Menu for the Future

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Tomorrow night is the last meeting of my “Menu for the Future” discussion group. This discussion group was organized by Slow Food Tennessee Valley, and incorporates essays compiled by the Northwest Earth Institute (http://www.nwei.org). The short essays are written by well-known authors such as Wendell Berry, Michael Pollen, Marion Nestle, Steven Hopp, Frances Moore and Anna Lappé amongst others. The purpose of the discussion group is to explore the connection between food and sustainability and to share our thoughts and personal experiences–not necessarily come to consensus. Some of the topics included the effects of our modern, industrial food system on the environment, our culture and our health; the economic and ecological impacts that go hand-in-hand with how our food is grown and prepared; and how we can make a difference through our food dollars. My favorite section was on food justice issues, including ways to incorporate healthy food choices into low-income and minority demographics and the politics of hunger in America. I was particularly incensed when reading an essay by Frances Moore Lappé on hunger and scarcity. The truth is, food scarcity today is a myth. There is enough food produced today to feed the world. The problem is a lack of resources and access to healthy food. Meanwhile, our industrialized food system contributes to abuse of our soil, water and air quality so that in the not-too-distant future our food scarcity fears may be very real. Additionally, the loss of crop diversity and consolidation of seed into fewer and fewer hands due to agribusiness self-interest is a real threat to food security.

Marion Nestle asks: who benefits financially when our diets cause sickness and disease? Who benefits when there is a cheap, abundant supply of unhealthy food occupying virtually every shelf in the grocery store and on every block of our city squares? Who benefits when the burden of obesity and health is put squarely on the shoulders of the consumer, while food processors and marketers laugh all the way to the bank? Food injustice is rampant in our society and I think its important to work together to recognize this and fight for fairness and accountability in our food system. My personal belief, and one that is shared by Slow Food–is that the access to good, clean and fairly produced food is a right and not a privilege.

I thoroughly enjoyed this compilation of essays and I am sad to have it end…although I am excited for our celebratory potluck dinner that will wrap up our discussion group meetings. Maybe I will incorporate this discussion into the UT Organic Crops Internship Program this summer! Manny, Casey, Geoffrey, Shannon, Jeff–are you up for some summer reading?

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Wintertime Reading

It’s cold, gloomy and rainy here, enough to dampen the spirits of any sun-loving gardener. But winter is the perfect time to read, study and plan for the upcoming season. One of the best ways to get inspired is by reading a good book. An avid reader myself, I have compiled a list of good agriculture-related books over the last couple years, some I have had the pleasure to read, and others I still wish to read. Here is my book list, and I would love to know what your favorite books are, too!

  1. Wendell Berry. 1977. The Unsettling of America. Sierra Club Books. San Francisco, CA.
  2. Wendell Berry. 1977. The Gift of Good Land. North Point Press. New York, NY
  3. Rachel Carson. 1962. Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin. Boston, MA.
  4. Eliot Coleman. 1995. The New Organic Grower. 2nd Edition. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, VT.
  5. Masanobu Fukuoka. 1978. The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming. New York Review of Books. New York, NY.
  6. Albert Howard. 2007. The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture. The University Press of Kentucky. Lexington, KY.
  7. John Ikerd. 2008. Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture (Our Sustainable Future). University of Nebraska. Lincoln, NE
  8. Wes Jackson. 1980. New Roots for Agriculture. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE.
  9. Barbara Kingsolver. 2007.  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. HarperCollins Publishers. New York, NY
  10. Aldo Leopold. 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
  11. Aldo Leopold. 1999. For the Health of the Land: Previously Unpublished Essays And Other Writings
  12. Barry Lopez. 1990. The Rediscovery of North America. University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.
  13. Marion Nestle. 2002. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition, and Health. University of California Press. Berkley and Los Angeles, CA.
  14. Marion Nestle. 2006. What to Eat. North Point Press. New York, NY.
  15. Carlo Petrini. 2007. Slow Food Nation. Rizzoli Ex Libris. New York, NY.
  16. Michael Pollan. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Penguin Group Inc. New York, NY.
  17. Michael Pollan. 2008.  In Defense of Food. Penguin Group Inc. New York, NY.
  18. Rodale, Maria. 2010. Organic Manifesto. How Organic Farming Can Heal the Planet, Feed the World and Keep us Safe. Rodale Inc. New York, NY.
  19. Joel Salatin. 1998. You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise. Chelsea Green Publishing. White River Jct., VT.
  20. Eric Schlosser. 2001. Fast Food Nation. Houghton Mifflin Co. New York, NY
  21. P. Thompson. 1995. The Spirit of the Soil: Agriculture and Environmental Ethics. Routledge Press, London, UK.
  22. Alice Waters. 2008. The Edible Schoolyard. Chronicle Books LLC. San Francisco, CA.

