Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Plant Died

Some important lessons this "new garden customer" could have learned from this interaction and also even more helpful information this customer could have obtained had he allowed the gardener to share:

  1. Plants are living beings who need to be cultivated and nurtured, especially when young (just like a child). 
  2. Learn about the individual plants needs in the way of sun and watering. Google it and/or ask someone.
  3. A plant that likes full sun by the ocean may immediately be burned and shrivel up and die when planted in hot desert like conditions. Utilizing taller plants or trees to shade (and cool down) some less hardy or more light sensitive plants during the hotter parts of the day is helpful.
  4. Plants need to be taken out of starter pots and "planted in the soil" as determined by #2 (setting on top the ground or putting the little pot in the ground does not mean it is planted in the soil).
  5. More is NOT better. Fertilizers are not needed when planting new plants. Chemical fertilizers act on the plants like steroids do with people. Chemical fertilizers will also burn tender new roots. Plants are feed by the activity of the microorganisms in the soil, not by fertilizer. We want to feed the soil not the plant. Compost and/or mulch are good additions to new plantings after they have been established for a few months or few weeks (if needed to protect from drying out and baking during hot weather).
  6. Watering, changes with the condition of the plant and the weather. Any new start will need to be keep moist (not drowning) during the first few weeks after planting as new roots establish themselves and grow into the soil surrounding the initial root ball. When the plant has matured, it will have more roots that have spread wider and deeper in the soil and that can draw on the water from the soil, ie. you don't need to water as often. But individual kinds of plants have different water needs. Some need continual moisture, some need to be allowed to become a little dryer between waterings and some would die from continually moist soils. Weather conditions affect this too - as when mother nature is watering, you don't need or want to over-water.
  7. Lastly, growing plants are part of life's ever-changing learning system. By watching, nurturing and enjoying the development of plants we gain knowledge about the natural world and are rewarded on many levels.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Cover Crops: Options, Tips and Advantages for the Home Garden

Planting cover crops is a traditional technique that will solar-charge your soil.
By Barbara Pleasant  -  October/November 2009


You can choose colorful cover crops, such as bachelor’s buttons and crimson clover, to build your soil and beautify your beds.

There are three main ways to improve your soil — grow cover crops, mulch the surface with biodegradable mulches, and/or dig in organic soil amendments (such as compost, grass clippings, rotted manure or wood chips). All have their advantages and none should be discounted, but cover cropping is the method least likely to be practiced in home gardens. There is a reason for this: Information on using cover crops is tailored to the needs of farmers who use tractors to make short work of mowing down or turning under cover crops. But when your main tools for taking down plants have wooden handles and you measure your space in feet rather than acres, you need a special set of cover crop plants, and special methods for using them.

How Cover Crops Help

A cover crop is any plant grown for the primary purpose of improving the soil. Since the early 1900s, farmers have used cover crops to restore fertility to worn-out land. In addition to helping bulk up soil with organic matter, cover crops prevent erosion, suppress weeds, and create and cycle soilborne nutrients using the power of the sun. Recent advances in soil biology have revealed two more ways cover crops can improve soil.

Rhizodeposition is a special advantage to working with cover crops. Many plants actually release sugars and other substances through their roots. They are like little solar engines, pumping energy down into the soil. With vigorous cover crop plants, this process goes on much more deeply than you would ever dig — 6 feet for oats and rye! If you are leaving your garden beds bare in winter, you are missing the chance to use cold-hardy crops such as cereal rye or oats to solar-charge your soil. Thanks to this release of sugars, the root tips of many plants host colonies of helpful microorganisms, and as the roots move deeper, the microbes follow.

But so much for scientific talk. If you’ve experimented with cover crops, perhaps you have dug up young fava beans or alfalfa seedlings to marvel at the nitrogen nodules on their roots, or watched a stand of buckwheat go from seed to bloom in four weeks flat. Or how about this one: It’s April and the soil is warming up and drying out. After loosening a clump of fall-sown wheat with a digging fork, you pull up a marvelous mop of fibrous roots and shake out the soil. What crumb! The soil’s structure is nothing short of amazing! These are the moments an organic gardener lives for.

Bio-drilling is what happens when you use a cover crop’s natural talents to “drill” into compacted subsoil. For example, you might grow oilseed or daikon radishes as a cover crop where their spear-shaped roots will stab deep into tight subsoil. Bio-drilling action also takes place when deeply rooted cover crop plants penetrate subsoil and die. Then, the next crop grown may actually follow the rooting network mapped out by the cover crop.


Maryland researchers were able to track this process using special camera equipment (a minirhizotron), which took pictures of the interactions between cover crop (canola) and crop plant (soybean) roots. As the canola’s deep roots decomposed, soybean roots followed the trails they blazed in the subsoil, hand in glove. In addition to reduced physical resistance, the soybean roots probably enjoyed better nutrition and the good company of legions of soil-dwelling microcritters, compliments of the cover crop.

 Dozens of plants have special talents as cover crops, and if you live in an extremely hot, cold, wet or dry climate, you should check with your local farm store or state extension service for plant recommendations — especially if you want to use cover crops under high-stress conditions. Also be aware that many cover crop plants can become weedy, so they should almost always be taken down before they set seed.

How to Take Cover Crops Down

Speaking of taking down, this is the sticking point for most gardeners when it comes to cover crops, which is why it’s a good idea to start small with your first cover crop plantings. Traditionally, cover crops are plowed under, but most gardeners chop, cut or pull them, and use them for mulch or compost. Or you can assign the task to a flock of pecking poultry. All are sound methods, and it is possible that composting cover crop plants produces a more balanced soil amendment compared to chopping raw-crop residue directly into the soil. Pulling plants saves time, too, because you don’t have to wait three weeks (or more) to plant, in order to avoid possible negative reactions between rotting plant residues and the plants you want to grow. For example, the cover crop known as sudex (a fast-growing sorghum-Sudan grass hybrid) produces gargantuan amounts of biomass (leaf, stem and roots), but fresh sudex residue in the soil inhibits the growth of tomatoes, lettuce and broccoli. Oats, wheat and other cover crop plants also produce allelopathic substances that can temporarily hinder the germination and growth of other plants, too, but not in quantities sufficient to cause serious disturbances in the garden. If you chop in fresh cover crop residues, just plan to wait two to three weeks before sowing crop seeds.

Top Cover Crop Options

The following cover crops work well in a wide range of climates and situations, and they’re not hard to take down, as long as you do it at the right time and in the proper way. We’ve selected these six because they are easy to manage using hand tools, grow during different seasons and provide multiple benefits in the garden.

During the summer, buckwheat (Fagopyron esculentum) is in a class by itself as a cover crop. Seeds sown in moist soil turn into a weed-choking sea of green within a week, with many plants growing 2 feet high or more and blooming in less than 30 days. Should you need to reclaim space that has been overtaken by invasives, buckwheat can be your best friend. In my garden, buckwheat has been a huge ally in cleaning up a spot overrun by dock, bindweed and other nasties that grow in warm weather. For two years, each time the noxious weeds grew back, I dug them out and planted more buckwheat. Throughout the battle, the buckwheat attracted bees and other buzzers in droves. Fortunately, even mature buckwheat plants are as easy to take down as impatiens — simply pull the succulent plants with a twist of the wrist, or use a hoe or scythe to slice them off at the soil line. You can let the dead plants die into a surface mulch and plant through them, gather them up and compost them, or chop them into the soil.

In late summer, while the soil is still warm, you have a fine opportunity to try barley (Hordeum vulgare), a fast-growing grain that’s great for capturing excess nitrogen left over from summer crops, which might otherwise leach away during the winter. Barley often suffers from winter injury in Zone 6, and is often killed altogether in Zone 5 and above. This is good! The dead barley residue shelters the soil through winter, and dries into a plant-through mulch in spring in cold zones.



Oats are a good cover crop option. 
Mature oat plants will grow 2 to 3 feet tall, but their roots can extend up to 6 feet into the soil.

