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!


When The World Is Cold…

When the world is cold, the will is warm.  A healthy dose of coffee and staying busy with seeding schedules, field plans, chicken chores, and seed orders (see photo) help keep me from getting lazy during the month of January (the moon of Excel).

Couple exciting updates for 2019 to consider when you are renewing your CSA membership:  First of all we are offering for the first time ever a Spring CSA!  We have an extra high tunnel on the farm now which gives us a little extra room for harvesting in the months of April and May (always our most difficult months for cash flow).  We are also experimenting with overwintering lettuce and spinach in the field under “low-tunnels”.  We are excited to be able to offer this share to a small group of members (maxing out at 40 shares for the spring so we don’t get ahead of ourselves).  Check out the details here about logistics:  Spring CSA

Secondly, we are super pumped to be sourcing our meat share from a new farm this year.  Katie Steere, currently from Chepachet, soon to be relocating to Cranston, runs an impressive livestock operation and is offering her products at a discount to our CSA members.   These shares (half or full) will allow our members to shop directly off of Katie’s website and receive delivery once/month to our CSA pick-ups.  Check out Deep Roots Farm for more info about Katie and her products.

Hope Everyone is doing well and looking forward to snow which hopefully will be coming soon.  Best Wishes as the new year chugs along.  Get cold, get warm, and stay productive.

Organic Farming and Global Warming

On December 12th 2018 an article was published in the journal Nature which concludes that due to the poor productivity of organic agriculture more land is required to grow food when compared to conventional methods.  According to this article, and Stefan Wersenius of Chalmers University in Sweden who held a related press release, organic farming is responsible for global deforestation rates accelerating because of this inefficient use of agricultural land.  Looking at Swedish farms they found that pea production was 50% higher on conventional farms compared to organic farms.  They extrapolate this to organic meat production, which requires organic grain, which compounds the impact on climate change for the worse.

The following day, on December 13th 2018, another article was published.  In the British Journal of Medicine (BJM) a group of Harvard University researchers published their results that show, conclusively, that parachutes are inconsequential to saving lives when jumping out of airplanes.  That is to say, that when the research was conducted the control group and the treatment group had the same likelihood of surviving the fall from an airplane whether or not they were wearing a parachute.  The fact that this sounds absurd is wholly the point.  When an aircraft is parked on a grassy runway and the deck is only 2 feet from the ground it comes as no surprise that your chance of survival doesn’t depend on having a parachute strapped to your back.  Cardiologist Robert Yew, associate professor from Harvard who worked on this project, points out that “of course this is a ludicrous result.  The real answer is that the trial did not show a benefit because of the types of patients who were enrolled.”

Most of what people believe about organic farming can be categorically disproved depending on what your sample looks like.  For instance, many people understand the term organic to mean, at it’s core, an abstention from pesticide use.  This is true for many successful organic farms.  It is also not true for many organic farms.  The same is true for nutritional values, fertilizer utilization, and carbon sequestration.  Studies have shown that organic produce has no benefit in nutritional value when compared to conventional produce.  This would not come as a surprise to many of us who see large scale organic production as being nearly indistinguishable from conventional ag.  The more similar an organic operation looks to a conventional operation the more likely they are to use pesticides and be nutritionally poor.  But within this large tent of organic agriculture (where many, many natural growers no longer feel comfortable) we find hiding in the corners the promises that organic farming has been making made good.

When enrolling the farms for this study in Sweden, did the researchers choose two paradigms of agriculture to compare?  According to the press release the striking difference between the two systems (organic vs. conventional) was that the organic farm did not use fertilizer.  Considering that these farms almost certainly both employ tillage, and one farm is not using any supplemental fertilizer, organic or not, are we surprised that their yield was 50% lower than the conventional method? No, the comparison is uninteresting because it represents two sides of a conventional paradigm, one conventional and one conventional-organic.  Conventional organic being a farming system that employs tillage, minimal soil building techniques, and will often include NOP (organic) approved pesticides and fertilizers.  What needs to be demonstrated are the results achieved through harnessing soil buildings programs.  The research study I’m interested in reading compares the farms observed in the Nature article next to Gabe Brown’s farm in North Dakota.  Or Singing Frog’s farm in California.  Or Polyface farm in Virginia.  Or Scratch Farm in Rhode Island.  Or Tobacco Road Farm in Connecticut.  I want to see the metrics applied to people working under David Johnson from NMSU’s consultation.  Or Elaine Ingham’s consultation.  These people and farms are on the cutting edge of what is possible in production as well as climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration.

