Soil in good heart….

About a week ago in my ESS 210 class, my professor screened a 13-minute clip on soil fertility to accompany his lecture on the similar subject matter. The clip summarized my thoughts, positions and approach to organic farming – a system that should support only the natural biodiversity of the soil which, in itself, is the full potential of the soil to improve its organic matter content and balance the quality of the soil with the minimum amount of external inputs by way of organic residues. Even though standardized by the NOP and other governing entities, organic agriculture has the potential to verge into conventional agricultural practices to a certain regulated standard. This will result into more damaging agricultural issues that have become a problem for the already approved synthetic products being used in organic agriculture today. The clip explores the idea that the fertility of the soil without synthetics or external inputs can produce a soil with high organic matter that can support plant growth and sustain soil quality to the extend of improving the soil’s fertility year after year. The video clip suggested that application of compost should be the only external input use to improve the soil fertility – it has been documented and experimented scientifically to improved yields, control weeds, pests and certain diseases, and a develop sustainable soil that will improve and grow in top soil inches year after year. Compost, just compost! 0316121353

If the intention or the potential of a plant is to create seeds and the soil to become fertile and the human to protect the integrity of the soil for food growth; this correlation between these three entities within each ecosystem across the globe represents what “true fertility” should be – the freedom of the plant, soil, and human to produce on their own terms.

Soil In Good Heart is a brief look at why good soil fertility is vital to life. It illustrates how valuable soil is to society and how it’s been neglected at our peril. The clip is a 13-minute excerpt from a full-length documentary entitled Symphony of the Soil. The clip is an award-winning clip receiving Special Jury Recognition Award at the Aspen Shortsfest Film Festival in 2010.


Protect our soils

Love our soils

All wealth in today’s society comes from the SOIL.


Benefit from Rooftop Gardens and Greenroofing

Think that the city is a dead zone for nature’s bounty? Think again. Urban rooftop gardens provide a variety of benefits for those who dwell in an urban environment. The vast space available on rooftops is often a most overlooked area which, ironically, patiently overlooks us as we walk in the city below. People are increasingly beginning to realize that these spaces have an abundance of natural resources to be accessed. Rain water and sunlight, as well as ample breezes, are there to be harnessed for human use. It is not necessary to depend upon food from far off lands when living in a city. Healthy natural foods can be ours in the city, free of charge, with a little planning and some innovative construction.




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            The city of Chicago Department of Environment offers a free booklet that can be accessed on the web, called Guide to Rooftop Gardening. The booklet outlines the benefits of rooftop gardens and other “green roof” alternatives. The beneficial use of once-wasted space is not the only benefit of green roofing or rooftop gardening. The phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect, caused by dark colored and bare surfaces on the tops of buildings, is greatly mitigated by these practices. Urban heat island effect often causes temperatures to stay much higher in areas where cooling costs can be a serious issue, especially in the summer months. The higher temperatures increase the smog in an area and are a hazard to human health. The carbon dioxide and other effluent from autos and industry are trapped by the heat island and reduce air quality. Plant life on rooftops not only clean the air through photosynthesis, but the lighter colors of materials and flora in a rooftop garden will reflect sunlight and cool ambient temperatures which reduces the direct ill effects of urban air pollution.

The green roof concept can be applied to almost any building. Even in a suburban setting, a small green roof setup will help insulate a structure and reduce heating and cooling costs year-round. Rooftops in the city should come standard with solar panels and wind turbines considering the fossil fuel crisis currently plaguing the minds of sustainability advocates and well-informed citizens, alike. Rooftop gardens can delay the peak flow of falling rainwater and store it for use by plants. Pursuing a healthy hobby with aesthetic and physically rewarding outcomes are other reasons to get into urban rooftop gardening—not to mention, you could eat for free and the view is often a unique and beautiful vantage compared to the often cramped and busy city below.


Chicago City Hall green roof is a beautiful site among the drab gray of the city.


A rooftop in Camden, NJ. This was taken from an add posted by a company that will plant and maintain rooftop gardens for clients, a great business model for horticulture enthusiasts and sustainability proponents with some green-thumb skills.


This rustic looking scene is pleasantly enhanced with the lush meadow-like feature covering the red house’s rooftop.


Green rooftops can be for commercial business . . .


. . . for residential application . . .


. . . and for pleasure.

