Thursday, October 15, 2009

What is the Real Price We are Paying for the USDA Extension Service?

I recently attended training offered through Washington State University for its Master Gardener Program. This is an outreach program that attempts to educate people that have an interest in gardening about sustainable gardening practices. This is a somewhat daunting task given the fact that science, politics, financial interests, and opinion are rather cavalierly lumped together in this country. Unfortunately, no one lumps these things together like soil scientists at Oregon State University and Washington State University.

It didn't take quite four hours of lecture on basic soil science for our speaker, Dr. Craig Coggins of WSU Pullman, to shred any semblance of credibility that WSU or his department might have. The further he got away from any discussions from the soil triangle the more incredible the lecture became. I finally had to walk out when he started to explain how safe it is to dump every kind of chemical that people can buy, and a whole bunch of ones that they can't, into our sewers and voila, after minimal processing and a lot of drying and concentrating you get 100% pure clean fertilizer that is "absolutely safe" to use without caution or warning like any other "Class A Organic" material-"biosolids". Coggins is a biosolids "expert" and he has been providing the "evidence", because once you have a PhD. everything you write is evidence, that biosolids made out of infrequently tested and almost completely unmonitored sewers are so safe our communities can start drying the waste in our water treatment plants and selling it back to us to put on our vegetable gardens, school playgrounds, and ultimately our water. Who knows what kind of witches brew it will have turned into by then.

Before we got to that gem, he spent some time trashing any need to mineralize soils and then raised a straw man argument first raised in a pseudo study done by Dr. John Hart at Oregon State University to entirely dismiss the most commonly held beliefs in the organic community and the subject of numerous articles in the latest Acres USA magazine about mineralizing and feeding the soil to get maximum yields, increased protection from insects and drought without the need for pesticides, and nutrient dense crops, and then went on to claim that phosphorous had nothing to do with root production, et al. It was quite a show. I have never seen anyone sent to speak by a university make such a fool of himself ever, but I hear it's not all that uncommon. I forget who it was that said that "there is no idea so dumb that you can't find a number of people with doctorate degrees that think that it's true".

It is pretty much the USDA position to bury and kill the seminal work of an alumnus of that organization, Dr. William Albrecht, which the USDA has been doing for decades now because it ran counter to large industrialized farming interests and the petrochemical industry that make billions selling chemical fertilizer and pesticides to farmers that are now addicted to poisoning the land, air, water, and us. The fact that they currently have absolutely no credibility in the new and emerging organics industry must have them at their wits end to make such indecent spectacles of themselves in front of large groups of people. After decades of practice, organic farmers are drawing huge crowds of repeat customers that demand clean high quality foods that they can only get from a farmer’s market or local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
So what is different about many of these smaller farming operations that make them so popular when they charge high prices, often are only open at odd inconvenient hours, and require people to travel long distances to get their goods? Does John Hart, an agronomist at Oregon State University, whose Vita describe his duties as “Answering the nutrient management questions of 1) how much to apply, 2) when to apply, 3) what source to apply, and 4) what method to apply nutrients has been my extension program for 20 years” have the answer? His paper, “The fallacy of using soil cation ratios for nutrient recommendations”, published in the November 2007 CROP and SOIL NEWS/NOTES, attempted to dismiss seminal works by Dr. Wm. Albrecht and contemporary followers of Albrecht like Neal Kinsey (Hands On Agronomy) by creating a straw man argument in support of conventional growers that are starting to hear more and more about successes from organic growers using the Albrecht concept of “feeding the soil”.

Answering my question about mineralizing soils to add micronutrients and calcium/magnesium ratios Hart said “The nutrient ratio work I performed was indirect, reviewed soil ratios and yield from many experiments and didn't find a relationship. People that have created variations in ratios at a single site can't substantiate Albrecht and Kinsey's claims. Albrecht and Kinsey
substitute Ca ratio for soil pH and add many nutrients. Their work is without basis. Following their principles will likely work, but is very expensive. Save your money, forget the ratios. I have no idea how to address "soil mineralization" or the relationship with ratios
.” It sounds strange to hear this coming from an agronomist at a land grant college in a state that is widely known for the mineralization programs that it’s organic farmers are using to create products that demand the highest prices at the choosiest markets anywhere.

