Posted by: Bill Stoneman | August 4, 2009

Cost/benefit analysis part 2

If home growers take a step beyond vegetables and fruits, it’s probably going to be to raise hens for the eggs. There have been quite a few accounts in the media about this in the last year or so, including in this morning’s New York Times. And then the next step for some is raising chickens for slaughter. One problem, however, according to this article,  is that it could easily cost more in feed than a chicken will fetch on the open market. That looks like a losing proposition.

There still might be an argument for giving this and other currently losing propositions a try:  Skills acquired today could prove valuable if the price of commercially produced food rises enough some day, perhaps due to energy or environmental cleanup costs. Think of it like insurance. Except for whole and universal life, we generally don’t get a return on our investment in insurance coverage. But we buy it to protect ourselves in the event of an automobile accident, disability or untimely death.

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Posted by: Bill Stoneman | August 4, 2009

Where do baby spinaches come from?

This may seem odd to some, but the fact that food does not actually come from supermarkets and restaurants was not entirely clear to this writer until well into adulthood. And if you think about it, such ignorance is understandable.

If we wanted to stock the cupboard, we went to the store. If we didn’t want to prepare food ourselves, we went out, sometimes to places with drive-through windows.

Unfortunately, chances are that this line of thinking leads straight to a couple of the world’s most vexing problems: 1) All the king’s men and all the king’s technology can’t seem to stop us from packing on too many pounds. We have an obesity epidemic that is undermining everything else we know about health. 2) Oxygen depletion has just about eliminated all life from dead zones in the oceans – 405 of them as of August 2008, according to Scientific American. These zones primarily result from nitrogen-rich fertilizers washing from croplands into waterways. 3) We seem to be warming the atmosphere with our carbon emissions. 4). We’re eating more than we’re producing worldwide, according a June 2009 National Geographic article and thus drawing down our stock of food supplies.

Solving these challenges just might be slightly easier if more people understood more about where food comes from before it gets to the store or restaurant. Maybe, just maybe, some exposure to the taste of really fresh fruits and vegetables can stimulate some new thinking about how we eat. Combine that with exercise required to tend an organic garden and we might even improve a few people’s health. A few lessons in school about the composition of healthy soil and the requirements of different plants along with a bit of experience planting seeds and watching plants grow could give some of tomorrow’s scientists some of the perspective they’ll need to tackle the big issues ahead.

Mostly we think of agriculture-related courses as something for rural schools. Maybe we should adjust that notion some.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | August 2, 2009

Eating well, at least for a day or two

A late July harvest

A late July harvest

We’re a long way from feeding ourselves from our backyard garden. But pulling potatoes and garlic from the soil and picking zucchini, cucumbers, beans and lettuce on a sunny July morning at least suggested that good things are possible.  We harvested a couple of carrots and onions on the same day, but they didn’t show up in time for the photograph. And we actually have a ton of swiss chard still growing. We’re not big fans of it, however, and don’t think we’ll plant it again and therefore didn’t invite it to the picture-taking session.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | July 31, 2009

Tomatoes at risk

The vegetable pathologists at Cornell University are getting their 15 minutes of fame (see Andy Warhol) this summer. Reporters far and wide are turning to these scientists for a take on the late blight that is decimating tomato plants in the Northeast.

Generally, they recommend spraying with chlorothalonil to protect plants from the fungus that causes the blight and prevent its spread. Sometimes they note that organic growers generally restrict themselves to a number of copper-based formulations. But they don’t explain the reluctance of organic growers to use mainstream herbicides and neither do typical news accounts.  So here’s what the organic crowd seems to be saying, though its members certainly don’t have as big a megaphone as the Cornell folks do: Eating vegetables sprayed with toxins just doesn’t feel right, especially when recommendations for their use come with underlined, boldfaced capital letter warnings like this one from a recent Cornell fact sheet: READ THE LABEL BEFORE APPLYING ANY PESTICIDE.

The scientists say the toxins will be washed away before the tomatoes are eaten, that we won’t ingest enough of it to do any harm and they’ll break down in our soil reasonably quickly. The organic folks say 1) you’ve got to be kidding and 2) I don’t want that stuff in my soil, or perhaps worse, washing off my soil into a water supply. And they’re not all comfortable with the copper products either. Fox Creek Farm, a community-supported agricultural operation in Schoharie, N.Y., told its members this week that it would not use copper hydroxide. Its owners  wrote, “For up to seven days after application, the copper hydroxide residues can cause irreversible eye damage by corroding  the mucosal membrane in the eye.”

This isn’t a treatise on science here. We don’t have the expertise or the time or inclination to acquire the expertise to come up with an evidence-based course of action for our 12 tomato plants. At the same time, however, we don’t feel completely reassured by the scientists’ reassurances.

We’re cutting yellowed leaves from our plants right now and crossing our fingers. It’s raining like mad in Albany today, as it has so many days in the last month, which creates good conditions for growth and spread of the fungus Phytophthora infestans. It would be sad to go a summer without tomatoes plucked moments before eating. But we’ll pull all the plants out if we have to. We’ll survive because unlike the geniuses at the recently departed Lehman Brothers, we have a diversified portfolio. We have squash and cucumbers and garlic and onions and beans and potatoes and herbs. It’s been such a cool summer that we still have spring lettuce. And it won’t be long before we plant fall lettuce, peas and spinach.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | July 30, 2009

Cup of Joe with those grounds?