Or maybe you’d like the opportunity to meet some new people? If you want to join a discussion group, Slow Food Knoxville is hosting a book club starting in March, with the book “Menu For the Future”, developed by the NW Earth Institute. Check the website for more details: http://slowfoodknoxville.com/

Growing Power!

ImageLast Week Matt and I went to visit his family in Milwaukee. While we were there, we had the opportunity to check out Growing Power–the innovative community/urban garden organization based in the Millwood Parks neighborhood of the city. I first heard of this (now famous) operation at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference last winter. Will Allen, founder and CEO, was a guest speaker and showed dozens (if not hundreds) of slides depicting all the good work they do in urban areas of Milwaukee, Chicago, and Madison, WI. I was inspired by how much could be done with so few resources! The “headquarters” in Milwaukee is on a 2-acre site, which holds the oldest greenhouses that are still in operation within the city limits. In this small slice of land, staff and interns maintain 6 greenhouses used to grow greens like arugula, pea shoots, sunflower shoots (microgreens), mustards and salad mix. Two more hoophouses are devoted to aquaponics, where tilapia and perch are raised (for protein!); 7 more greenhouses for salad and mushroom production, and a hoophouse just for vermicomposting (the base of the whole operation). In addition, Growing Power raises honeybees, goats and chickens! The site also includes a retail store and newly installed–anearbic digester (for creating bio-energy based on methane gas) and a water catchment system. Needless to say, I was in awe. To accomplish all of this, and also fulfill their commitment to education/outreach and community empowerment, there are 26 staff members that are on the payroll, earning a livable wage. The overall goal of this operation is to “grow food, grow minds and grow community”. The tangible results is they provide healthy, affordable and fresh produce to the community. The side effects of this are so much more: a safer neighborhood, education for the community, jobs for young people, recycling of waste (composting is HUGE there), reduction of energy use…these are just a few examples.

Will Allen has a book out entitled “The Good Food Revolution”. I purchased it after the tour, and can’t wait to read more about this project. Will Allen was also a 2008 MacArthur Genius Award winner, and as a result, Growing Power is getting more attention recently. I think this is a great thing–someday, maybe the “good food revolution” will creep across the Nation so that every city has something like this to serve as a model for urban agriculture!

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Onions and potatoes for sale outside the Growing Power retail store.

Sunscald on peppers

The interns noticed some bad looking peppers in the garden today, and asked me what it was. I had seen this on our peppers last year, but didn’t remember the cause of it. A glance back at my notes showed that this was sunscald on peppers, caused by lack of foliage on the plants. Just like us, fruit burns when it is exposed to direct sunlight. This damage makes the fruit unmarketable. What causes sunscald? Something, it appears, is hindering good leaf coverage. This could be a lack of nitrogen, or leaf drop due to a disease such as early blight or bacterial leaf spot, or prolonged wilting. We will have to investigate this further–tomorrow we will look for leaves showing disease symptoms, and rogue these out. We may have to apply copper (CHAMP WG) or Serenade for protection if diseases are found. This week will be hot, so we will have to make sure that our plants are getting enough water!

 

 

 

What Does ‘Slow Food’ Mean?

ImageI am still riding high from my trip to Louisville a couple weeks ago for the Slow Food National Congress…but first I should start at the beginning and answer an obvious question: “what is Slow Food and what does it have common with the organic agriculture?” The Slow Food philosophy is based on the premise that everyone should have access to food that is good, clean and fair. By “good”, we mean that the food we eat should give us pleasure. It should awaken all of our senses and make us happy to be alive and to have friends and family to share such simple pleasures with. Invariably, food that is good comes from fresh ingredients picked at the peak of ripeness and prepared simply and skillfully. Good food will nourish our bodies and make us strong and healthy. By “clean”, we mean that the foods we eat should be produced in ways that do no harm to the environment or ourselves. It is possible to grow food that does not pollute air and water and degrade our soils. It is possible to grow food without the use of petroleum-based, energy intensive inputs that are not sustainable. It is possible to produce food without spraying pesticides that may harm beneficial insects and pollinators, as well as the farm workers that are applying them. It is possible to cultivate the land in a way that replenishes both the environment and ourselves. By “fair” we mean that good food needs to be accessible and affordable to all while also sustaining the livelihoods of the producers. Is it fair when healthy, high quality fruits and vegetables are more expensive than highly processed junk food that is made with ingredients subsidized by tax payers? Is it fair when migrant workers make substandard wages and work long hours and are not afforded the same basic rights as the people who they are toiling for? Currently, the organics movement is producing good and clean food, but is it fair? Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t…how do we work towards a more equitable food system? How do we provide good, clean and fair food for all, not just the privileged and well-educated amongst us? These were some of the tough questions we attempted to answer at the Slow Food National Congress. Firstly, we had to recognize that we are largely amongst the fortunate that get to enjoy good, clean and fair food. Secondly, we identified the groups that don’t have the same access to this food: largely school children, elderly and the poor. We came up with some ideas of how to serve these groups better, but I am interested in what YOU think…can you come up with some ideas to make good and clean food fair?