Wherever you may find your self, working with available natural resources to enhance your quality of life is always the right thing to do. Many studies have shown that humans benefit from a more natural environment in mind, body, and spirit. Better air quality, reduced climate control expenses, and even better memory and cognitive function are all rewards to be reaped with green-spaces. Why not incorporate one into the often overlooked spaces that were looking over us all this time?

All photos sourced from the web and are displayed under fair use.

2014 CSA currently open for enrollment!

Spots in the 2014 CSA are going fast!  Many have requested a place online to review the details of the CSA, and this is that place! If you are interested in fresh organic produce in 2014, this could be the deal for you!  Whether or not you decide to participate in the season-long CSA, we will always be happy to see you at the farmers market this summer where we sell our produce at a booth at the UT Farmers Market from May – October. It is located in the UT Gardens on the Agriculture Campus at the University of TN on Wednesday from 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM

CSA information packet 2014

You can enroll by mail using the form at the end of the information packet above, or online by following this link.  If enrolling online, please follow the options for “UT Organic & Sustainable Crops”, then add CSA share to the cart.  Totals due will appear after the payment schedule has been selected.

Thanks for your support!

Preparing for Garden Guests

As we prepare for an abundant season of food for our CSA members and market, we are also planning food sources for the pollinators which perform a valuable service on the farm.  While bees are often the first pollinator which comes to mind, there are a variety of pollinators we depend on.  One of the most lovely is the Monarch.  The adults may feed on the nectar of many plants, but the species depends primarily on a single genus of plants, commonly known as milkweed for egg-laying and as a food source for the young larvae.  The insectary, is a portion of the garden dedicated to plants and flowers which invite pollinators and other beneficial insects to the garden.

Release of Monarch, reared from egg stage
Release of Monarch, reared from egg stage
Photo by Brenda Keith

The declining population of this pollinator has greatly concerned scientists lately.  There is a worry that they could become extinct in a very short time unless something changes.  Many people love the Monarch, and, unlike some insects; it is an easy creature to admire.  It is beautiful; it has a unique migratory habit, and great cultural significance.  In Mexico, they symbolize the souls of those who have passed on, and the migratory return in November coincides with the holiday, the day of the dead.  Across North America the Monarch is a symbol of summer, where butterflies frolicking in the sun rank right up there with cold watermelon and a day at the lake. 

Pathogens and parasites have an influence on natural populations of Monarch.  For this reason, many people are raising the young caterpillars from the egg stage to maturity in a protected environment in order to increase the reproductive success of the Monarch.  When combined with these natural pressures, human influence, which leads to vast landscape changes and the introduction of toxins into the environment, increases the difficulty for the population to remain stable.  Modern agricultural methods are directly related to the plight of the Monarch.

A collection of Monarch eggs and larvae being reared to maturity. Photo by Brenda Keith
A collection of Monarch eggs and larvae being reared to maturity.
Photo by Brenda Keith
Monarch egg (center) and larvae at various stages of maturity. Photo by Brenda
Monarch egg (center) and larvae at various stages of maturity. Photo by Brenda Keith.

Modern agricultural trends which affect the Monarch include:  farm consolidation, increasing herbicide use, and pesticide use.  The consolidation of small farms into large industrial food complexes reduces the amount of traditional field border which often contained the food plant of the Monarch, Milkweed.  Herbicide use has increased, due to modified crops which will tolerate glyphosate and its application to ever larger areas on consolidated farms has eliminated healthy Monarch habitat in these areas.  Pesticides are not aimed at any particular species, but an entire trophic level.  There is no way to distinguish among the good insects and the bad ones.  The use of these chemicals in agriculture, horticulture, and increasing availability to homeowners who may not fully understand the consequences of their widespread application greatly reduces the number of safe places in the landscape for the migratory Monarch.

“Milkweed”, the food plant of the Monarch caterpillar, includes more than 100 species of the genus Asclepias and suffers from a negative label.  When classified as a “weed” or “pest” elimination becomes the natural goal.  In the past we have battled with pests and considered them such an invincible foe that we did not imagine that they could be reduced to a level of concern.  We are so invested in the battle which seems justified by a negative label that we fail to see the essential role that they fill and how it may connect to us.  But history has shown us to be quite successful in eliminating pests.  The Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet, both now extinct were both considered agricultural pests in the United States.

One advantage of Organic agriculture is that it treats the farm as an agricultural ecosystem where problems are ideally managed through rotation, timing, and increased diversity rather than chemicals.  This is good news for wildlife, and us as well.  Unfortunately, most insects do not capture our hearts and imaginations the way that the Monarch does, yet we are only a few steps away from them on the food chain.

