Sustainable Farming, Soil, and Big Agriculture

Sustainable AgricultureCorporate farming has disrupted an independent economic model and a way of life that was common just a few generations ago. Things were different when America’s farming economy was based on countless small, independent producers who then sold their products at rural cooperatives or directly to markets. Today, a few large food producers including Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Tyson, and a few large (mostly) chemical companies, including Dow Agro Sciences, Cargill and, yes, Monsanto, have a corner not only on our food supplies but the products used to raise them. This consolidation of our farm and food supplies creates huge problems, not just in this country, but world wide.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a reversal of this trend with independent, often organic farmers not only raising healthy food but being good stewards of the land. Yet the acreage involved is still miniscule compared to the vast miles of commercial farmland in the midwest, the south, and in California, where big corporate agriculture has a grip. (more…)

Compost Time

Compost PileThis time of year, as we’re reaping the rewards of fresh vegetables provided from our composting efforts (among other things), we’re also looking forward to the next harvest. No, not the future harvests from our garden patch (though that will happen soon enough), but the yields from our compost heaps and tumbler. We believe that composting is the central tenet of organic gardening and this is the time of year that the results prove it. It’s also the time of year, with our supply of finished compost mostly exhausted, that we commit ourselves to continuing the practice.

By September, we’re pretty much finished scooping the last good compost out of our number two heap and screening it before applying under our vegetables, around our shrubs and trees and across our lawns (those of you who use the three-heap method still know what we mean). Over in our starter heap are the grass clippings we’ve collected all summer, and any disease-free vegetable trimming from earlier in the season. We’ve also added a few twigs from that early summer wind storm. We may have to screen them out during final composting but until then they’ll help created air pockets that will supply oxygen to the process. (more…)

Landscape Plants For Year-Round Beauty

Landscape ShrubGraham Rice has given us a new way to look at landscapes. His book, Powerhouse Plants: 510 Top Performers For Multi-Season Beauty poses an interesting question or two. Why, when designing our border gardens and landscape plantings, do we focus on short-lived flowers? Sure those flowering plants give us beautiful color for a few weeks each year, but what about the rest of the time? Rice urges us to think long term. He wants us to consider plants that have something to offer year ’round. He asks us to consider all of a plant’s various attractions when we plan our gardens.

Consider the deciduous honeysuckle vine. In the spring, it’s loaded with flaring, fragrant flowers. These flowers aren’t only a source of scent and beauty, they attract hummingbirds and insects, mostly moths, which then attract other birds. (more…)

Why You’ll Always Have To Grow Tomatoes . . .

Homegrown Tomatoes. . . or buy them from your small, local organic farmer. This article on efforts to produce a tastier commercial tomato is, frankly, sad. We all know the problem with grocery store tomatoes (PDF): they’re bland if not completely tasteless. Compare them to the most mediocre tomato grown in someone’s back yard and that mediocre tomato shines by comparison. Compare them to any decent, heirloom tomato from your garden or a small, local, organic farmer and, well, there’s no comparison.

Not only do homegrown and small farm organic tomatoes taste better than commercial tomatoes, they have more nutrition.

So you have to feel bemused if not sorry for professor Harry Klee at the University of Florida’s Institute for Plant Innovation program. Sure, his goals are admirable: he’s trying to “build” a better supermarket tomato. That means more flavor. (more…)

Hot Peppers? Sweet Peppers!

Growing PeppersHere we are in the last days of August and peppers are growing everywhere. They’re hanging big and bright in our gardens, the produce sections boast an abundance, and farmer’s markets offer bushels of varied-colored, varied-sized peppers of types we’ve never seen. In places like New Mexico where chile peppers are deeply embedded in the culture. It’s no joke to say that as summer progresses, so does the heat, at least when it comes to peppers.

With all the attention given to hot and hotter peppers, we want to make sure that you don’t overlook those other pepper plants, the ones grown for flavor and sweetness rather than heat. They’re often called sweet peppers, and frequently limited to traditional bell peppers, the kind every gardener has grown at some point. But we’re talking about the wide and ever-expanding variety of mildly or even barely spicy sweet peppers that have been commonly called wax and Hungarian peppers, the type that do well in stir-fry, gazpacho, and pickled.