The Appalachian Regional Commission Conference: Growing the Appalachian Food Economy

Last week I traveled to Asheville, NC to attend this forum on local food systems and sustainable agriculture, focusing on the Appalachian region. The goal of this conference was to showcase opportunities, strategies and resources we can use in our communities to strengthen food assets and local economies.

One of the sessions I attended was on “Models of Innovation: Educational Institutions as Incubation Hubs and Centers for Sustainability”. The speakers were from Tuskegee University in Tuskegee AL; Western Piedmont Community College in Morgantown, TN; Walters State Community College in Morristown, TN;   and Alfred State College in Alfred, NY. The speakers talked about the potential for community colleges to facilitate agricultural education and highlighted real experiences from the school farms at these institutions. It was great to find out about these agriculture programs that I was previously unaware of in TN. I was particularly impressed by the program at Western Piedmont Community College, which features a track in both sustainable livestock management and sustainable crop production. It would be great to take a field trip to this student farm!

The other session I attended was entitled “Farm-to-School, Farm-to-College, Farm-to-Hospital: the Value of Institutional Buyers”.  This session featured Emily Jackson, the program director for the Farm-to-School program of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) and Bekki Leigh, Coordinator of the Office of Child Nutrition of the West Virgina Department of  Education. West Virgina is making big strides in the Farm-to-School movement. The keys to success identified include the hiring of a Farm-to-School Coordinator at the WV Dept of Edu, the integration of resources, many planning meetings with the key players (including farmers, school board members, school nutrition directors and the kitchen staff), skill share with chefs and the kitchen staff to facilitate from scratch cooking, and starting small with fresh fruits and vegetables. There are also monetary incentives from the state department of Ag to encourage schools to buy local foods–this would help both school nutrition and local growers! Side-by-side education includes school gardens, and teaching children how to prepare the food they grow. These are important factors in supporting healthy eating habits and combating childhood obesity. These lessons can be translated to establishing a successful Farm-to-School program here in Tennessee, too.

This conference was very inspiring and informative. We need to be creative in  promoting local foods in our region, and this involves building and maintaining relationships with each other to keep this local-foods momentum going. There is a lot of work to be done on this front,  but I continue to see things moving in the right direction and I’m glad to be a participant in this movement!

 

 

Where did all the interns go?

It’s that time of year again. Time to say goodbye to the interns as they head back to school. We had a good season, the garden was more productive and less weedy than last year, thanks to all the hours spent mulching by the interns! Although the interns have gone, the vegetables, market and heat continue, making this time of year my least favorite. But rather than whine about the fall planting that needs to be done, the residue that needs to be composted, the trellising that needs to be taken down and the cover crops that need to be sown all at the end of a busy season, I would rather take this time to pay homage to the interns of 2011.

Let’s do alphabetical order, starting with Kathryn Allen.

Kathryn is a soil science major, and that’s always cool. Additionally, Kathryn is a natural at field work. She’s quick and efficient, and I never heard her once complain about the heat and the stresses of manual labor. She never even complained about fish emulsion duties! Kathryn always cared about where our excess produce ended up, and took it upon herself to make special trips to KARM to deliver unsold produce to make sure there was no veggie left uneaten. She was also quite good at making delicious basil syrup drinks for our farm potlucks. And her lavender shortbread was amazing. Hats off to you, Kathryn!

 

Now onto Kirsten Eisele.

Kirsten is an enthusiastic gardener in every sense. On her breaks she could be found with her nose buried in a gardening book and was full of tips and tricks to improve our production. Kirsten was also devoted to volunteering and had a very busy summer! She volunteered at Beardsley Community Gardens and for Food in the Fort, and at the Wisner’s Farm in Dandridge, TN. She left the farm in late July to move back to Alabama to start her own operation. Best of luck to you, Kirsten!

