Farmers Concerned Over GMO Wheat

Genetically Modified WheatGenetically-modified or GMO wheat may still be several years down the pipe. But it has some Washington State farmers worried. Their concerns, expressed earlier this week at Senate hearings on the state’s proposed Initiative 522, “The People’s Right To Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” shed light on a seldom discussed but important argument against the use of GMO crops: loss of international markets.

The warning from wheat farmers came at the end of this article in the Seattle Times. They pointed out that the United States practically stands alone in acceptance of GMO crops. Over 60 countries banned the use of genetically-engineered crops for human consumption, and those countries won’t accept GMOs for import. Tom Stahl, a wheat grower in Douglas County, told the hearing, “I farmed all these years just fine without any GMOs. But I cannot farm without my markets.” Some 85% of the wheat grown in Washington state is exported. (more…)

Spring & Summer Cover Crops

Green ManureEveryone knows the value of cover crops or green manure: they add valuable organic matter to the soil, they prevent erosion, smother weeds, and help maintain soil moisture levels. The ability of pea or other legume crops to fix nitrogen makes them especially valuable as a soil addition. Most cover crops are planted in fall, given time to overwinter, and then turned back into the soil in spring. But is it possible to plant a cover crop in early spring and still reap benefits?

The answer depends on where you live. High altitude locations or those in zones three, four and higher are at a disadvantage. There’s usually only a short window between the last frost (or snow!), something that can happen as late as June, and the heat of the growing season. But zones five and above, especially those at non-mountainous elevations without micro-climate extremes, allow for a spring cover crop when specific conditions are taken into account. (more…)

Worms and Global Warming

Worms and Global WarmingThe more we learn about worms, the more we marvel at the necessary role they play in our gardens, our environment, and the planet at large. We all know that earthworms digest organic material in soil making it more readily available to crops. We know how they add nitrogen and valuable minerals to the soil, how they make soil more porous and allow for more valuable oxygen and other gases to be available for plants, how they help soil retain moisture, how their digestive tracts serve as incubators for beneficial microbes, and on and on. Now, a new study suggests that — when it comes to global warming — worms are more culprit than solution.

The study comes from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the only university in that country (so they claim) that focuses on “healthy food and living environment.” A PhD candidate there looked at several earthworm studies and decided that worms “have an unwanted effect on GHG (greenhouse gases) emissions.” The frightening conclusion as stated by the author of the study? ”Earthworms may help us to produce more food through improving soil fertility, but by doing so they also contribute to global warming by increasing GHG emissions from soils.” (more…)

Sloping Backyard? Terrace Gardening

Terrace GardenTerracing — building level steps on sloping ground — is a technique that has been used since ancient times by farmers around the world to grow crops and gardens. Think the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the beautiful terraced rice paddies of Asia. Terraces are one of a landscapers great tools in steep and hilly country. If your property tilts as much or more as it runs level, you might want to consider terrace gardening in your yard.

As part of good backyard conservation practice terraces can play a role in xeriscaping and water conservation. Not only do they allow you to reclaim space from the hillside to plant vegetables or flowers and shrubs — terraces can be very decorative — they’re also a great hedge against water runoff and soil erosion. They can also create warmer, sunnier micro-climates for growing light-and-heat-loving plants and vegetables. Now — in the dead of winter — is the perfect time of year to start visualizing your hillside alive with tomatoes, trailing vines, and stands of beautiful blossoms. (more…)

Controlling Insect Pests With Birds

Bird and Garden InsectI’m recalling one of the great sights of spring gardening this cold February night: working the soil for the first time and having birds descend to pick out the slow moving grubs that had been hiding under the earth. Sure, the birds got a valuable earthworm or two, but not so many that it would dent the population. Those worms began to tunnel back almost as soon as daylight hit them. And many were still buried deep — very deep — where my turning fork couldn’t yet reach them. But those grubs, twisting and turning on top of the freshly spaded clods. They made for easy pickings.

Of course, that got me thinking about watching birds work the garden in the summer, feasting on insects, caterpillars, and whatever else they can find. (more…)

Planet News…with Links!

Breaking NewsItems (and garden news) of interest to organic gardeners, natural lifestyle, and health-conscious individuals that we’ve come across in the last few weeks:

–Legislation introduced in New Mexico that would have required labeling of foods that contain GMOs passed the state’s Public Affairs Committee only to have that recommendation turned down by the entire Senate which voted not to adopt the committee’s report. State Senator Peter Wirth who wrote the bill was quoted by Albuquerque Business First saying, “Even though SB 18 is dead this year, it’s clear that New Mexicans want and deserve a label that tells them whether or not their food has been genetically engineered.” Stay tuned.