Early fall is the best time to grow the dynamic duo of soil-building cover crops — oats (Avena sativa) mixed with cold-hardy winter peas (Pisum sativum). When taken down just before the peas start blooming in spring, an oat/pea combination cover crop is the best way to boost your soil’s organic matter and nutrient content using only plants. Both make a little fall growth when planted in September, and in spring the peas scramble up the oats. On the down side, one or both crops can be winterkilled before they have a chance to do much good north of Zone 5, and in more hospitable climates it will take some work to get the plants out of the way in spring. Do it by mid-April, because the job gets tougher as the plants get older. Cut or mow them down first, and then pull and dig your way through the planting. A heavy-duty chopping hoe works well for this.

Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) needs a good head start on winter, too, but it’s hardy to Zone 4 and gives a huge payback in terms of soil improvement, and saved time and labor. Unlike many other cover crop plants, you can quickly kill hairy vetch by slicing just below the crown with a sharp hoe. When hairy vetch is beheaded about a month before it’s time to plant tomatoes and peppers, you can open up planting holes and plant through the dried mulch — no digging required.

Late fall is not a lost season for cover crops, but in most climates you’re limited to cereal rye (Secale cereale), the cold-hardiest of them all. Rye will sprout after the soil has turned chilly, but be sure to take it out early in spring, before the plants develop tough seed stalks. Or let your chickens keep it trimmed; leave the birds on the patch longer in spring and they will kill the rye for you. If you’re looking for a cover crop you can plant in October for cold-season poultry greens, cereal rye is probably the best choice.

In any season, you may find many more great cover crops in seed catalogs, or among your leftover seeds. As you consider possibilities, think about plants that quickly produce an abundance of leaves and stems, but are easy to pull up or chop down if you decide you don’t want them. Bush beans, leafy greens or even sweet corn can be grown as short-term cover crops, along with annual flowers such as calendulas and borage in early spring, or marigolds and sunflowers in summer. Teaming up a flower with a cover crop plant is always fun, whether you’re planting sulphur cosmos with cowpeas in summer, oats with dwarf sunflowers in late summer or bachelor’s buttons with crimson clover in the fall. Whatever you do, just don’t leave your soil bare or you’ll be missing out on a chance to capture solar energy to recharge your food web.

To locate mail-order sources for cover crops, go to the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Seed and Plant Finder.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

75 Safe and Effective Herbal Remedies

Treat dozens of common ailments naturally.

By Michael Castleman  -  October/November 2010



Herbal remedies can be a safer, less expensive alternative to pharmaceuticals, and you can grow many of them in your backyard.

My wife is an M.D. trained in pharmaceutical medicine. She prescribes drugs every day, but also recommends medicinal herbs. In our medicine cabinet, we stock drugs and herbs, but we use more of the latter. When we catch colds, we prefer echinacea and andrographis (immune-boosting herbs proven to speed recovery), ginseng (ditto), licorice root (for sore throat), tea or coffee (caffeine helps relieve stuffed nose and chest congestion), eucalyptus lozenges (for cough), and pelargonium (if post-cold bronchitis develops).

Thirty years ago, when I started writing about medicinal herbs, the vast majority of M.D.s (my wife included) never recommended herbs over drugs. Today, doctors are increasingly open to recommending nondrug alternatives given reasonable evidence of safety and effectiveness.

Unfortunately, many medical authorities still disparage medicinal herbs. Critics make four accusations: Herbs are ineffective, unsafe, unregulated and, when they work, they’re not as strong as drugs.

Ineffective? Hardly. As I document in my book, The New Healing Herbs, thousands of studies confirm the effectiveness of medicinal herbs for hundreds of conditions.

Unsafe? Like drugs, medicinal herbs can cause harm. Anything that’s pharmacologically active can. To ensure safety, purchase a guide that emphasizes safety, such as my book or the American Botanical Council’s ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs, or check out the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.

Anyone who calls herbs hazardous is totally misinformed. Every year the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) compiles statistics on accidental deaths from drugs, herbs, vitamins and other supplements. The AAPCC’s most recent report (2008) records 1,756 accidental poisoning deaths. How many were attributable to medicinal herbs? Zero. In every accidental death caused by a pharmacological agent, the culprit was a pharmaceutical. And it’s been that way for many years. Herbs are safer than drugs.

University of Toronto researchers combed 30 years of medical literature (1966 to 1996) for reports of drug side effects in hospital patients. Extrapolating from the 39 most rigorous studies, they estimated that drug side effects kill an astonishing 106,000 U.S. hospital patients per year and cause 2.2 million serious, nonfatal problems. This makes drug side effects the nation’s fourth leading cause of death. The true number of drug-caused injuries is undoubtedly higher; this study focused solely on hospital patients, not the public. Note: These deaths didn’t result from medical errors; they occurred when drugs were administered as approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Unregulated? Before approving new drugs, the FDA requires drugmakers to prove them safe and effective. Such tests aren’t required of herbs, leading to claims that herbs are unregulated and, by implication, unsafe. But as we’ve seen, the supposedly stringent regulation of drugs hasn’t kept them from causing great harm.

In addition, preapproval studies typically involve only a few thousand people. Many side effects — some serious — only turn up in one user in 10,000 to 50,000, or more. These problems don’t emerge until the drug is widely used by people unaware that they are guinea pigs. Because so many new side effects turn up during the five years after approval, the FDA requires drugmakers to rewrite the warning labels of half of new drugs. Yes, drugs are regulated more stringently than herbs, but regulation doesn’t guarantee safety. Hundreds of studies show that, when compared head-to-head with herbs, drugs almost always cause more side effects. The vast majority of medicinal herbs have been used for centuries, standing the test of time.


Rather than herbs being too weak, many drugs are too strong, and using herbal remedies may help allleviate your symptoms without as many side effects.

Not as strong? Dose for dose, yes, herbs aren’t as strong as drugs. Willow bark contains a natural form of aspirin, but the standard dose (1 to 2 cups of tea or 1 to 2 teaspoons of tincture) doesn’t relieve pain as well as a standard dose of aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol), or naproxen (Aleve). As a result, critics dismiss herbs as medicinal wimps.

Rather than herbs being too weak, many drugs are too strong, causing side effects ranging from annoying to insufferable. Do no harm is the first axiom of medicine. This means that treatment should begin at the lowest possible effective dose. Why use a bulldozer if a broom suffices? Herbs should be prescribed first. Only those who truly need stronger medicine should use drugs, which cost more and have a greater risk of side effects. Unfortunately, American medicine does the opposite. Doctors prescribe drugs first, and only when the drugs are intolerable do some doctors suggest herbs. We don’t need medicine that’s stronger. We need medicine that’s smarter. For many common ills, herbs are cheaper and smarter.

If you’d like to try herbs instead of drugs, our Herbal Remedies for Common Ailments chart is a good place to start. These herbs have been included because of the strong clinical evidence of their efficacy.

Michael Castleman is one of the nation’s leading health writers, according to Library Journal.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

UC Davis set to open Honey Bee Haven as part of pollinator research

By Debbie Arrington
Published: Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010 - 1:44 pm

From tiny metallic green specks to giant black drones, bees have found their honey heaven on a slice of the UC Davis campus.

More than 6 million bees representing up to 55 species have taken up residence in the new Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre refuge designed to educate students and the public about agriculture's most important little helpers.

The new garden will be dedicated Sept. 11, but it already buzzes with activity. Red sages attract legions of workers that dip eagerly for nectar. Summer squash and watermelon tempt honeybees into vegetable beds. Coneflowers with thimbles-full of pollen beckon native bees to dig right in.

Today is National Honey Bee Awareness Day. Interest in bees has never been bigger, say experts, mostly due to colony collapse disorder.

"Absolutely, bee awareness is the highest I've seen, no doubt about it," said bee expert Eric Mussen, who has been part of the UC Davis entomology staff for 34 years. "A lot of people are asking, 'What can I do to help?' "

America is losing its honeybees at an alarming rate for unknown reasons. Last winter, an estimated 33.8 percent of commercial hives died out. Since the start of its rapid rise in 2007, colony collapse disorder may have wiped out 25 percent to 35 percent of European honeybee colonies, the type tended by American beekeepers.

"Many bees just don't look as healthy as they used to," Mussen explained. "Something suppresses their immune system. We've found elevated fungal disease as well as elevated virus, but how did they get susceptible to these in the first place?"

Concern for bees is not just about honey. Many crops are dependent on bees for pollination. Among them are melons, squash, cucumbers, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and sunflowers.

Also bee-dependent are alfalfa, buckwheat and clover. Most tree fruit needs bees. Among the biggest bee-users in California: almonds.