I asked Neal Kinsey to shed some light on the controversy and he said “I am familiar with the "research" they quote, as they all use the same materials. I am also somewhat familiar with Dr. Hart, who in fact once attended perhaps 30 minutes of a presentation I gave to a group of Oregon foresters sponsored by Oregon Ag Extension, but he walked out when he found it had to do with the Albrecht program. This article had what most have used, mixing up ratios with
the concept of percentages and saying that this program is too expensive. This one did have one new idea put forth about it being promoted by those who sell fertilizer so they can sell the farmer even more. In that regard, I only sell advice, not the fertilizer and amendments that show to be needed, and furthermore, we have clients that have been with us for 25+ years, large farmers who lease or buy poor run-down farms and employ us to help build back the fertility, and one after the other will tell you that initially it may require some bigger outlays to make up for what has been mined out over the years of taking and not putting back what has been used up, but they will tell anyone it is still the least expensive program they have ever used based on the yields they attain.

I suppose it is hard for a PhD. that depends on government largess for a living to be too critical of the status quo especially after having invested a lifetime of work into something that is now more and more widely regarded as fraudulent. In the middle of a vast debate about the state of our health and health care in this country, more and more people are speaking out against the status quo in our government’s agricultural policy. It seems to me if Albrecht had gotten half the attention when he wrote “Soil Fertility and Animal Health” that NASA scientists received when they first started talking about global warming, maybe this country’s obesity and chronic illness rate wouldn’t be as high as it is today.

The extension service training I attended were based on the idea that our land grant colleges can make a meaningful dent in deluge of marketing of poisonous and wasteful products and ideas by giving a group of people that were able to take ten days off of work in as many weeks exposure to best practices in all of the types of horticulture that might be seen at someone’s home whether it be your rose garden, lawn, or vegetable garden. It seems to me that in order for that to succeed that the people providing information to the program have enough credibility and leadership in their area of expertise to attract and retain interest in these programs. If we are going to achieve national goals of health and prosperity then we need to start investing money in our future, not repeating the failed ideas and practices of the past. When so many things in our country, like our health, are failing, creating tenured positions for people that support cheapness of our food and our lives over quality seems worse than a waste of money. It’s like hiring an assassin to kill yourself.

What follows is the rest of Neal Kinsey's answer.

Some “New” Answers for an “Old” Controversy
Neal Kinsey
As Dr. William Albrecht used to say, “If it is true science, it is repeatable.” Meaning: if you really are using a truly scientific approach you should be able to arrive at the same answer over and over again. Your conclusions should consistently prove to be the same time and again.

From all Dr. Albrecht said – whether during personal visits to his office in Mumford Hall at University of Missouri / Columbia, or through personal guidance while completing his private study course on soil fertility, or by reading his published works in journals, university publications and books, and finally utilizing that information as a soil fertility specialist from 1973 to the present – the more it becomes clear, he really was a true scientist. What’s more he was a scientist with the welfare of people, livestock, crops and soils in his heart and mind. Understanding and teaching the true principles of science always mattered more to Dr. Albrecht than that of public opinion, wealth or fame. He really believed he could help mankind most by learning and explaining the principles of soil fertility to improve the growth of feed for animals and food for people thereby improving the health of the soil which would translate to better health for all that lived from it.