Starbucks bin is emptyAs many soil mavens know,  Starbucks (and other) coffee shops give away coffee grounds.  A regular reader, however, who snapped the accompanying picture with a cell phone camera, wonders about the etiquette. It seems that our gardener friend was waiting on line to buy some coffee before politely requesting grounds when someone else ran in and snatched bags of grounds and ran out, leaving nothing but an attractive sign to look at. So the question for this day is do paying customers deserve first dibs on Starbucks’ coffee grounds?

The urban gardener in the snowy north might like picking up coffee grounds for a couple of reasons. The obvious one is that spreading grounds is a good cost-free way to enrich soil. The conventional wisdom that coffee grounds are especially good for acid-loving plants may not be right, according to a number of online sources, including Science Daily. On the other hand, grounds are rich in nitrogen, one of the Big Three elements we’re usually after when we buy fertilizer.

Gardeners might like picking up coffee grounds for a couple of other reasons as well, though they don’t reap as direct benefits.  Less use of industrially produced nitrogen-rich fertilizer means less energy consumption. Natural gas is a big part of factory-fixing of nitrogen to make it accessible to plants. In addition, coffee grounds on garden beds means a little less waste in the landfill.

Of course, you’d have to believe that every little bit helps to be swayed by these arguments.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | July 28, 2009

Cost/benefit analysis part 1

If we’re any example, the backyard grower doesn’t always weigh economic factors quite as completely as perhaps they ought to be weighed. Consider this: We see slugs around our lettuce more often than we like. We heard that they can be controlled with a bit of beer. So we pour beer into an empty tuna fish can that is buried so that its top is right at grade level. Slugs crawl in and never make it out, thus leaving our lettuce alone. One thought, however, is that we’re opening bottles of fairly pricey beer to protect lettuce that probably wouldn’t command much at all on the open market.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | July 23, 2009

Calendar says July, but feels like September

The 5.02 inches of rain recorded in June in Albany Raddishes May 2009-1by the National Weather Service was 1.2 inches more than average, according to the Albany Times Union. And 4.09 inches recorded through the first 16 days of July was 0.6 inches above average, according to the Weather Service. Maybe those figures are right. But the rain has seemed more relentless than that to many informal observers.

On top of that, it has been cool – in fact the Weather Service says 4.8 degrees below average in the first half of July.

Thus, our vegetables are experiencing some unusual conditions. In our yard, the lettuce has remained great much later than we would have expected. Summer squash is growing faster than we can eat it or give it away. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are beginning to form on their respective plants. But they’re not as far along as they are by this time some summers.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | July 23, 2009

Celebrate life. . . by composting

At the risk of sounding impressed by the obvious, healthy soil is where successful growing begins. And the secret to healthy soil, in large measure, is decayed organic matter – or compost.

Composting requires a certain amount of effort and commitment. But it pays rich dividends and may in time prove to be the hallmark of sustainable growing practices. More composting, including in backyards, may turn out to be a part of keeping food production up with population growth.

For now, composting probably suffers from a kind of “real men don’t eat quiche” attitude. You know, real men buy fertilizers bearing three numbers if they think their soil needs a boost. Big bags of it stack neatly in the back of the pick-up. But just as real men actually do eat quiche, real people who care about the food they eat, their communities and simply the pleasure of nature’s sights and smells know that composting is the very celebration of life.

Don’t just take my word for it. Read about Will Allen, whose Growing Power organization is producing healthy food on vacant lots in Milwaukee and Chicago.

We save vegetable scraps , weeds, hedge clippings and fall leaves at our home and mix it all together. We spread absolutely beautiful worm-laden sweet-smelling crumbly brown material atop our garden all summer long. And we dig it in when we remove turf to start new beds. A number of books on the subject make it sound way more complicated than necessary. Just let piles of organic material sit there. Or speed the process along by turning it, keeping it moist and making some efforts to mix brown and green.

Municipalities have wisely developed composting operations, mainly to divert the fall’s leaves from their waste streams. But how much more vegetable scrap goes into landfills? And what would it take to divert some of it, maybe by collecting from supermarkets and big restaurants?

Just imagine all the rich material that could become growing media, maybe turning vacant lots in distressed parts of more cities into vibrant and productive places.

Posted by: Bill Stoneman | July 18, 2009

Growing spinach in the snow

The argument against raising food in our backyards in cold places may seem stronger than the argument for doing so. Our forebears mostly gave up the hard work a couple of generations ago as commercial growers, especially in warmer places, proved themselves so much more efficient.

In purely economic terms, at least in the short term, it’s tough to beat the supermarket. Believe it or not, however, food production is making a minor comeback in the Snow Belt, including vegetable gardens and a few egg-laying hens in city backyards.

And growers can find plenty of good reasons, ranging from satisfaction in seeing – and tasting – the fruits of one’s own labors to positive view toward organic food to long-term environmental and economic questions. For example, commercially produced food is cheap in the United States today, no question about it. But what would a sustained rise in energy costs do to food prices? And what about pressure to curtail carbon emissions and nitrogen runoff into our waterways. Indeed, a June 2009 National Geographic article says that worldwide food consumption has been greater than production for the last several years.

Please join me in learning about backyard growing in places like where I live in Upstate New York, where we can’t count on more than 120 days between the last frost in the spring and the first one in the fall, but where we can nurture spinach straight through the shortest days of December and the coldest days of January.

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