"We grow more than 700,000 acres of almonds in California, and every acre needs two to three hives," said Kathy Garvey of the UC Davis entomology department.

Each hive holds about 60,000 bees. That's potential employment for 126 billion bees – just in almond orchards.

But bees don't stay put. "Bees need the equivalent of an acre of plants to visit every day," Mussen said. "They'll fly up to four miles from the hive and cover 50 square miles. They're in everybody's gardens and fruit trees, not just the orchards."

Including three large almond trees and several other fruit trees, the new Bee Haven has 110 hives, but bees are everywhere – including the ground. Some native bees burrow and make nests in the soil.

"This garden already has incredible diversity," said Neal Williams, an assistant professor who works with native bees. "We have bumblebees, carpenter bees, leaf cutters, borer bees, mason bees, sweat bees. It's pretty incredible who we've found."

Before planting the garden, a survey by Davis bee expert Robbin Thorp found 21 species of bees buzzing around the Laidlaw Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis. Next to the research lab, the new garden – created as a food source for the facility's bees as well as an outreach program – attracted 15 more species this spring. In all, 55 species have been documented.

"We've seen some exotic nonnative species move in, too," Williams said, "plus some bees that we still haven't fully identified.

"It's important to have diversity," he added. "It's like a stock portfolio; diversity buffers change."
With a $75,000 budget, the garden began in July 2009 with a patch of open, untilled field. The local bees survived on star thistle and bindweed.

"The ground hadn't been worked in years," said Missy Borel, program manager of the California Center for Urban Horticulture at UC Davis. "It was like a giant concrete brick."

Sausalito landscape architects Donald Sibbett and Ann F. Baker, interpretative planner Jessica Brainard and exhibit designer Chika Kurotaki were picked after an international design search. Cagwin & Dorward Landscape Contractors of Antelope – experts on sustainable drought-tolerant landscaping – handled the installation.

"Our biggest challenge was cost," said Borel, who was in charge of the planting. "We had a tight budget and started with nothing but an empty field. We had no irrigation. But we had tremendous support. Almost everything was donated."

Most of the featured plants are Arboretum All-Stars, drought-tolerant, easy-care perennials and shrubs propagated by the university's arboretum. The compost came from scraps from campus cafeterias.

"We gave the designers a list of suggested plants to use that would offer year-round bloom," said Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, who also oversees the UC Davis apiary (bee) program. "The bees love them – but so do the rabbits. That's been a real struggle."

To keep out voracious bunnies, a temporary fence skirts the garden, which is open free to the public daily from dawn to dusk.

Out of bronze and ceramic mosaic, Davis artist Donna Billick created a giant honeybee sculpture the size of a large dog. It sits atop a bench and pedestal decorated with mosaics by Sarah Rizzo, schoolchildren and UC Davis students led by artist-scientist Diane Ullman.

"We learned a lesson from the bees – the value of social networking and collaboration," Billick said.

The artists incorporated a bit of bee into their work depicting bee life. Beeswax went into the lost-wax process to create the bronze legs. To pattern the eyes, Billick used the same hexagonal screen that beekeepers use in hives.

About 1,000 people are expected for the grand opening, said coordinator Chris Akins.
Visitors have already started dropping by to catch the buzz.

"It's awesome," said preschool teacher Kerry Bzdyk of Virginia, who visited the garden with her daughter Emily, a grad student. "I especially love the bee sculpture. This is really great for kids – for anyone – to learn about bees."

Where: Bee Biology Road on UC Davis west campus.
When: Grand opening, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 11. Garden is open to public daily from dawn to dusk.
Admission: Free


1. Bees need water – not just to drink, but for air conditioning.

In triple-digit Sacramento summers, interior hive temperatures can top 130 degrees, melting the wax used to form cells in the comb. Bees gather water on hot days, then bring it back to the hive, where it's pooled on the floor as a sort of swamp cooler. Evaporation – up to a gallon a day – cools the hive.

Bees also need water to produce food for the colony's babies. Each "water carrier" makes 50 trips a day, collecting about 25 mg per trip. For a gallon, the bees need to make almost 160,000 trips.

2. Most bees live short, sweet, busy lives.

The average honeybee lives 30 days. Queens usually live two years, but some last longer. During spring, queens can lay 2,000 eggs a day. That allows the hive to rejuvenate itself. The colony needs workers. It takes 2 million visits to flowers to produce 1 pound of honey.

3. Bees like to dance, but the sun calls the moves.

When bees return to the hive after foraging, they communicate where the best flowers can be found with the "waggle dance." The direction of the bee's dances correlates to the angle of the flower from the hive relative to the angle of the sun.

Which plants will draw bees to your garden? Here are plants in the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven:
• Basil
• California buckwheat
• Cape mallow
• Catmint
• Eggplant
• Honeysuckle
• Leucophyllum
• Mexican elderberry
• Mexican hat flower
• Mint
• Oregano
• Purple coneflower
• Red sage
• Roses
• Salvia
• Santa Barbara daisy
• Seaside daisy
• Strawberry
• White sage
• Watermelon

Most bees are not aggressive, but they will sting when stepped on or when they sense a threat to the hive.

Most bee stings happen in the fall. As flowers disappear, bees take more risks as they expand their search.

Bees are attracted to sweet smells and bright colors, so avoid wearing them.

If a bee lands on you, hold still. (Tell kids to pretend they're statues.) Don't swat; the rapid movement might startle the insect. Gently blow on the bee to encourage it to take off.

If you get stung, pull the stinger out immediately. That cuts down on the poison that causes swelling. Then apply an ice pack or cold compress.

If a person is allergic to bees and is stung, don't wait to see symptoms; call 911 or head for an emergency room.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What came first: The chicken or the salmonella?

8/24/2010 9:23:53 AM
by Andrew Odom
This morning Fox News reported that,
"approximately 1,300 people have been sickened in a salmonella outbreak linked to eggs in three states and possibly more, and health officials on Wednesday dramatically expanded a recall to 380 million eggs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with state health departments to investigate the illnesses. No deaths have been reported, said Dr. Christopher Braden, a CDC epidemiologist involved in the investigation.
Initially, 228 million eggs were recalled but that number was increased to the equivalent of nearly 32 million dozen-egg cartons.
The outbreak was linked to in-shell eggs from Wright County Egg in Galt, Iowa, according to Sherri McGarry of the Food and Drug Administration."

So I sit here, staring out at one of our flocks, there is a salmonella outbreak in America that has now possibly effected some 384 million eggs.

Wright County Egg – an Iowa based company – ships all the way to places like California, and sells eggs to distributors like Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph's, Boomsma's, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms and Kemp. (You can read more about these companies and egg safety by visiting this site.)


Now here at Odom's Idle Acres we not only raise a flock of laying hens (6-7 eggs/day) but we also raise a flock of broilers for meat. I am finding myself more and more bothered by this situation with each passing day. In past months we have seen the number of backyard flocks rise sharply due to grocery prices and the push for locavore living and sourcing ones food. A large number of cities - including San Francisco and New York City - allow small, backyard flocks (6-10 birds) and cities are consistently allowing for more backyard flocks and larger flocks. Having said that, do we really need to ship eggs half way across the country?

It's fair to say that the further you ship an item such as eggs the more risk you are taking. Not to mention the fact that it just isn't necessary. Most of America has a climate hospitable to chickens and a number of communities in the middle of the country and the southeast region claim poultry as one of their top agricultural motivators.

But let me return to the facts; 384 million eggs. I can't even process a number that large. Here. Allow me to write it out – 384,000,000. How many chickens must it take to even produce that many eggs? Especially if you are talking about only one supplier; in this particular case, Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa. I refuse to believe that raising chickens in a cramped, over crowded, enclosed area breeds things other than healthy chickens. And in order to produce that many eggs I can't help but to think that ANY brooding quarters are cramped, over crowded, and enclosed. Enter salmonella.

Now, I am no dummy. Any egg can contain salmonella bacteria. But the likelihood of an organic egg from a free-ranged hen (or even a hen given ample space to roam, lay, brood, etc.) is far less likely to be contaminated with this pathogen simply because the environment isn't as much of a breeding ground for the bacteria.