Biologists know that in any ecosystem, problems in one portion of the food web, often lead to trouble in other portions of the system, including the human societies which are a part of them.  For this reason indicator species are often selected which serve as a measure of the health of the ecosystem, and they also serve as an early warning system if something is wrong in the system, like a canary in a coal mine.  Some indicators are chosen because they are susceptible to some environmental factor, such as water quality or toxins, and others are chosen because of economic or cultural significance.  If the Monarch is viewed as our canary, it’s not doing so well.

Glyphosate, which has virtually eliminated milkweed from farm ecosystems, has also been linked to several human illnesses.  Residue remains on foods and has even infiltrated the public water supply at low levels through agricultural run off in some areas.  Despite growing health concerns and questions of safety with this chemical, permissible levels are increasing rather than decreasing.

If you’d like to learn more about Monarchs and how to help their populations, the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project ( is one place to go for information and to participate in this citizen science project.  Even if you do not wish to become involved in research, to increase your enjoyment of the Monarch, you can make certain to avoid harmful chemicals on flowers which may be useful to pollinators and be sure to plant some milkweed to help this migrant complete its annual cycle.

Here’s a link to a recent article about health concerns with glyphosate exposure.

My thanks to Brenda Keith for providing photos of the wonderful work she does each year, helping to boost populations by raising larvae to maturity.

Extending the Growing Season

With spring fast approaching, it is time to consider options that would allow your growing season to begin even sooner. There are several ways in which you can extend the growing season to allow you to raise crops earlier in the spring or later into the fall.

This article will discuss two methods of season extension: greenhouses and high tunnels.

Greenhouses are metal or wooden framework covered in glass or plastic, which offer the greatest controlled environment for vegetable production. They are often used with heating systems or fans to provide temperature control, and the enclosed system offers protection from pests and the elements. They can be used to cultivate plants year round (especially in colder climates) and seed plants (grow plants from seeds that will later be transplanted). In a greenhouse, the plants are grown in pots or flats using potting mix. The plants are not grown in the ground, unlike in high tunnels.


Greenhouses can be found in a variety of sizes depending on your needs. Small, easy to assemble greenhouses can be found at many farmer’s cooperatives and other stores. Smaller greenhouses are ideal for seeding and growing plants for small farm or garden operations. In contrast, large operations often use market garden vegetable greenhouses that are normally 32 feet wide by 90 feet long. For more information and help choosing a greenhouse, visit these links: Choosing a GreenhouseGreenhouse Types and StructuresThe Benefits of a GreenhouseGreenhouse: The Benefits of A Greenhouse

High tunnels have become more popular in the past few years. Like greenhouses, they are made of stretched plastic over frames. However, in high tunnels plants are grown directly in the ground under the tunnel. The plastic sides of the tunnel roll up to provide ventilation, and normally no heating, cooling, or energy is used within the high tunnel. This often makes high tunnels a less expensive alternative to greenhouses, because they can have fewer costs from energy and potting materials. They are used for season extension and crop protection, but may get too hot to effectively grow plants in southern summers.


Also, the NRCS is currently offering a seasonal high tunnel initiative program that will provide funds for people interested in building high tunnels. Even new farmers have received 90% funding with the program. For more information, contact your county NRCS agent and read the following link: EQUIP Seasonal High Tunnel Extension Program.

For more information about high tunnels, feel free to view these links: High Tunnel Crop Production ProjectHigh Tunnels: OverviewThe Benefits of Building a High Tunnel

Both greenhouses and high tunnels offer great benefits to any grower. Be sure to consider your options as we wait for the snow to melt!

Industrial Hemp Making a Comeback in TN? Let’s Hope So!

There is currently a lot of talk and even some promising action surrounding the issue of re-legalizing the cultivation of industrial cannabis hemp. The 2014 Farm Bill was approved in the Federal House of Representatives finally last month with a crucial amendment that focuses on the rescheduling of industrial cannabis hemp. More specifically, the US Senate’s “Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013” would appropriately differentiate the non-psychoactive cannabis hemp from another variety of the plant currently placed under schedule I drug prohibition. The amendment to the 2014 Farm Bill “allows institutions of higher education to grow or cultivate industrial hemp for the purpose of agricultural or academic research.” The volition of the State’s will decide whether or not to allow hemp to be cultivated.