 

A huge thanks to Tiffany Morrison.

Tiffany is best known as the “safety lady” in the Institute of Agriculture, but we learned more about her through her volunteering at the farm and participation in the internship program. Tiffany is interested in learning more about sustainable agriculture, community gardening and the local food movement, so sacrificed her precious time to help us out with harvesting, planting, weeding or whatever needed done. She was most valued for throwing herself into any task and completing it well. My best time with Tiffany was planting potatoes, when she was patient with me as I corrected my (multiple) crooked rows! Tiffany also took great photos of the farm and helped set up a community garden at her child’s daycare. Thanks Tiffany and good luck in Austin!

 

Here’s a bit about Liz Newnam.

Liz studies in the Food Science program here at UT, and was great at knowing when to pick produce at it’s peak! Liz was also our marketer extraordinaire. A contributing cartoonist for the Daily Beacon, Liz was adept at coming up with the perfect pun for our market sandwich board. Since she’s left, we don’t even try anymore! A people person and a natural saleswoman, Liz really shone at our markets. She was also excellent at keeping our farm log book up to date. Come visit us again, Liz!

 

Last but not least, Ann Ramsey.

I’m not really saying goodbye to Ann, as she has decided to stay with us for awhile (yay!) Ann is an anthropology graduate student, and came into our program with a well-needed perspective on the importance of the social aspects of organic farming and sustainability. When I think of Ann over the summer, I think of her harvesting. Ann was queen of the packing house. She was quick and skilled at sorting, bunching, washing, packing and recording our market inventory. Not to say Ann didn’t put her time into the field. She’s planted, weeded and mulched her fair share, for sure. Ann is also quite good at the market, chatting it up with all the customers, and even remembering them when they return! (Something I’m not as good at, myself!) Glad you’re staying with us, Ann!

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our other support this summer, from Andrea Menendez and Alex Mindermann. Andrea was our “water quality gal” who would also help us at the market and in the gardens in a pinch. Andrea was always trustworthy and reliable, and a pleasure to work with. We hope she comes back next summer! Alex spent his third summer with us at the organic farm and was indispensable for helping me with my biopesticide research. Alex is a detail-oriented, thoughtful worker who is an asset in the field. Good luck on tour, Alex, and congratulations on your graduation!

I’ll close this homage on Daniel Priddy, who was my right-hand man and intern coordinator this year. Daniel basically planted the spring garden on his own (with some assistance from me) and was instrumental in the success of the program this year. Daniel is one of those rare breeds of generalist student workers, in that he excels at most everything we ask of him, and always does it with positive attitude. He’s pretty much an all-around awesome guy, and we are glad he’s staying with us again!

Interns, thanks for the great 2011 season! We miss you already!

 

 

Kirsten, Daniel and Liz


Ann, Kathryn and Tiffany

 

 

What’s Happening in the Greenhouse

Our greenhouse is full and we are anxious to move to the field with our warm season plants! Within the next two weeks, we’ll be busy hardening off our tender tomato, pepper and melon transplants, but in the meantime let me tell you how things are going for us in the greenhouse this year.

Our vegetable transplants are doing great this year, especially since switching to a new organic soil media–McEnroe’s Premium Organic Potting Soil (http://www.mcenroeorganicfarm.com/composting/potting). This mix has organic compost in it and produces beautiful, healthy transplants without the need for supplemental liquid fertilizers. We prefer this mix to the Sunshine grow mix we were using last year, which had minimal nutrients and needed to be amended with weekly applications of fish emulsion–a stinky mess! Also, we were getting a strange “fish film” on the surface of the media, which I believed disrupted water penetration through the plug cell. Producing healthy transplants is essential for the success of our market garden. Strong, healthy transplants are better able to withstand pressure from diseases and insects, are less likely to experience transplant stress, and more likely to establish quickly in the field, leading to a timely harvest. When the seeds are sown in the greenhouse in a good quality potting mix, they develop in time and are ready to go by the date on the seed package. The McEnroe mix is currently not available locally, however (if you know otherwise tell me!), so we order it through 7 Springs Farm based in Check, VA, and pick up two times a year in Marshall, NC. (side note—7 Springs Farm is starting Knoxville deliveries–contact Ron if you are interested in getting in on a bulk order: http://www.7springsfarm.com/).