If you have ever thought about raising your own layers, now is the time to really move forward. It takes relatively little time, little money, little effort and the results are profound. Check with your city to see what the ordinance is on backyard flocks. You might be surprised to find there are already people right in your neighborhood eating eggs from their own little "homestead."
Before I sign off though I want to share a few tips for avoiding salmonella:
  •    Collect eggs often (daily, even) and refrigerate as soon as possible, especially now, during the summer.
  •    Keep nesting areas clean and free of litter or bugs.
  •    Clean your coop thoroughly at least once a month. If you don't want to stick your nose in there what makes you think a chicken would?
  •    Maintain a healthy flock. If a chicken seems ill, isolate her. Check with your local feed 'n seed or ask the opinion of another "farmer."
  •    Don't introduce new birds until you have quarantined them long enough to know they are healthy.
  •    Do not wash the egg but rather use a dry brush to remove fecal matter that may have collected on the egg. Wash only as a last resort.
  •    Cook all egg products.
Salmonella poisoning is serious and can cause some horrible maladies. Outbreaks should be extremely rare though. The best way to protect your family is, as always, to know your egg farmer; either the one in your region or the one that sleeps in your bed at night.

So what are your thoughts and/or concerns about this outbreak and/or raising layers of your own?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Wind Turbines Are Coming to New York, and Not Just Offshore

Published: August 16, 2010

For years, New York officials have envisioned powering the region from a set of huge wind turbines  in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island. But well before an offshore wind farm would be up and running, giant turbines may soon be spinning much closer to the city.  


Within three years, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey  hopes to have five wind towers, each more than 280 feet tall, operating on the west side of New York Harbor. Nearby, the City of Bayonne, N.J., plans to install an equally large turbine to power a sewage-pumping station. Meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs is considering placing wind turbines on or near its hospitals in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

New York, it turns out, is a windy city, well suited for turning stiff breezes into electricity. If open space were not so rare, the city might be a prime spot for harnessing the wind, said Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority.

“Anybody who’s ever stood out at the dock in Weehawken waiting for a ferry just knows it’s a very windy area,” Mr. Baroni said. “Apparently, it’s a pretty good place to put windmills.”

In 2008, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced his plan to use wind power to help reduce the city’s dependence on power plants that run on fossil fuels. So far, there are no large-scale efforts to harness the wind in the city, only token projects like the small turbines on the roof of an apartment building in the Bronx and a wind-powered electronic billboard for Coca-Cola in Times Square.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation has been studying the feasibility of putting turbines atop buildings, including a warehouse at the Hunts Point Cooperative Market in the Bronx. But the high hopes rest on a partnership, with utility companies and the New York Power Authority, that has designs on building a wind farm on about 65,000 acres of the Atlantic floor. The New York consortium said at the end of June that it would apply for a 25-year lease on the site, with hopes of generating as much as 700 megawatts of power there by 2016.

While city officials navigate the logistical and political shoals of that ambitious plan, other agencies are pressing ahead on more solid ground.

The Port Authority’s proposed project at Port Jersey on the border of Bayonne and Jersey City would be similar, in appearance and purpose, to a wind farm that was built at a sewage-treatment plant  in Atlantic City five years ago. The authority is seeking suggestions from companies that might be interested in managing the project on how to set up the turbines. Mr. Baroni said it could be operating by 2013.

When the winds are high, the five turbines would produce as much as 7.5 megawatts — enough to run at least 2,000 homes, he said. The authority plans to use the power generated to operate the container port there, then to feed the surplus energy into the local power grid, offsetting some of the authority’s consumption elsewhere.

“This is a commitment the Port Authority is making to reduce our carbon footprint and be better neighbors,” Mr. Baroni said. “It will allow us to both save money and also be good for the environment. Somebody’s got to go first, and it’s going to be us.”

But the City of Bayonne may tap the wind quicker. Construction of a 262-foot-tall turbine has already begun at a plant operated by the city’s Municipal Utilities Authority. That $5.6 million tower, which would be the biggest wind turbine in New Jersey outside of Atlantic City, is expected to start producing more than enough energy to power the plant by September. The city plans to sell the excess power, saving at least $150,000 a year, said Stephen J. Gallo, executive director of the utilities authority.

“It will be iconic,” Mr. Gallo said. “It will be the first windmill in New York Harbor. You’ll be able to see it from anywhere on the water.”

Both projects in Bayonne would help New Jersey achieve its stated goal of developing 200 megawatts of wind energy onshore by 2020. The state’s energy master plan also calls for producing 3,000 megawatts of wind energy offshore within 10 years.

In late 2008, the state’s Board of Public Utilities provided $12 million in rebates to three companies that are racing to build the first wind farm 12 miles or more off the coast of New Jersey. At the end of last month, the State Legislature approved a bill that would provide $100 million in tax credits to the developers of offshore wind farms.

But those deepwater projects would cost about twice as much to build as turbines on land, wind-energy developers say. Mr. Baroni declined to say how much the Port Authority expected to spend on the wind farm it plans to build at Port Jersey, but he said New Jersey had already offered $3 million toward the project. The Atlantic City turbines cost $12 million when they were erected in 2005 by Community Energy, a company based in Radnor, Pa.

Brent Beerley, executive vice president of Community Energy, said the Mid-Atlantic Coast was an attractive location for wind farms because the wind tended to be highest when demand for electricity was at its peak. The power produced also does not have to travel far to reach the consumers who pay the most for it, Mr. Beerley said.

“It’s a windy site in general, but unlike other wind farms, the time of day and the time of year that the wind blows strongest there matches when consumers use electricity,” he said. “We have very strong summer winds and daytime winds.”

The wind power generated in Atlantic City has sold at “relatively good” prices, and the project has exceeded its revenue targets so far, Mr. Beerley said. He added that the second important benefit that wind farms generate is federal tax credits, which attract big banks to invest in the projects.

Without that incentive, it would be difficult for private developers to finance a project like the one the Port Authority is proposing. Mr. Beerley, who said his company might bid to build the project, said it appeared to be feasible and potentially beneficial to the metropolitan area.

“It’s a real amount of power and it will offset a significant amount of fossil fuel use locally,” he said.

The idea is not universally popular, though. On July 8, the Board of Freeholders of Monmouth County, N.J., decided to oppose the construction of a wind turbine at a wastewater treatment plant in the Raritan Bay shore town of Union Beach after a resident fanned dissent with a Web site, 

And what about the appearance of five fans as tall as 30-story buildings forming a swirling backdrop to the Statue of Liberty?

Mr. Baroni, a former state senator from central New Jersey, said people actually liked to gaze at the big turbines. In Atlantic City, he said, casino-hotel guests often requests rooms that offer a view of the wind farm atop the sewage plant, instead of the ocean and beach.

A version of this article appeared in print on August 16, 2010, on page A14 of the New York edition.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Boomers Take Up the Plow and Open Small Farms

Daily Yonder / By  Laura Tillman

Baby boomers are leaving regular jobs and opening small farms. It's not only a new way of life, some are making a little money, too.

August 6, 2010  |  A former Dallas attorney sells sprouts under the cover of a white tarp and a fraying straw hat. A former graphic designer plops candy striped beets on a Mexican tablecloth dotted with purple and gold figures, while a U.S. Customs agent gives a customer advice on cooking eggplant.

It's just another weekend at the farmers' market in Harlingen, Texas. Here, in the Rio Grande Valley, baby boomer generation professionals have traded in their desk jobs for a different kind of retirement.

From their 40s through their 60s, farmers like Kalman Morris spend most of their days working the few acres of land outside of humble homes to supplement their income with work they believe in. It’s all made possible by three new farmers' markets that have sprung up over the past two years.

Yes, these farmers can make some money. But more importantly, farmers like Morris enjoy the life they’re living more than the office jobs they’ve left behind.

The economic margins Morris lives within are narrow. He couldn't realistically afford to live this way if it weren't for the money he's banked from time spent in a more lucrative industry — graphic design.

The impact the farmers here are making on the industry may be small — cotton, sorghum and corn still dominate the area's fields — but they believe they're sowing the seeds of bigger change.

"One of the things that I believe in is the power of many small things," Morris said. "Stronger bonds are made between things with many parts — even though the power of each is not significant, it's the strongest bond you can create. It seems to me that in a large sense America has it all wrong: the American concept of bigger is better is not correct. You end up with things that are too big to fail."