Unfortunately what he taught was opposed to the ideas of what too many others in agriculture wanted to “sell” the farmer and the public in general. Once at the beginning of an appointment to visit with him in his office, Dr. Albrecht apologized at the outset because the previous appointment had gone 5 – 10 minutes overtime. As the two men left it was obvious what company they represented. It was well recognized at the time as one that was selling their costly product to farmers all over the U.S. Though their involvement with farming has now virtually vanished in terms of current operations, the results are still evident far and wide. I will not name the company here, because Dr. Albrecht is not here to either confirm or deny it, but he said something like, “These people continue to visit because they want me to endorse their product, but the science is wrong, it will not be for the good of agriculture.” At the time most who worked with farmers, including the agriculture colleges, were touting the product and the huge expense as being evidence that those who took advantage of this new “technology” were the most progressive of all involved with farming. Today that company has passed from the scene because more and more farmers stopped utilizing what they had to sell.

On the other hand, once he found a principle that science showed was accurately repeatable, Dr. Albrecht was fearless in pursuing such, even if some of his peers were not so inclined. One such principle was that of measuring the need for calcium and magnesium versus using pH to determine when to apply lime or gypsum to a soil. Most soil scientists around the world today still maintain that Dr. Albrecht was wrong about this and pH should still be the method used to determine whether to apply limestone or not.

From the 1970’s until now, many in agriculture go to great lengths to publish articles and information in order to refute what Dr. Albrecht has worked to build in this regard. Generally those presentations begin by addressing the use of “calcium to magnesium” ratios to dispel his work on the subject. There are those who advocate the use of a “calcium to magnesium” ratio, and some may ascribe this as something Dr. Albrecht advocated.

From my first exposure to Dr. Albrecht and his answers to why we had problems on our farms, I can recall that he stressed – measure the four nutrients in each soil that can affect pH (calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium) – but it was never a ratio that he stressed. The stress was on the percent of saturation, and the pounds of each element required for obtaining that proper percentage. Perhaps it could have been read over, but in all these years I can never recall reading or hearing that Dr. Albrecht stressed a ratio of calcium to magnesium even once.

My acquaintance and association with Dr. Albrecht came rather late in his career (1967 – 1974), and perhaps he did refer to such a ratio in earlier years, I just never was exposed to it. As he learned, he refined the knowledge. Still, I have known many who were personally taught by Dr. Albrecht, and to this point, none I have thought to ask could recall him teaching a “calcium to magnesium” ratio. If by chance there is contact with those who say he did, the first question would be whether they actually were taught that by Dr. Albrecht or if they have made that assumption based on what others have written or said, and whether they have assurance that that source is truly quoting Dr. Albrecht himself. Personally, I doubt very much that such would ever be the case!

With all that said, let’s get back to the part of the controversy intended to be addressed in a new way in this presentation. That controversy has to do with the effects of calcium and magnesium on the soil and how that affects fertility, plant growth, and yield.

These are foundational principles in terms of understanding and applying the Albrecht system of correcting soil fertility and thus positively affecting the plants to be grown on that particular soil. The overall concept hearkens back to the definition in agronomy textbooks concerning what is an ideal soil. The ideal soil is described as 25% air, 25% water, 45% mineral and 5% organic matter. But what if you don’t have that ideal soil? What has to be done to achieve it? To this point, unless the approach Dr. Albrecht devised is used I know of none who will propose it can even be done. And the simple answer he would give is to use the correct chemistry, to build as closely as possible the correct physical structure (25% air, 25% water, 45% mineral and 5% humus) which in turn supplies the proper environment for the biology (roots, worms, microbes, etc.)

Achieving the correct percentages of calcium and magnesium in particular provides the basic requirements for this equation. For medium to heavy soils the numbers are 68% calcium and 12% magnesium, or as close as is feasible to achieve that (for example 66 – 70% calcium and 10-12% magnesium should provide extremely satisfactory results). In such soils emphasis is placed on pushing the percentage of calcium toward the 70% mark and supplying enough magnesium to keep it above 10%, but below 12% for best overall results. As the correct amount of calcium is measured, soils that are most lacking, as reflected by lower and lower calcium percentages as analyzed in the lab, will be harder to work. As the calcium is correctly added to achieve the required percent, the soil actually becomes more friable. Such soils are easier to work, have better water penetration and posses a better content of air due to the effects of better soil flocculation, as calcium causes the clay particles to clump into tighter aggregates. Thus we tell clients that needed calcium (as determined by achieving the correct percentage for that soil) increases soil porosity and helps to loosen tight soils.