Gabe Brown is a rancher from North Dakota.  Brown transitioned his farm from a conventional approach that incorporated tillage and synthetic fertilizers to a method people refer to as “biological farming”.  Biological farming falls within paradigms of what people might consider to be organic farming.  That is to say some organic farmers are biological farmers, some organic farmers are not and vice versa.  This digression becomes complicated because the term organic is today both a very technical term as well as a figurative term.  For the sake of convenience let’s refer to Gabe Brown’s farm as biorganic.  Brown’s system now incorporates no till cover cropping and row-cropping methods with mob grazing methods for beef cows.  In a telling by Brown of a corn crop he grew in 2009 in his biorganic system he refers to a soil test that showed he had 10 units of nitrogen available in his field. Corn needs approximately 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre (according to Knott’s Handbook).  If Brown’s units of nitrogen are ppm (parts per million) than he is seven and one half times deficient in nitrogen.  If his units are lbs/acre than he is fifteen times deficient in this field to grow corn.  Despite these supposed deficiencies reported in his soil test Brown was able to grow corn in this field that beat his county average.  That average was, according to Brown, “just under one hundred bushels per acre.”  On this biorganic field Brown was able to grow 142 bushels/acre.  That is without conventional or organic fertilizers “of any kind”.

I’d like to know why methods like Gabe Brown’s are not documented and analyzed by researchers who, and I don’t doubt their sincerity, want to explore the ways in which different farming methods effect the environment.  Such a striking difference in the example of Brown’s ranch to both the conventional and the organic practices studied in the Nature article demonstrate that we are looking at something different.  These are the models that need to be measured against the current conventional and conventional-organic models.  Within these systems are all the promises that organic farming has not been able to keep:  farms that are water efficient, soil building, carbon sequestering, and just as important:  beautiful places that stir imagination, provide nourishing food, provide livable incomes, and can bring us food security in the here and now.

NPR story with link to BJM article

AgFax reporting on press release regarding Nature Article with link

Gabe Brown speaks 2014



fullsizeoutput_193There is so much to say about Sally Lee.  I’m fortunate to have known her parents so as to understand a little better where she came from.  Her mother, Shiva, was my friend Rusty’s dog and her dad, Dante, was Willa’s.  Shiva had several litters with Dante in a fairly short amount of time.  My friend Marc can verify some of these details (they are a little fuzzy in my mind after thirteen years) but I recall the first litter consisted of eleven puppies.  Each successive litter produced fewer puppies and Shiva took less and less interest in them.  Anyway, not to drag my friends through the mud of being irresponsible pet owners since coincidently this union produced the best friend I have ever had.  Sally was from Shiva’s first litter and had her markings (fawn colored).  I picked her out the day after she was born and named her that day.  Marc reminded me that I used to come over as often as I could to check on her and I pulled the bigger pups off of Shiva so that Sally could nurse.

IMG_4368Sally spent the first year of her life on Simmons Farm, where I used to work.  She had several friends there including Jack, the Simmon’s border collie, and Larry and PeeWee, Mis’s two miniature dachshunds.  Sally then moved up to Providence where she and I lived at different locations until moving to Scituate in 2011.  Starting Big Train Farm in 2008, Sally spent virtually everyday with me on the farm.  Whilst living on the west end we would make visits to a dog park behind Bell Street Chapel.  Through Sally I met Ray Perrault at the park.  He recommended I host my CSA program at Eddy Hall in Bell Street Chapel, which I’ve done since 2009.  Ironically I was guest minister at Bell Street (at Ray’s request) last weekend (Dec 2nd, 2018) where I was able to give Sally a small tribute for bringing BSC into my life.  The next day Mindy and I put her down at Scituate Animal Hospital.