Morris is joined at the Harlingen market by a group of farmers who have taken related paths. Jack Moffitt of Bayview Veggies was a high-powered attorney. Moffitt's partner, Rhonda Recio, has kept her day job as a banker, but plans to eventually transition to farming full time.

Diana Padilla of Yahweh's All Natural Farm and Garden, is a U.S. Customs agent and her husband, Saul, was a truck driver.

The confluence of semi-retired, newbie farmers seems to be more by accident than design. But a cheap cost of living, inexpensive plots of land, natural beauty and a long growing season have brought many of these folks to an area that is just beginning to adopt greener ways of living.

The first of the farmers' markets was started in Brownsville, where a group of public health students aimed to bring affordable, fresh produce to an unhealthy population. (High rates of diabetes and obesity plague this largely low-income population along the Texas-Mexico border.)

Vendors here make between $100 and $400 per week between three farmers' markets, depending on the season. Safety nets stitched in other careers allow these baby boomers to buy a new truck when the old one breaks down, or purchase a piece of property.

These new farmers are finding new markets. The Padillas are crafting plans to sell directly to subscribers through a Community Supported Agriculture program and Moffitt and Recio are selling some products to a Brownsville restaurant. But the miles between farms and consumers are many, making it expensive and time consuming to hustle bushels of low-cost produce across the Rio Grande Valley.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials say there is little hard data on the number of Baby Boomers using organic agriculture to subsidize their retirement. The movement can be tough to track, since not all farmers decide to go through the process of becoming certified organic, either because of its restrictions or the expense (about $750). Agriculture census data therefore wouldn't register some of these farms as organic, even though many of them follow organic practices.

John Cromartie, a geographer with the Resources and Rural Economics Division of the USDA, recently wrote a report on baby boomer movement to rural areas, but said he did not specifically look at a farming component of this migration.

"There's a hobby farm movement, but that isn't to subsidize income, that's just about fun," Cromartie said. Generally, boomers begin gardening, keep horses, chickens and cows, and use farming as a form of relaxation and a source of extra food rather than employment.

What’s going on in the Rio Grande Valley doesn’t surprise Brad Stufflebeam, former president of Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA). Stufflebeam says many of those who attend TOFGA’s annual conferences are baby boomers. They dabble in farming with mixed results.

“The ones that are successful are the ones that choose to do it as a lifestyle,” Stufflebeam said, taking a break from work at his farm in the Houston area, Home Sweet Farm. “The ones I see failing are the ones who have money, buy land, and hire help to do the work. I see those failing. The reason is you have to be deeply involved and its very management intensive.”

For Rio Grande Valley farmers, it is definitely about love — not money.

Current TOFGA Board Member Sabino Cortez says he's glad to hear that the organic farming movement is being pushed along by these determined farmers. But Cortez is more interested in large-scale results than niche groups.

"We need to show that organic farming practices are best management practices, period," Cortez said. "As we lower input costs, soil fertility increases, disease, drought and insect problems diminish."

The moment is ripe for a large-scale organic movement, Cortez added, and he believes change can only happen on that scale if it makes sense from a profit-driven perspective. If organic practices are cheaper and better in the long term, conventional growers will begin to adopt them.

"I've seen this thing come up and get going and then die down," Cortez said. "I don't think it’s going away this time. There wasn't any mass appeal before. You have to start taking a different look at it: we're doing this because this is what makes sense. It's the best management practice. I think it's here to stay this time."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bumblebees need gardeners' help urges Garden Organic

Garden Organic News

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Bumblebees need gardeners' help urges Garden Organic

Garden flowerbeds combined with untended garden areas could help protect Britain's declining bumblebee population, according to a survey by the UK's leading organic growing charity.

Garden Organic, whose members last year surveyed the habits and numbers of bumblebees in their back gardens, discovered that flowerbeds and borders for foraging accounted for 65% of all bee sightings, while three quarters of the participants that actively encouraged bees to nest, felt scrub areas were more effective than bee boxes as nesting habitats.

As a result of the findings the charity is now urging more of us to create flower-rich refuges in our gardens to better protect bumblebee populations, thought to have halved since the 1950s.

In its survey Garden Organic's members not only counted 14,305 bees � which all participants felt was lower than in previous years - but also the types of plants they most often visited. And while Foxglove and Pulmonaria proved the most popular ornamentals, herbs such as Lavender and Comfrey proved most popular to the bees overall.

Gemma Sutton, who led the Garden Organic survey, said, “As long as we don't pave them over or make them overly tidy, our gardens can be very friendly spaces for bees. British gardening habits, whereby our gardens are in bloom for a large portion of the year, help by offering a diverse variety of flowering plants, which provide a consistent source of nectar and pollen. This is great news for bumblebees, which flock to plants like Pulmonaria early in the year and sedum late in the season.”

“It's vital that we do more to attract bees to the garden, but with concern over the disappearance of the honeybee we are forgetting that we need to conserve bumblebees too. The ongoing threat of modern farming techniques, which destroy the flowers bumblebees feed on and their nesting habitats, is just one of the reasons why we're urging people to fill their gardens with more of the plants that came out top in our survey. Leaving informal areas in your garden such as long grass, compost heaps and hedges and garden will also help to provide vital nesting sites.”

And it's not only flowers that could help bring the bumblebees back. This year's grow your own phenomenon could help too as Garden Organic also found that flowering shrubs and vegetable patches, which accounted for 23% of all sightings, also act as great attractants, with bees regularly visiting raspberries and beans.


The top twenty 'bee attracting' plants surveyed by Garden Organic members:

The # = Number of occasions each plant was recorded as being visited by bees

Family                Latin Name              Commmon Name         #

Lamiaceae Lavandula species Lavender 70
Boraginaceae Symphytum species Comfrey 54
Rosaceae Rubus species Raspberry 39
Plantaginaceae Digitalis species Foxglove 36
Boraginaceae Pulmonaria species Pulmonaria 35
Geraniaceae Geranium species Geranium 35
Boraginaceae Borago officinalis Borage 33
Ericaceae Calluna vulgaris Heather 29
Onagraceae Fuchsia species Fuchsia 27
Ranunculaceae Aquilegia species Aquilegia 26
Scrophulariaceae Buddleja species Buddleia 26
Crassulaceae Sedum species Sedum 24
Plantaginaceae Hebe species Hebe 24
Lamiaceae Origanum majorana Marjoram 23
Lamiaceae Rosmarinus officinalis Rosemary 23
Tropaeolaceae Tropaeolum majus Nasturtium 23
Rosaceae Cotoneaster species Cotoneaster 22
Caprifoliaceae Lonicera species Honeysuckle 20
Fabaceae Trifolium species Clover 19
Lamiaceae Salvia species Sage 19                                                                       

Further findings from the survey:
  • A total of 166 members took part in Garden Organic's 2008 bumblebee survey, and between them they recorded a total of 14,305 bees.
  • The buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) was the most common species during this trial, with 4,356 being recorded.
  • Of 166 participants, 128 participants stated that they actively encourage bees into their gardens.
  • The survey found that the most popular way of attracting bees was by growing flowers � a technique used by 116 participants.
  • Growing native flowers was also regarded as important by a 1/4 of the 166 participants.
  • A total of 13 participants had bumblebee nest boxes in their gardens, but 3/4 thought they were unsuccessful compared to natural nesting habitats
Top tips from Garden Organic on how to attract and support bee populations
  • Grow a mixture of flowering plants to provide nectar and pollen from spring until winter
  • Grow simple flowers, as their nectar and pollen is more accessible to bees
  • Include native wildflowers such as foxglove, Viper's bugloss and Geranium species in the garden as all are popular with bees
  • Tried and tested bee attracting plants include pulmonaria, comfrey, lavender, foxgloves, raspberries, marjoram and buddleia
  • Don't forget to leave parts of your garden informal to provide nesting sites
  • If you can, leave an area of your lawn uncut during summer to allow clover to flower
There are 25 species of bumblebee in the UK. Three species of bumblebee are now extinct and seven are listed in the Government's Biodiversity Action Plan (UK Bap) as priorities for conservation; only six of our native bumblebees are regarded as widespread and common. To read the full scientific report on the bumblebee survey visit . For more 'bee attracting' ideas visit Garden Organic Ryton in Warwickshire � ten acres of organic, wildlife friendly demonstration gardens, which include a dedicated bee garden.
For more information contact Charlotte Corner on 02476 217707 or email at:
Notes to editors
  • Garden Organic is the UK's leading organic growing charity dedicated to researching and promoting organic gardening, farming and food and has been at the forefront of the organic horticulture movement for 50 years.
  • The charity, which has over 40,000 supporters, reaches more than three million beneficiaries across the world and is based at Garden Organic Ryton in Warwickshire.
  • The organisation runs major research and international development programmes that help growers across the UK and overseas adopt organic methods.
  • To find out more visit
Note from Sustainable Urban Gardens: This article is not hot-off-the-press and is from the UK, but this important information is so clearly stated and is pertinent for all growing areas that we felt it was important to share with you.
We ask that you post how many of these bumblebee attractants you are growing in your urban garden or farm. We welcome your input and any comments!
Thank You!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