This is an incredible advance in the outmoded, if ever valid, prohibition of a vital crop which has been predicted to offer to meet and exceed the nations fiber and nutritional needs. Perhaps the US can once again become a major exporter–or at least begin to provide more for itself without ravaging the land. Cannabis hemp may be a superior feedstock for bio-fuels, plastics, building materials, insulation, and a host of other products that currently are derived from unsustainable fossil fuel consumption. The impressive scale of this reality may hold promise to an end in the need to cut down one more single tree for paper. Hemp is a crop that can offer a profitable and sustainable mode of agriculture to the landscape in Tennessee.


 Proponents of forestry and agriculture alike will surely recognize this as an epic turning point in our history—one which will likely be venerated by future generations. It is likely that the prohibition of the plant was tied to political and industrial interests which sought to remove competition from the vital and versatile agricultural crop to make way for other products in the capitalistic pursuit of profits. The controversy surrounding genetically modified crops, the need for bioremediation, the plague of petrochemical pollution, and the viability of agriculture and manufacturing for Americans are all benefits for our failing economy.


One does not have to do too much digging to research on the Web to read about the history, many uses, and benefits of this crop that has been a part of humankind at least since agriculture itself was developed.

Legislature pertinent to the new Farm Bill is currently awaiting approval in Tennessee. There are many avenues from which to show your support for this groundbreaking step toward better health and economic stability for Tennesseans:

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Please click the links below to explore a viable crop with exciting economic and environmental benefits for the land, people, families, and communities of our nation:

(All photos sourced from the Web--not property of the author.) -Fiber strain different than drug -Hemp as a pesticide [nematicide]

Bee Friendly

So we all know that America’s bee population is declining at an alarming rate. According to the USDA Agriculture Research Service, the total number of managed honey bee colonies has gone from 5 million in the 1940s to half of that today. “At the same time, the call for hives to provide pollination services has continued to increase. This means honey bee colonies are being transported over longer distances than ever before,” (ARS).

There are many possible reasons for this decline, but it seems that a clear answer has yet to be found. Some of the possibilities scientists are looking at are pathogens, such as Nosema, described morbidly as “pathogen gut fungi,” and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (ARS). Other possible causes are management and environmental stressors, including lack of diversity of plant nectar, being shipped all over the place, and not enough access to clean water in the wild. One, some, or all of these factors have most likely caused this decline, otherwise known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD for short, (ARS).
beeAs caretakers of the earth, we want to prevent this from continuing. The organic approach to agriculture, in my opinion, would help slow this tragic loss. We depend on bees for pollination and without them we would be in a bad state, let me tell you. According to the ARS, “About one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination.” They contribute billions to our country’s agricultural production annually!
That being said, I recently became aware of the fact that not all organic methods of farming are bee-friendly. Organic farmers are allowed to use a list of approved substances for fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides. The Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation listed some of these substances and rated them as “Non-Toxic,” “Low Toxicity,” and “Highly Toxic,” in reference to the bee’s well-being. I will list them here for you:toxicity table
I, personally, was surprised that some of the approved practices for organic farming could be part of the cause of CCD! I’m beginning to become aware of the fact that there are two groups of organic growers. There’s the group the truly cares for the environment and then there’s the group that is just trying to capitalize on the new up-and-coming organic food trend. Then again, I know there are others out there like me who had no idea that even organic methods can be bad for bees, as well as countless other insects, however I really see my future farming adhering to Sir Albert Howard’s strict definition of what organic means. “The system (or growing production) ‘having a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts, similar to that in living things’,” (Heckman). The earth is made of a myriad of complex systems, each relying on the other to do what it does best. When one part of the large-scale system is damaged or suffering, it effects all the others in one way or another, so farming in a way that’s closest to being natural is always best, and be sure to read up on any substances you’re thinking of using!
Another practice that can help keep the bee population safe is conservative biological control, which basically means creating a bee and beneficial insect-friendly habitat in your yard, garden, or around the farm. Bees love lots of brightly-colored and sweet-smelling flowers! Crop diversity in general is good, not only for insects, but for our plant species as well! The concept of introducing beneficial insects is definitely better than using a chemical pesticide, but the Xerxes Society says this can be detrimental to bees due to the fact that some of these non-native insects think bees are tasty, too. Also, low/conservation tillage and avoiding the use of plastic mulch helps as well, as 70% of America’s bee species nest underground.
One other thing you can do to help the honey bee population is to start a hive or two or your own! The University of Tennessee offers the BeeMaster Program, a program that teaches beginners all the things you need to know to be successful. This spring it will be held on the UT Ag campus, as well as several other locations. I’ll post that link and the link for the Tennessee Beekeepers’ Association below if you are interested!