Tomato plants with predatory mite sachets

Besides transplant fertility, one of our challenges is teaching proper watering. It seems so simple, but it takes a bit of experience to get a good grasp on water needs. Too much water and you could be promoting root rotting pathogens, fungus gnats and shore flies, and suffocating the roots by depriving them of oxygen. Too little water and, well, you know what happens! As the transplants get bigger and the roots fill the cells of the plug trays, they require more water. Also, the days are growing warmer, and we find some days we need to water twice–once in the morning and again in the mid afternoon. My favorite method to determine whether or not a plug tray needs water is to hand weigh it. A light flat means it’s time to water! This method requires some experience to literally “get the feel” for the weight of a properly hydrated flat. Another method that works with well-developed plugs that are nearly ready for field planting is to pull a plug out. You can then look at the plug and see if it is dry. With warm weather and nearly-ready transplants, we need to pay attention that we are watering thoroughly. One pass of the watering wand is not enough at this stage in the game, especially if the transplants are showing signs of wilting. I usually go over 3 times, or until I clearly see water coming out of the hole in the bottom of the flat. Then I feel the heavy weight of the flat for further satisfaction.

A word on pests: the pest we battle the most are western flower thrips. They especially love to hang out in my Galia melon flowers. (Usually, you don’t want your transplants to flower in the greenhouse, but these plants are reserved for my laboratory work and I need to repeatedly harvest leaves from them).  A bit of a conundrum as I am beginning to realize these plants are thrips (and whitefly) magnets! And they will move onto tomatoes and pepper plants, so sometimes a little biocontrol is warranted. Once I see thrips damage, I look for thrips. When I find a few thrips, I order biocontrol. I realized pretty early with organic growing that it is important to ALWAYS be looking for damage and pests every time you enter the greenhouse, because these critters and small and can go unnoticed–until the populations explode and you are passed the window for effective biocontrol. We order sachets of predatory mites, Neoseiulus (Amblyseius) cucumeris, which attack the larvae and eggs of western flower thrips.  Another reason to order as soon as you see thrips is because orders are only shipped out one or two days a week from most insectaries, and can take up to a week to arrive–enough time for your problem to get a whole lot worse. And remember, these critters are living and you need to apply them as soon as they arrive. They come packed in bran, so to determine whether or not your mites are active and alive, use a hand lens or just pour some bran in the palm of your hand and watch it move!

Meet the new interns for 2011!

Kathryn Allen is a double major in Soil Science and Spanish and plans to teach high school chemistry and environmental science after graduating. An interest in where food comes from sparked her interest in organic farming. She plans to share this interest with her future students through a school garden and composting program.

Kathryn Allan

Kirsten Eisele is a recent transplant from Nashville, here in East TN to learn how to grow things. She has experience working with biodynamic, organic, and sustainable small farms. One day shw would like to run a homestead-style small farm incorporating small scale livestock production, grains, dairy, and produce. ‘Little House on the Prairie’ may have influenced her a bit too much, as she is also interested in using draft horses and making soap out of lye.

Kirsten Eisele

Tiffany Morrison is a native of South Central Texas, and earned her B.A. in English Literature at Texas Tech University. Her general love of good food and healthy living has led her to pursue her passion for sustainable agriculture. Tiffany has a diverse professional background that includes journalism, marketing/advertising, corporate communications, education research and most recently environmental health and safety at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. She’s enthusiastic about her opportunity to participate in the UT organic farm-to-market internship.

Tiffany Kingston Morrison

Liz Newnam is a senior majoring in Food Science and Technology at the University of Tennessee. She is originally from Durham, NC, but came to Knoxville in pursuit of the adventure of new surroundings. Liz’s love of sharing and preparing food was inspired by her father’s fascination with different cultural dishes in the kitchen and her mother’s insistence on nightly family dinners. Food is not just something that nourishes the body—but something that nourishes the soul. Liz believes that food builds communities, and when we know where our food is coming from (our neighbors) and understand that they do not intend to neglect the great inheritance of the land, by growing organically, we trust in each other more and show each other a warm kindness.

Liz Newnam

Ann Ramsey is a graduate student in Anthropology where her research interests include food security, food sovereignty, and social justice.  A native Tennessean, Ann grew up working the backyard garden in her bare feet. Her love of the natural world drew her into sustainable agriculture. She is interested in the community-enhancing aspects of local food systems and sees organic farming as a way to shorten the food chain from field to table and acquaint consumers with producers.

Ann Ramsey

Last but not least, Daniel Priddy has stayed on with us and is working as the new intern coordinator for 2011.

Daniel Priddy