In L.A., a Breakthrough in Local Eating

In L.A., a Breakthrough in Local Eating

Jul 28 2010, 9:33 AM ET

Katie Robbins - Katie Robbins is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has covered food, culture, and lifestyle for a variety of publications, including Psychology Today, Saveur, Meatpaper, Tablet, and BlackBook, among others.

                                                                                                       Rebecca Fishman
Lunchtime at L.A.'s Forage restaurant
The simply named "early summer vegetables" recently offered at Forage, a new eatery in Los Angeles's hip Silver Lake neighborhood, was a crisp, fresh tribute to the area's bounty of locally grown produce. The dish featured blue lake beans from Tamai Farms in Oxnard, summer squash from Santa Paula's Coastal Organics, and the most local of all, a blanket of bright yellow sweet corn grown in a backyard in the nearby Highland Park neighborhood.
In a town where you can't swing a reusable canvas shopping bag without hitting a restaurant touting its locavore credentials, Forage and its talented young chef, Jason Kim, have managed to take the concept of "locally grown" to a new extreme. The restaurant's Home Growers Circle allows Los Angeles residents to trade produce from their backyard plots in exchange for credits at the popular restaurant.

When Kim, who honed his chops as sous chef at the acclaimed Lucques restaurant, opened Forage in January, he knew he wanted to try to take advantage of the fecundity of the city's backyards.

"I had a friend who grew stuff just for himself and ended up having tons of produce from this small garden," Kim recalls. "He couldn't eat it. I thought that would be cool if there were a lot of other people like him."

And so Kim put out an experimental call to neighborhood gardeners, requesting that they bring in any surplus produce from their backyards.

Since it was the height of citrus season, the two or three growers who responded in those early weeks brought a mix of blood oranges, tangelos, and lemons, plucked from the trees that are ubiquitous throughout the city. As the word spread, the number of growers quickly ballooned to 15, whose harvests revealed the rapidly changing growing season.

"Other stuff started coming in," Kim says. "Fava beans, broccoli, mustard greens. Some stuff that I'd never seen before." One Sunday, a month after the project's launch, he received a record 300 pounds of produce, all from amateur backyard gardeners.

For the growers, the program offered a home for excess crops, such as those grown by Lewis Perkins, a financial planner who, on a quiet residential street in Santa Monica, has created a tropical secret garden tucked away on the 7500 square feet that make up his front and back yards. With the help of his girlfriend, Tara Fass, Perkins has cultivated a miraculous array of exotic fruits like black and white sapote, Afghan mulberry, six varieties of guava, and even coffee. But before he discovered the Forage program, much of the produce went to waste.

"It broke my heart to see ripe fruit drop," says Fass, who works as a marriage counselor. "I kept seeing this kind of massacre with so much fruit on the ground." Though Fass and Perkins gave away fruit by the bag to clients, friends, and neighbors, there was always a surplus. "You can only make so many smoothies and pies," Fass says.

"When I heard about Forage, I said to Lewis, you gotta see this," she adds. "We had this huge tangerine crop."

Those tangerines made it onto the Forage menu as agua fresca, and blossoms from their pineapple guava bush were candied and used to decorate cakes.

"Other customers were shocked at first," Kim admits. "They couldn't believe what they were eating was grown in Echo Park." But when they tasted it, he says, those doubts were quickly allayed. "The stuff growing in backyards is good stuff. It's better than the stuff at [local supermarket] Vons."

 With so much confidence in these growers' produce, Kim listed them on chalkboards in Forage's dining room, alongside the big-name farms from which the restaurant also sourced its produce. Images of the home growers, also referred to as "foragers," were featured on the restaurant's website. Buzz about the hyper-local menu spread, eventually catching the attention of the county health department.

In April, Kim was instructed to stop taking produce from home growers. "We were not allowed to accept things from 'unapproved sources,'" Kim says. "People's backyards were not allowed." He was told that these unlicensed growers represented a liability if a customer were to become ill.

And so for several months, the program was halted, as Kim and the growers searched to find a way to reinstate the program. Because this type of extreme local sourcing is so unusual, there was little precedent to look to. The Food and Flowers Freedom Act, recently passed by the city council, offered some hope, as it allows home growers to sell their produce directly to the public, but it didn't address the "approved growers" concern when it came to serving homegrown produce at restaurants.

Ultimately, Kim and the Forage team learned that the backyard gardeners could actually be licensed through the same system that allows traditional farmers to sell at farmers' markets. By paying a $63 fee and undergoing an inspection, the home growers could receive Certified Producer's Certificates from the county agricultural commission, clearing them to sell their produce to restaurants and markets.

The foragers' gardens were inspected, fees were paid, and this month the program re-launched with five certified home growers. Forage is planning to expand the circle to 10 by August, selecting growers from an online application process. Kim stresses that the produce he uses from the home growers receives the same exacting scrutiny as the items he finds at the farmers' market. Together with the grower, he tastes every batch of produce before accepting it.

"These guys are all serious growers. They definitely know what they're doing," Kim says. "Now that they're approved, they're more legit. At the end of this, I hope they don't just sell to me. I hope that they're at farmers' markets so the whole city can tap into urban-grown produce. This is a whole new avenue to get food."

With this new legitimacy, some of the growers—like Warren and Lovejoy Ontiveros, who were part of the original program and among the first to receive certification—have begun to imagine a time when they might be able to use the food they grow as a livelihood. Although for now the couple sees their garden in Highland Park primarily as recreation, they hope it will ultimately become a profitable side business. "I'm practicing, sharpening my ax," says Warren Ontiveros, who works for the L.A. County Parks Department. "I'd like to see if we can make ourselves more self-reliant."

Beyond the publicity that Kim's well-reviewed restaurant brings to the concept of using urban farmed produce, it may be the initiative of growers like the Ontiveroses that solidifies this nascent trend into a lasting movement. In addition to Forage, the Ontiveros have shared squash blossoms from their garden with a neighborhood Salvadoran restaurant, which has also asked the couple to grow loroco, a flower currently only available frozen, which the restaurant uses to flavor its pupusas.

The ability of the backyard gardeners to grow small crops of plants not readily available from larger farms has been one of the advantages of the program for Kim, who says the growers have pushed him to work with unfamiliar ingredients.

Such was the case shortly after the re-launch of the program, when Fass brought in a basket of Surinam cherries, which resemble lightly ribbed, bright red cherry tomatoes.

"I've never seen anything like it in my life," said Kim, popping a crimson orb into his mouth. "They taste like a cross between a bell pepper and a berry."

And with that the chef's mind was whirring, as he considered how to incorporate the unusual fruit into a dish, debating between lightly pickling it or using it in a simple salad. He ultimately paired it with a recent harvest from the Ontiveroses' garden, creating a sweet and sour eggplant dish.

"No one in L.A. has those berries. I'm the only one who has them," Kim enthused. "Any chef would be happy to take them."

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Growing Concern

A Growing Concern                                         Summer 2010
Urban Farms Are Sprouting up across the United States. Can They Translate Popularity into Profitability?
By Sena Christian

Sean Hagan shoves a digging fork into the soil and pries out a bunch of carrots. He ties the bunch together, then stops and looks across the crops to another farmer calling for his attention. She holds a gnarly root in her hand.

“Do we have something against large turnips around here?” asks Sonya Ciavola.