UT's BeeKeeper Program

UT’s BeeMaster program:
Tennessee Beekeepers’ Association:

USDA Organic Info

USDA Agriculture Research Service “Honey Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder.”

Mader, Eric. “Organic Farming Practices: Reducing Harm to Pollinators from Farming.” Invertebrate Conservation Fact Sheet. Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation.”

Heckman, J. “A History of Organic Farming: Transitions from Sir Albert Howard’s War in the Soil to USDA National Organic Program.” Aug. 20, 2005.

Transplanting Time?

This year one of the goals here on the farm (UT organic farm) is to increase yields – especially for our CSA program. High yield is the ultimate goal for all farmers whether in organic or conventional systems. One way to increase yields and get a head start on the growing season is TRANSPLANTING. Studies have shown that transplanting eliminates unhealthy seedlings from crop/field production. Crops produced from transplant often lead to early yields, uniformity in growth sizes, and better weed control than direct seeding. There is a definite advantage in growing one’s own transplant as to purchasing. Purchasing cutback on greenhouse fuel and labor costs. Well, what if you do not have a greenhouse and instead of purchasing, you intend to produce your own transplants. The following is a “do it yourself” list for transplant production in organic farming/gardening:

1. Set your budget
2. Select crop varieties for growing season
3. Purchase certified organic seeds
4. Design a pre-test for seed germination (place a number of seeds
on a damped paper towel and place in a cool area)
5. Select the proper potting mix, NOT soil – certified organic
peat or other soil-less mixes (this allows for aeration,
germination, water holding capacity, etc)
6. Container for seedlings – seedling flats
7. Watering seeds demands high attention (avoid over and
under watering seeds)
8. Know the transplant age, growth stage, and possibly ideal
growth temperature of your crop selections (e.g. tomatoes:
transplant age 5-7wks, at growth stage ready to transplant,
must have buds but, no flowers, and temperature for day 75
degrees and night 65 degrees)
9. Keep potted seedlings in controlled environment at proper
temperatures during the days and nights

Happy Seedlings Awaiting TransplantTransplanting comes with so many advantages that benefits the farmer and the crops such as: enhanced uniformity for better growth, weather adaptation, reduce input costs compared to direct-seedling, decrease weeds, fast turnaround time, minimize labor cost (highly important), and lastly, less seeds usage – which reduce cost on seeds.

Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group

I recently attended the 23rd annual SSAWG conference held in Mobile, AL. This conference is a great networking and educational tool for beginning and seasoned farmers. Topics range from starting a small farm, understanding farm policies, how to maximize yields and profits, creating farm to school programs, high tunnel production, cattle management, insect identification and control, and understanding the biodynamics of a farm system. The University of TN was well represented and many colleges and universities were very interested in our internship program, and how we help to grow young farmers while feeding the Knoxville community.


At the end of every conference, a dinner is held to acknowledge the accomplishments of the sustainable movement and areas of improvement.


I am already looking forward to next year’s conference which will again be held in Mobile, AL. Hope to see you there!

Concepts and Themes in Design – Permaculture Course

Originator of the Permaculture Concept, literally denoting permanent agriculture, is Australian agriculturalist, educator, and permaculture pioneer, Bill Mollison. His contributions in the area of agricultural design and processes have given rise to many concepts that focus on developing a sustainable agriculture in all varieties of setting and climate. Permaculture not only encompasses the culture of soils and plant life, but it pays attention to all aspects of human interaction with the natural environment, such as housing, transport, community design, etc, which all spring from the idea that resources should be conserved within intentionally designed systems; much like the traditional concepts involved in organic agriculture.

In this video of one of his classes taught at the University of Melbourne, Australia, Mollison draws from his experiences with aboriginal people among other things to express major concepts and major themes in design that one should think of when implementing an intentionally sustainable system of agriculture. Mollison notes the importance of experimentation and continuous attention to natural rhythms, geometry, and other mathematical concepts that allow the designer to create something better than what is conventionally accepted. The video is set in the classroom with Mollison using a chalkboard to aid in his lecture. His ideas and stories are fascinating and intriguing in my opinion!