IMG_2132Through her long career with Big Train Farm I always wrote off her expenses on my taxes.  She was a huge help to my farming career in practical support and emotional support.  She was in charge of pest control of which she performed honorably and faithfully.  She was also my Moral Booster in Chief and tasked with welcoming people to the farm and making people feel comfortable there.  I will never be able to live up to or replicate the warmth and generosity that Sally could provide to people so easily.  Her gentle nature and joyful charisma was experienced by so many people who have visited or worked on the farm with us.  These are some of her irreplaceable virtues that we will deeply miss.

IMG_2137Dogs provide a consistency to our lives that I’m not sure any other creature can.  Dogs, although adaptable through training, are who they are and offer a predictability that we can’t expect from people.  Loyalty is a term used to describe dogs and it’s true that many dogs are loyal in the sense that they are attached to their owners.  But dogs are also loyal in their character and, even more profound, so forgiving of our own lack there of.  Sally has seen me at my worst and at my best but she never wavered in her consistency.  I know that kind of character is very special and I concede that despite all the training Sally endured with me she was good already in her heart.

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We put up with a lot together.  After popping two vertebrae in her back she went through major surgery in 2013 which severed the nerves that controlled her bladder and her colon.   It was my duty to squeeze this fifty pound dogs bladder three or four times a day for the last five years.  Bent over the toilet with her tail bobbing a few inches from my face I would lift her up and squeeze below her rib cage to push out as much urine as I could and, if lucky, a few stubborn turds as well.  Luckily Sally was able to regain her mobility after surgery but she was never the same afterwards.  The little dog who used to be able to jump from a standstill into the open window of my Silverado now had to be carried up and down our narrow staircase at our apartment in Scituate.



IMG_2145With the acquisition of our new property in Chepachet Mindy and I had always looked forward to having a comfortable place for Sally to spend the remaining years of her life.  Having a one-story house allowed us to open the front door and let her out without having to navigate the formidable stairs of our apartment.  At our wedding my friend Jim looked around and said: “It looks like Sally finally made it to the promised land.”  It was really satisfying to be able to have her here, on the new farm, for nearly a whole year.  She got to lounge on the hot days in an air conditioned room that Mindy set up for her, and was always able to check-out whenever she wanted to.

IMG_2131As always I feel very lucky to have a community to share these kind of things with.  So many of you who knew Sally have been inspired by her.  Some of you have sought out dogs that remind you of her.  Some of you have worked with her and some of you have traveled with her.  Many of you have enjoyed pictures posted on the blog or through Mindy’s instagram accounts.  I’m sad to report that she will not be with us for the trials ahead but she will always inspire me to be a better person even though she holds up an unobtainable bar.

Captain Call’s memorial to Joshua Deets:

“Served with me 30 years. Fought in 21 engagements with the Commanche and the Kiowa. Cherful in all weathers, never sherked at task. Splendid behavior”





Big Crossroads Train RI

IMG_2128This post is intended as a big THANK YOU to our CSA customers who gave a little extra money (and sometimes a lot extra!) on top of their CSA Shares in order to support Crossroads RI.

Crossroads operates their kitchen with a very tight budget that is supplemented with crucial donations.  A typical problem for the cooks is not being able to anticipate what is going to be coming through the door on any given week (as far as ingredients are concerned).  With your donation we were able to communicate with David, the head chef at CRRI, and allow him time to look over, plan, and shop from our produce lists every week like we would with any other restaurant or grocer.  Also, since the product was paid for by CSA members, CRRI received top shelf quality stuff for their clients.

We raised $1,200 and added 10% to each order for a total of $1,320 worth of produce in 2018.

We got a lot of positive feedback from the kitchen and will be excited to try this again next year.  For now, let us just say Thank You for your kind support of this important organization and our farm.