On the other hand, on sandy soils the problem is too much porosity – too much air - allowing the soil to dry out more quickly and loose needed moisture for growing crops. Under such circumstances the soil needs to be treated in a manner that emphasizes attracting and holding more water. Magnesium is the answer, but not too much, and not too little. The proper amount for sandy soils involves providing enough to supply at least 200 lbs / acre on up to 250 lbs / acre of magnesium and yet not to exceed 20% saturation for that particular soil.

Magnesium has been shown to attract and hold extra water in soils, a real benefit in soils that tend to dry out too quickly as with light sandy soils. But too much magnesium also tends to reduce soil porosity and cause soils to become harder when they dry out as it increases in content. This becomes most evident when other factors that affect this, such as calcium levels, show one constant level, with only more or less magnesium being the difference.

Such changes should be easy to document but most agricultural researchers maintain that there is no correlation between calcium and magnesium levels in the soil and no resulting effects on physical structures, soil fertility or plant response. If all are advocates of using true science and science in repeatable, how could this happen?

Most research used to disprove that measuring the cation saturation is a better way of testing and determining lime and potassium needs for soils than is the pH measurement begins with a faulty premise. This involves a serious assumption that is not generally acknowledged. The assumption is made that all soil tests performed to measure the soils nutrients holding capacity (CEC) and cation saturations (the percentages of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium each soil contains) will measure and arrive at the same answer. The truth is that the numbers that are assumed to be the same can vary to the extreme.

For example, the test we use shows that a soil with all other nutrients adequately supplied will produce the best crops at 68% calcium saturation (though at times during his work over the span of his last 40 years or so you may find it stated early on in Dr. Albrecht’s work that 70 – 80% calcium was the best range and later 65 – 75% and finally 60 – 70%, as the tests were refined, still in the end he used the 60 – 70% range as best for the testing methods employed). Yet when a heavy clay soil possessed the ideal 68% on the soil test he advocated for use, another very reputable laboratory would report the calcium saturation from analysis of that same soil as 74%. Another reported it as 64%, and yet another showed 80% saturation of calcium when ours measured 68%! Which lab was correct? By definition from those who certify soil testing labs, they are all correct, because they are within the set parameters prescribed as necessary to measure the soil’s calcium content. But if you are doing statistical analysis and the numbers from any one of these labs were to be combined with all the others, how is it possible to accept that all of them are correct and show any reliable correlations.

Furthermore, when the test we use shows the ideal of 12% magnesium and 68% calcium, the lab that shows calcium at 74% shows magnesium at 8%. On the tests we use 12% is the maximum level of magnesium for excellent performance. But on the other soil test, showing 8%, less than 10% is shown to be considered as deficient. Again, is that soil deficient or at the maximum level for top production?

The point – if there is so much variation in soil analysis numbers, how can the correct answers be determined by assuming that one soil test is just as good as all the rest when trying to develop a fertility program. When numbers can jump all over the place, how is it determined that the experiment was started with the correct premise?

Even with something so simple as testing for magnesium, was the research done with the test that shows the level as excellent, or the one that shows it is deficient, or a combination of both and several others to give a good average?

One report after another maintains that magnesium levels have not shown to make any difference in terms of soils being harder or softer or being helped in terms of improved yield. Who set the parameters? Who determined the value of the testing done? Was a soil chosen for producing top yields that was able to be verified by the numbers which should be showing on the test for obtaining such top yields? Ask most involved with soil fertility research and they take the position that the calcium and magnesium values are of no use in determining soil fertility anyway. If that is the case, who would be qualified to choose the proper tests to prove whether such is so or not?