“I have something against turnips in general,” Hagan says. He’s not fond of their taste.

On a gloomy February morning, the blond, 29-year-old Hagan trudges through muddy row crops growing on six acres of agricultural land operated by Soil Born Farms Urban Agriculture and Education Project, a nonprofit farm in Sacramento, California. Soil Born has two other acres for pasture and plans to plant a three-acre fruit tree orchard this fall.

But this isn’t exactly the bucolic landscape typically associated with farming. The fields sit on the outskirts of a residential area. Down the street is a high school, as well as a shopping center with a Dollar Tree, grocery store, and gas station. A check-cashing business is nearby. 

For all its uniqueness, Soil Born Farms illustrates a larger national urban agriculture movement. In recent years, urban farming has become all the rage. Farms and community gardens in city centers seem to have struck a chord with an American public increasingly hungry for fresh, local, organic produce. Urban food plots have become media darlings, profiled in The New York Times Magazine and O, the Oprah magazine. They are attracting big grants from major philanthropies and enjoy the support of chefs at upscale restaurants.

City farms are sprouting in all sorts of unlikely places: in empty lots next to apartment complexes, across from high schools, and in old industrial centers. Sizeable food-production plots have sprung up in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Oakland, Milwaukee, Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco. The Food Project in Lincoln, Massachusetts involves more than 100 teenage farmers annually. Brooklyn boasts Added Value in the working class Redhook neighborhood. Phoenix has the aptly named Urban Farm.

Although part of the broader sustainable food phenomenon, many of the country’s urban farms seek to tackle issues that Whole Foods, with its relatively high prices and affluent customers, is not addressing. The urban farm movement aims to take control of food production away from large-scale industrial agriculture and root it within local food systems that attempt to ensure food access for the urban poor. Often located in low-income neighborhoods, many city farms operate off the basic premise that healthy, affordable food is a basic human right. “Food justice” is the mantra of most, if not all, of the organizations in the urban farming movement. That means serving the estimated 14 percent of Americans who experience food insecurity – 49 million people who are unsure where they’ll find their next meal.

Yet urban farming’s potential to address the challenges of our food system remains unclear. Although popularity and trendiness can be big boons to business, these urban farms haven’t yet found a way to thrive in the market economy. Most rely heavily on volunteer labor and grant funding. They may be at the forefront of ecological sustainability, but economic sustainability eludes them. And that’s a problem because they are unlikely to fulfill their aspirations and make a meaningful dent in the problem of food insecurity if they are forever running on the treadmill of foundation funding.

“The most fundamental question is about scale,” says Brahm Ahmadi, co-founder of People’s Grocery in Oakland.

By “scale” Ahmadi means the ability of urban farming projects to satisfy the demand for sustainable food that exists in a given community. According to Ahmadi, in many food-insecure neighborhoods 60 to 70 percent of food dollars are spent outside the community. Most urban farms are able to close only a fraction of that gap, about 10 percent.

“If we’re going to address food justice to make any significant effect on this massive issue, we’re going to have to scale different,” Ahmadi says.

Let Them Eat Kale

On this Friday morning, the workers at Soil Born Farms gather arugula – an item planted at the request of a local chef at a fancy restaurant. Arugula will also be added to the farm’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, along with collards, chard, beets, carrots, mustard greens, and broccoli. A couple of teenagers help harvest vegetables. They earn $8 an hour to work about 20 hours a week as part of the organization’s Green Corps program to provide job training to local youth.

After harvesting, the group lines up boxes on a long table and unloads crates of produce. A cow moos. Soil Born Farms has seven sheep, 11 lambs, 80 chickens (that lay eggs to sell at the farm stand), four cows, and one pig that roams around aimlessly. A few yards away, Porter the dog runs through the fields. He keeps coyotes at bay. While the farm is adjacent to commercial and residential buildings on one side, the American River flows down the other side of the farm, offering a touch of wildness.

During winter, Soil Born harvests two days a week to fill 60 CSA boxes – 80 boxes in the summer. In a CSA, consumers pay for their weekly produce boxes in advance of the growing season, which gives farms a cushion from market forces and unpredictable weather, and provides consumers with food from a source they can trust.

This is Soil Born’s first attempt at a winter CSA program. The expansion is intended to raise funds and please customers who want local produce year-round. “We’ll make it,” Hagan says of the experiment. “But it’s going to be close.”

Soil Born Farms began as a small for-profit farm in 2000. In 2004, it transitioned into a nonprofit organization. “The plan was always to morph into an urban farm and education center that best addressed the diverse issues: food education, production, and improved access to healthy foods,” says Soil Born Farms co-founder Shawn Harrison. “Once we determined that we had the capacity and ability to grow food and be good farmers – [co-founder] Marco Franciosa and I did not grow up in farming – becoming a nonprofit was the natural choice.”

Harrison and Franciosa determined that in order to tap into community and foundation financial support, and more easily access public-land resources, becoming a nonprofit organization made the most sense.

In addition to the CSA, Soil Born runs a farm stand and sells food to restaurants. The farm also has an explicit social mission. It organizes a volunteer fruit-gleaning group, which donated nearly 20,000 pounds of produce to local food banks in 2009, and serves 1,500 children a year through its educational programs. Staff members also work closely with the city’s large Hmong community to increase market opportunities for Southeast Asian growers. Balancing farming responsibilities with time-consuming educational programs can be challenging.

“I think the urban farmer takes a certain kind of mold,” Hagan says as he ties bunches of carrots together. Most farmers only want to grow food, he says. Urban farmers, on the other hand, must also engage the public.

The organization is doing its best to sustain itself through sales, which isn’t easy. In 2009, the organization’s budget was $780,000; the 2010 budget is about $1 million. Nearly 60 percent of the organization’s revenue comes from private foundations and government grants. What Soil Born Farms could use, the managers acknowledge, is a big revenue-generating idea.

“We’ve yet to make the farm self-sufficient,” Hagan says. “I think we’re close.”

Gardening as Self Sufficiency

Two hours west, the San Francisco Bay Area boasts several urban farms. In Richmond – a city isolated by freeways and railroad tracks and best known as the home of a giant Chevron oil refinery – the Eco Village operates on five acres of land surrounded by blackberry vines as well as oak and walnut trees. Down in West Oakland is City Slicker Farms, which residents founded in 2001 in a predominantly African-American neighborhood that now includes a growing number of Latinos and Asians. The organization’s staff works out of a building next door to a barbed-wire fence. Across the street sits a boarded-up brick building.

On a Saturday morning in March, neighbors congregate for a weekly farm stand in front of one of City Slicker Farms’ seven garden sites. Customers try samples from a plate of honey while bagging up carrots and bok choy, self-determining what price they can afford. The organization uses sliding scale pricing so no one is turned away for lack of funds. The first level is for those out of work whose unemployment check maybe hasn’t yet arrived – City Slicker Farms asks for no explanation – and these people get carrots, lemons, collards, celery, and other items for free. The second level is intended for people living paycheck-to-paycheck who would otherwise search for deals at Safeway; they pay between 50 cents and $1.25 for a bunch of greens or a bag of carrots. The third level is for people who can afford to shop at Whole Foods but would rather support the farm stand and can afford to pay a little more. They pay between around $2 for a bag or bunch.

“Good to see you, it’s been awhile,” says City Slicker Farms Executive Director Barbara Finnin, hugging an elderly African-American woman named Edith. Finnin moved to West Oakland 11 years ago but has farmed her whole life, having grown up in a Mennonite agricultural community in Pennsylvania. The two chat and Edith comments on her backyard garden, built by City Slicker. “I love it,” she says.

City Slicker Farms hosts a backyard garden build every Saturday for low-income residents. It’s like a traditional barn-raising, with everyone and anyone in the neighborhood invited to chip in. Participants in the program help build their garden beds, with soil, plants, seeds, and a fruit tree donated by the organization. For two years, a garden mentor provides horticulture advice to participants. Since the program started in 2005, the organization has built 112 gardens; 99 of those families remain involved.

As morning turns into afternoon, Abeni Ramsey, the group’s market coordinator, walks through the garden behind the farm stand, the place where it all started in 2001. Now the site acts more as a demonstration garden, with a worm bin, an outdoor classroom, and growing tubes that sprout parsley, green onions, and celery. Every summer growing up, Ramsey traveled from Berkeley to Queens, New York, to help her grandfather prune tomatoes and harvest corn at his urban farm. About a decade ago, Ramsey recalls, the only grocery store in West Oakland closed down.