We’ve been on a binge of sweet peppers this year and find that they’re a great addition to pastas, casseroles of grains and veggies, and wonderful ingredient to include in salsas. Not only that, they’re among some of the most beautiful and ornamental plants in the vegetable garden, their sizable blossoms giving way to a host of colorful fruits in all sorts of shades. Even their names are attractive: piquillo, lemon drop, padron, peperoncino, guindilla verde, corne de chevre (goat’s horn), Basque. (more…)

Orange Disease: GMOS To the Rescue (Not)

GMO Orange TreeThe plague that’s sweeping orange groves across the world — it’s known as “citrus greening” — was discovered in Florida in 2005. With millions of trees at stake and huge amounts of money, big growers responded as they often do: spray more pesticides. It was thought that killing the insect that spreads the bacterium coupled with burning all the diseased citrus trees might solve the problem. You already know the answer to that one.

The usual cross-breeding of orange trees with disease resistant varieties couldn’t work because no one could find an orange tree that was resistant to the disease. So they came up with what they thought was the next best thing. Find another living thing that was resistant, or even immune, and graft its genes into the orange. Voila!, a genetically-modified solution. Considered donors, so far for this modification? Other kinds of trees, a couple vegetables, a virus and … wait for it… pigs! (more…)

Pesticides and Unintended Consequences

Pesticide DriftWe’ve already mentioned the fine documentary released early this summer More Than Honey, a film that looks at the behavior of bees as well as issues and consequences behind colony collapse disorder that’s sweeping the world. As the movie states, bee activity is responsible for a third of the food we eat. Losing them would have impacts well beyond the loss of some fruit. It could mean a complete change in the way we live. The movie shows us an example of a place where bees have already vanished and the consequences that followed.

The place is China. Seems that Mao Tzedog before his death in 1976 decided that a plague of sparrows was putting a large dent in grain production. So in the kind of short-sighted, ill-conceived wisdom that’s apparently shared by Chinese dictators and American corporate agricultural CEOs, Mao called for the elimination of sparrows. The killing of the sparrows released a swarm of insects, a problem that affected agriculture much more than the damage done by the birds. So massive spraying programs were instituted. The spraying not only killed harmful insects, it killed beneficial ones as well, including pollinators. Without bees, Chinese crops blossomed but didn’t produce. The solution? Hand pollination. (more…)

Dangerous Roadside Spraying

Spraying HerbicideA friend responded to my roadside herbicide rant from our Facebook page last week, a post that (thank-you!) was greeted with scores of comments. Seems he was a hippie back in the day, politically active and, as was common there about the time of the first Earth Day, slowly gaining awareness of the complex web of environmental problems the world was facing. He took his bike out of the midwestern college town where he lived and was enjoying a pedal in the country when he came upon his county’s roadside spray team hitting the ditches hard with herbicide.

What they were spraying was wild hemp. Like much of farm country in the years ahead of World War II, farmers in his home state had been encouraged to plant the hardy crop when the Navy started to rapidly expand and the previous source of hemp for rope making, the Philippines, was threatened by the Japanese. This hemp wasn’t the sort that hippies normally liked. (more…)

Beautiful, Delicious Eggplant

EggplantA friend likes to tell the story of how he almost proposed marriage to a woman who made indescribably delicious eggplant parmigiana. Then he found out it was the woman’s mother who was the genius behind that wonderful eggplant dish. So he proposed to the mother instead. The woman, a widow in her 80s, refused because our friend didn’t garden. “Where am I going to get the good eggplant and tomatoes I need?” she protested.

The mother had it right. The sad truth here is that it’s tremendously difficult not only finding good tomatoes in commercial grocery stores but good eggplant, too. All of our favorite dishes are only as good as the ingredients that go into them. Growing eggplant (and tomatoes) yourself gives you a decided advantage when making parmigiana. If you’re lucky, you’ll find good, organic eggplant in your local farmers market. But growing your own is best. (more…)

Florida’s Indian River: What’s Going On?

Indian RiverOne of our favorite places in this beautiful country is Florida’s Indian River. The Indian is not really the kind of river we usually think of. It’s a long, narrow estuary on the east coast of Florida running from Merritt Island (which holds Cape Canaveral) all the way down to Vero Beach.

Protected from the open sea by a long string of islands (which also protects the mainland from hurricane waves), the River was once an ecological wonderland. Your once foot-loose Planet Natural Blogger spent a month working at a Marina near Neptune, Florida near where the Sebastian Inlet provides access from the River into the sea. We enjoyed rowing through the quiet waters, fishing off the nearby islands, and watching dolphins cavort just off the dock where we often spent the end of the day. A nearby wildlife refuge, one of the country’s first, had been designated in an attempt to save the then-endangered brown pelican. That attempt was wildly successful. (more…)

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