Furthermore, most involved with soil fertility research maintain that soil tests only serve to point you in the general direction for fertilization of the crop, and should not be used to determine the best soil for yields, versus the average, versus the worst. And no wonder! Because they have generally taken the position that all soil tests will reflect the same answers and thus any such soil test is just as good as another to use for research to measure soil nutrient levels. (This is not an effort to demean soil testing by different laboratory’s, but to say those who interpret soil test results had better be aware of where a farmer or grower’s nutrient levels should be to achieve top results.)

Test your soil tester. If the person advising you cannot discern between the good areas, average areas and problem areas from the soil tests they use, is it a sure thing they really know what lime and fertilizer is actually needed? You cannot properly manage what you cannot properly measure!

In addition, publication after publication, including those from the land grant universities, has continually maintained that the percentage of magnesium has no measurable effect on the soil or resulting crop yields, except possibly where the level of magnesium exceeds that of the calcium level. They go to great lengths to point out that analyzed data from a wide assortment of farm research has shown that calcium and magnesium levels can vary greatly and still the farmer can produce good yields. When such statements include the allowance of the use of the many soil tests that are available that still fall within the wide tolerances for the measurement of calcium and magnesium could any other conclusions be expected?

But science has now provided a new set of tools with which to provide evidence of whether an excess of magnesium actually causes soils to become harder. It has to do with the use of global positioning systems (GPS) to determine soil variations for testing and analysis purposes. Below a map developed for soil sampling a new vineyard is shown. Each different type of area shown on the map was sampled separately.

The map was developed by using a VERIS unit (pictured below) to collect and transmit data to a satellite to be captured and used for mapping the soils to determine where to properly take soil samples.

By using a handheld GPS unit it is possible to enter the coordinates of the field shown above and the unit picks up and transmits exactly where you are located in that field. As you walk across the determined boundary lines of each area, you can see exactly where you are. On the map, as sampling proceeds from one plotted area to another to take soil samples, the handheld GPS unit will show which area you are in at that moment.

In the property above, the levels of calcium are virtually the same, but the big difference as determined by the soil analysis data is the percentage of magnesium in each area. So any change in the force required to push the soil probe or a soil penetrometer into the soil from area to area can only be attributed to the increase in magnesium. And that is exactly what is proving to be happening. The farmer, owner, or any interested by-stander can be asked to do the probing and tell how the probe goes into the soil. One after the other will report that it is harder to probe in each area where the analyzed calcium percentage remains constant as the magnesium percentage increases.

True science is repeatable. With GPS it is now becoming evident that where all other nutrients are constant, as the magnesium level goes from the correctly required amount in the soil to more excessive levels the soil will prove to become harder and tighter.

Using this same GPS unit it is possible to sample each different area and determine the levels of calcium and magnesium. It is now possible using GPS mapping and sampling for the farmer or grower to pick the most productive areas on the map and see how well they match up to the fertility levels shown to be needed for top production and quality in each field, including calcium and magnesium levels. True science is again verifying that Dr. Albrecht has been correct in his work concerning how to achieve top production and top quality with soil fertility by measuring the soil’s nutrient holding capacity and using the prescribed percentages to determine when and how much to lime all along!        