–Drought and deficit: The New York Times is reporting that last summer’s drought will cost taxpayers an estimated $16 billion in crop insurance payments. That’s in addition to $11 billion that’s already been paid out in indemnity costs to farmers, a figure that could balloon to $20 billion before it’s over. Not all those payments go to farmers. Groups on both the right and the left have criticized the crop insurance program for subsidizing insurance companies and largely benefiting corporate farms. (more…)

Starting Seeds Starts Now!

SeedlingsFebruary the first marks the kickoff of a new gardening season. That’s when starting seeds indoors begins, at least for those lucky dogs in zones 8 and 9 and, even for them, only long-held seedlings like celery and onions. (Who even considers mostly frostless zone 10 except for those few of us — not me — that live in sub-tropical Florida?) For the rest of us, the time is fast approaching. You’ll want to be prepared. Time to gather up the things you’ll need to get your seedlings off to a good start.

First, the basics, not the least of which is good, fresh seed, carefully chosen for your particular needs and growing conditions. The second is soil, or more specifically, planting mix. A soil-less mixture of peat (green gardener alert!) and vermiculite or some other planting medium like coconut coir is ideal. If you use some combination of compost or garden soil, be sure to sterilize it first by baking in an oven at 180 degrees for 30 minutes (pew!) or by using another method. This will prevent your seedling from “damping off” or falling prey to other diseases. What’s going to hold that growing medium and your seedlings? There’s a variety of starting pots and flats available for all your needs, some of them organic and environmentally sound. If you’re reusing pots, be sure you sterilize them by soaking in a mild bleach solution then rinsing them thoroughly. (more…)

Walmart, Coke To Give Up GMO Labeling Fight?

GMO Food LabelingThere are reports of a meeting between the FDA and several major food-supply corporations — Walmart, General Mills, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi-Frito Lay among them — at which the big businesses declared they would give up their fight against the GMO labeling movement. The meeting was first reported by Ronnie Cummins at AlterNet and has since been confirmed by Tom Laskawy at Grist who also confirms that a Walmart vice-president “did announce that the company would no longer take a lead in opposing GMO labeling efforts. Other food company executives agreed, saying that the fight had become too expensive, especially given the prospect of more state-level initiatives.”

Even if true, the news should be taken with a grain of salt. New labeling initiatives have sprung up since the defeat of California’s Proposition 37 and it may be, as Cummins and Laskawy suggest, that the corporations don’t think that money thrown against labeling is well spent. After all, it’s Monsanto and the other agri-engineering companies that benefit. (more…)

Heirlooms to the Rescue

Heirloom SeedsWe often think of saving seeds in literal terms: letting flowers and vegetables go to seed, whether edible at that point (squash, tomatoes) or not (lettuce); separating and cleaning the seeds, drying them, and then protecting them until we’re able to plant again. But there’s a larger issue here, one that’s apparent when you consider that 94% of the seed varieties available to farmers and gardeners in 1900 have been lost, never to be grown again. Today, many of us are involved in saving seeds from extinction. To quote an old ecological saying: extinction is forever.

Today’s activists — there’s no better word for them — have taken those extinctions to heart and are on a quest to save as many varieties of seeds as they can. Janisse Ray, author of The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food is one of them. Ray’s book is a sort of manifesto on the practice and importance of seed saving. (more…)

Drought and the Home Garden

Summer Garden HeatNo doubt you’ve heard that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States. 2012 was also a year of severe drought in as much as 60% of the country. Winter has not alleviated the dry conditions and predictions for some areas see the drought continuing at least into the spring. Lesser known facts: the drought may have done more damage — some $60 to $100 billion worth — than Hurricane Sandi ($75 billion). The drought also contributed to the spread of the deadly carcinogenic mold aspergillis in last season’s corn crop. The fungus is deadly to humans as well as livestock. Scientific American reports that up to half of the corn crop in Missouri was contaminated with the mold. By contrast, 8% was damaged in 2011.

Drought — again depending on where you live — made itself known in your lawn and garden with higher water bills, more pest infestation, and smaller yields. While there’s still some disagreement among (mostly) reasonable people on the causes of our current heat and drought extremes — Global warming? Natural cycles? Some combination of both? — there’s one thing that can’t be denied. We must prepare for more of the same.

Xeriscaping, the practice of wise-water use in landscapes and gardens, has become more important as drought continues. Originating in the arid mountain West, the practice has become more popular across the country in these water-conscious times. Not surprisingly, the most efficient, far-reaching tool in the xeriscape gardeners tool box is organic gardening practice. (more…)

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