“I had a hard time getting access to healthy fruits and veggies,” Ramsey says. One day, she biked through the neighborhood and saw signs for City Slicker Farms. “I couldn’t believe someone was advertising fresh produce in West Oakland.”

Before long, the organization built two garden boxes in the shambles of a backyard behind her old Victorian house. Later, she acquired chickens and goats, recognizing that the once-empty space could provide food for her whole family.

“Just because [West Oakland] looks like a barren wasteland, it doesn’t have to be like that,” says Ramsey, who serves as one of City Slicker Farms’ eight staff members.

As Ramsey and Finnin visit with neighbors, two young men venture up to the farm stand, one holding a video camera and the other air-monitoring equipment. They’re part of a youth media group investigating the Bay Area’s “Toxic Triangle”: San Francisco’s naval shipyard, Richmond’s Chevron refinery, and the Port of Oakland.

The air pollution and lead in the soil in parts of many US cities compound another critical roadblock for food-access folks: the lack of land available for urban farming. City Slicker Farms doesn’t own any of the land upon which it grows. Neither does Soil Born Farms. Finnin wants the city of Oakland to allocate land specifically for agricultural use. She wants the city to repurpose parks and turn them into edible gardens.

The group’s long-term vision involves West Oakland growing 40 percent of its own fruits and vegetables. City Slicker staff estimate that meeting that goal would require 77 acres of land, or 3 percent of the community’s total area.

“We’re trying to build capacity for self-sufficiency,” Finnin says. “We want this to scale.”

City Slicker Farms’ food-justice mission is driven by the ideal of neighborhood empowerment: Teaching local residents how to garden and feed themselves.

But City Slicker Farms, like Soil Born, faces the classic challenge of nonprofit organizations – a dependence on grants. The question remains: How can City Slicker Farms get bigger? It’s the same problem faced by most urban farms and food-access organizations.

Take, for example, Milwaukee’s Growing Power, widely recognized as one of the most impressive urban farms in the country. Growing Power operates 14 greenhouses situated on two acres in a working-class neighborhood, near the city’s largest public-housing project. The farm produces a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of food a year, which feeds 10,000 residents through an on-farm retail store, restaurants, schools, farmers’ markets, and low-cost CSA shares. Founder Will Allen, whose father was a sharecropper in South Carolina, started the organization in 1993. In 2009, he was honored with a MacArthur “genius” award. Allen uses millions of pounds of food waste as compost – some of which is sold – and plants seeds at quadruple density to maximize space. From a sustainable-agriculture standpoint, Growing Power is a success. But it’s not financially self-sufficient. In the past five years, Allen has received at least $1 million in grants.

Produce to the People

People’s Grocery, another food justice organization based in West Oakland, believes it has a plan to be both economically self-sufficient and meet its core goal of increasing food access for low-income households: opening up its own neighborhood grocery store.

In 2003, the organization started distributing organic food in the area with its “mobile market” – a mediagenic biodiesel-powered, brightly painted converted postal van that cruised the neighborhood, stopping on corners to sell all the offerings one could find in a typical health food store. While the effort was a huge success in terms of public education, it was a financial drain. Sixty percent of the market’s revenue came from philanthropies, and the organization shuttered the van in 2006.

Since then, People’s Grocery has pivoted its focus to food production. The organization has two garden sites in Oakland and a 3.5-acre farm 35 miles away. Its CSA program – called GRUB – serves roughly 300 customers. Like City Slicker Farms, People’s Grocery has a graduated pricing system. People on food stamps, or those suffering from chronic disease, pay a discounted rate, while more affluent customers can purchase a “sponsorship box” at a premium rate to subsidize the program’s costs. The GRUB boxes generate close to $50,000 a year in revenue, but People’s Grocery remains reliant on donations and grants.

“We realized we had to spin off and do the venture to demonstrate that an inner-city store can be successful, and that a local-food project can exist without a charitable structure and subsidies,” says co-founder Ahmadi.

Not a single large grocery store exists in West Oakland, a neighborhood of about 24,000 people covering five square miles. But some 50 corner stores operate there, which equates to about one store for every 500 residents, as opposed to the middle-class neighborhoods of Oakland where one corner store exists for every 7,000 people, according to Ahmadi. Additionally, he says, corner stores charge 30 to 100 percent more for the same items sold in grocery stores.

A 2008 study found that West Oakland residents spend about $54 million annually for food for at-home consumption. Sixty-eight percent of this annual expenditure is not met locally, which equates to almost $37 million lost from the local economy. Or, put another way, even in this relatively poor neighborhood there’s a $50 million food economy, which means there should be some way for the economics to pencil out for a sustainable food operation.

After that study came out, Ahmadi totaled the revenues and weight of food distributed by five West Oakland food-access organizations – including People’s Grocery and City Slicker Farms – and compared those to the identified food-spending power. Together, the organizations’ total activities met about 1 percent of the community’s demand.

“That was a very humbling experience, and a very important moment for me to realize how far we have to go,” Ahmadi says. “We have to scale, that’s the bottom line.”

To reach a scale that can meet demand, food access organizations have to offer a broad selection of products, large quantities of those products, accessible locations, and convenient operating hours – the same basics that customers at Whole Foods in the more upscale city of Berkeley expect – with the added bonus of affordable prices.

“Low-income residents want full selection across a broad array of categories, which is why they spend a lot of time, money, and effort traveling to outlying grocery stores that are large enough to offer a suitable selection,” Ahmadi says.

The group is about to start lease negotiations on a site that was once a popular shopping center. And Ahmadi believes he can leverage the nonprofit’s history of success to attract investors. The store, to be called People’s Community Market, is set to launch in early 2011.

Growing Profits

As even its ardent protagonists acknowledge, city farming’s potential is limited. The United States’ small-scale city farm projects are micro-enterprises with modest revenue and distribution. They provide an important entry point for city dwellers to learn about the need for sustainable food systems, but they will never feed the country.

Even in poorer West Oakland, there’s a $50 million food economy.

“Urban agriculture is just a piece of the food system, but it’s an important piece to educate the consumer and get food to underserved communities,” Soil Born’s Harrison says. “It provides an opportunity for people to touch the food, to feel it, for it to be more present in their daily lives.”

The best strategy for urban farm organizations might be to simply let the fruits and vegetables speak for themselves. At least, that’s the approach taken by Greensgrow, an urban farm started in 1998 in a low-income neighborhood of north Philadelphia, that has figured out how to both turn a profit and make local organic produce available to nearby residents. The organization has a one-acre plot of raised beds and greenhouses on the site of a former steel-galvanizing factory. It sells vegetables, herbs, honey, and seedlings produced on-site, along with produce, breads, meats, and cheeses from local producers. Greensgrow also makes biodiesel from waste oil produced by the restaurants that buy its vegetables.

“We are extremely diversified,” says co-founder Mary Seton Corboy. She says this diversification partly explains why her organization is financially self-sufficient, while many other urban farms are not. In 2009, Greensgrow had an income of $825,000. That’s earned income from CSAs, farm stand sales, restaurant sales, and nursery sales. Their profit of $85,000 was then invested in community programs, including workshops, tour visits, and plant giveaways.

While diversification is important at Greensgrow, “we have a linear vision and stay on track,” Corboy says. “I think some groups try to do too many things at once. Sometimes you just have to grow the peach and sell the peach.”

Greensgrow is, technically, a nonprofit. The group recently started a community kitchen and received $20,000 in grants to cover initial costs. The farm is starting a low-income CSA later this year, and because there’s an educational component to the program, the organization is looking for outside funding. But with a social mission focused on incubating ecological entrepreneurship, Greensgrow has always operated as if it were a for-profit company. 

“Greensgrow’s greatest success is that it has been around a decade or so and that co-founder Tom [Sereduk] and I never killed each other,” Corboy says. “That shit-hole piece of land is no longer a shit-hole piece of land but a place the community likes. We keep pushing the rock up the hill. I suppose Greensgrow will be a success when places like it are commonplace.”

Sena Christian is a freelance journalist and newspaper reporter based in Sacramento, California. She covers feminist, environmental and social-justice issues.