of many, many physical goals actualized.  Ideas of expanding the role of agriculture in our lives and consciousness, ideas of conservation and progress.  The hope of a year where we see more farm land salvaged in RI rather than lost to development.  A hope for the momentum of regenerative agriculture tipping the scales towards a healthy and less hateful world.  Farming in my eyes, in particular the social, racial, and ecological injustice of it, is like a euphemism for the world as a whole.  But unlike the rest of the world with it’s seemingly inextricable problems the solutions to our agricultural problems are clear.  And with the adoption of regenerative processes for our farms and landscapes we could see a cascade of relief in virtually all human matters of complaint.  From the global climate crisis, to biodiversity to water scarcity agriculture is a major player in resource concerns across the planet.  When I think about moving into the third decade of the 21st century and the fifth decade of my life I reflect on how BTF plays a role in this greater push toward a more sensible and just understanding of land and heart.

I have a theory that profit and beauty are mutually exclusive and inversely proportional.  Although beauty, I would surrender, is in the eye of the beholder we should consider some patterns.  For instance consider a drive in your car, wether it is on your way to work or just for leisure.  If you belong to the majority of commuters than your commute gets decidedly worse as you get closer to your job (because as a typical commuter you are moving from a lesser density of people to a higher).  Traffic of course increases but so too does the proliferation of gas stations, strip malls, and so on.  These businesses are where they are because of the flow of people and the sloughing off of money that inevitably follows the greater flow of traffic.  Instead consider a leisure drive in the country or a vacation trip somewhere rural.  The landscape becomes more calming, more inviting as the machinations of profit become less and less, breaking away completely when inside a wholly natural landscape.  Looking out from a pristine vantage point you would cringe to have your view interrupted by golden arches or a shell station sign.  But you would not cringe if a rural small dairy was nestled in the landscape.  Just like humans respond positively to the color green in our world (chlorophylla) we naturally recoil from the artificial and the baseless.  Farms, even though man-made and full of industries insistence, still strike us as a natural part of a landscape.  The more industrial the farm often the more offensive.  Same with residences.  Think of a neighborhood developed over time from the mid 20th century:  individual homes, each different from the next, often quirky and weird (and often money pits nowadays) and think of a landscape changed in a season into small-lot cookie cutter homes.  Which is more pleasant?  Which is more profitable?

When we first started clearing our property on Snake Hill Road five years ago their was an anxious buzz around the neighborhood.  Certainly the eleven acre property would soon be cleared for a subdivision.  When people found out that a working farm would be starting up here we were met with relief and, of course, skepticism because who would be crazy enough to start a farm from scratch?  You can’t make any money from farming, right?

Here’s a newsflash: farming is a difficult business model.  Farm “start-ups” don’t sell for millions of dollars.  Farms are not started by people motivated by profit.  They are started by people motivated by many different things but green paper is not one of them.  One of those many things that I believe is shared (even by the gruffest of farmers) is a thirst for beauty.  That our farms are not profit/growth machines fits into my theory:  there for they are beautiful.  That theory is generally attested to.  You can do your own sample.  Show someone a picture of the route 6 Johnston hillside before and after it was cleared, dynamited, and paved in order for a BJ’s to move 2.4 miles from its previous location on Hartford avenue.  Ask that person which image is more pleasant.  Bring someone from your sample pool to my farm and ask them if the air tastes better here or on route 44 at the Smithfield Crossings.   Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but I think what I’m saying will strike you as fairly obvious.

It’s important that we insist on a better world for young people to grow up in.  To me a better world is synonymous with a more beautiful one and, as you see, since beauty and profit are inversely proportional (more of one means less of the other) I have to advocate for a less profitable world.  On a more realistic angle I would be satisfied if more young people could understand that farming could provide them with a beautiful life albeit one of simple means.  If beautifying the world is a priority than sequestering land into small, shakily profitable farms is a worthy avenue of attack.  In reflecting on 2019 and the new decade around the corner I would like to admit that I did not do enough to make this goal a reality.  I intend to do better and I’d be very grateful if you could help me.

One of the most important things that was said in 2019 came from the lips of an organic farmer from Montana.  She said that the farming methods best suited to deal with the impacts of climate change are the very same practices that will help remediate [climate change].  Inspired by this, and building on this, I say the practices that make farming good for our community are the very same practices that make it a more beautiful place to live.  Good luck everybody and support people who make life a little more pleasant.

PS. The truth is that farms that employ regenerative practices on their land have potential to be even more beautiful and more profitable!  So there may be a few holes in my theory but as a general rule I think it holds up!