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Financing the New Farm

I have been considering starting to farm on more than an urban level as I get more familiar with the vagaries of farming in the Maritime Pacific Northwest. I am beginning to feel the need to stretch a little bit.
I have identified what I need to get started, land with water, adequate labor to put in, manage, and harvest the crops, and financing. I can sell my house and take out the equity in it as down payment for some acreage. Even though the market is down and I won’t get as much money out of a sale as I could have a couple of years ago, there are a lot more balls in the air right now that might mean an opportunity that wouldn’t normally be available. I found a property recently that had a USDA no down payment required loan available.
What other options are available? I started researching different types of financing available for small businesses in the agriculture sector. Here is what I found.
Loans for Beginning Farmers and Ranchers
The Farm Service Agency (FSA) provides direct and guaranteed loans to beginning farmers and ranchers who are unable to obtain financing from commercial credit sources. Each fiscal year, the Agency targets a portion of its direct and guaranteed farm ownership (FO) and operating loan (OL) funds to beginning farmers and ranchers.
Direct Loan Program
"Direct" farm loans are made by FSA with Government funds. They also service these loans and provide Direct loan customers with supervision and credit counseling so they have a better chance for success. Farm Ownership, Operating, Emergency and Youth loans are the main types of loans available under the Direct program.
Guaranteed Loan Program
FSA guaranteed loans provide lenders (e.g., banks, Farm Credit System institutions, credit unions) with a guarantee of up to 95 percent of the loss of principal and interest on a loan. Farmers and ranchers apply to an agricultural lender, which then arranges for the guarantee.
SBA Basic 7(a) Loan Program
7(a) loans are the most basic and most used type loan of SBA's business loan programs. Its name comes from section 7(a) of the Small Business Act, which authorizes the Agency to provide business loans to American small businesses. FARMS AND AGRICULTURAL BUSINESSES - are eligible; however, these applicants should first explore the Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs, particularly if the applicant has a prior or existing relationship with FSA.
SBA CDC/504 Program
The CDC/504 loan program is a long-term financing tool for economic development within a community. The 504 Program provides growing businesses with long-term, fixed-rate financing for major fixed assets, such as land and buildings. A Certified Development Company is a nonprofit corporation set up to contribute to the economic development of its community. CDCs work with the SBA and private-sector lenders to provide financing to small businesses. There are about 270 CDCs nationwide, with each covering a specific geographic area.
SBA Microloan Program
The Microloan Program provides very small loans to start-up, newly established, or growing small business concerns. Under this program, SBA makes funds available to nonprofit community based lenders (intermediaries) which, in turn, make loans to eligible borrowers in amounts up to a maximum of $35,000. The average loan size is about $13,000. Applications are submitted to the local intermediary and all credit decisions are made on the local level.
Commerce Department CDBG Float Loans
Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Float Loans are available to businesses from the Washington State Department of Commerce (Commerce) through cities and counties which are eligible to receive Washington State Small Cities Community Development Block Grant Program assistance. An eligible city or county may apply for a grant under this program in order to extend a short-term loan to a private business entity
Accionusa Micro Loans
As a leader in U.S. microfinance, ACCION USA is committed to bringing affordable small business loans to microentrepreneurs.
Business Owners Idea Cafe Biz Grant$
Idea Cafe is passionate about helping fellow small business owners every way possibe. They make cash awards to deserving entrepreneurs.

We haven’t decided to ask for any of this financing yet but if we do we’ll let people know more of the details about how these programs work and how you might qualify for coverage.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Are there antibiotics in our organic food?

A number of listservs and bloggers have posted articles searing organic producers when it was discovered that antibiotics used on animals in agriculture do not break down in soils or hot composting and can be taken up in plants. Under current USDA regulation it is possible for these chemicals to make it into food labeled as organic without being detected. The fear is that we are creating new types of super bugs that will be resistant to available antibiotics. Strange that they fail to point out that you are far more likely to come into contact with these chemicals in operations that make no attempt to follow organic methods than someone that does, or that the need for such chemicals is greatest in very large operations typical of those owned by large publicly traded companies.

Hormones and other manmade chemicals are also altering biology in our water ways. Male fish carrying egg sacks and three legged frogs are now being linked to human artificial hormones being excreted in urine that is not monitored or broken down in waste water treatment plants. With all the scares about GMOs and other technological "advances", few people seem alarmed by the fact that mutated bacteria are being developed in farmer's fields every time they spray the manure from their holding ponds on next year's corn crop. “Around 90 percent of these drugs that are administered to animals end up being excreted either as urine or manure,” said Holly Dolliver, a member of the Minnesota research team and now a professor of crop and soil sciences at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “A vast majority of that manure is then used as an important input for 9.2 million hectares of (U.S.) agricultural land.”

One thing that most people might not be aware of is that chickens in large egg operations aren't given water to drink. They get a chemical cocktail, as do cattle in feed lot operations, that is designed to keep them alive in such unnatural environments. Chicken manure is often composted and fed to cattle, possibly increasing the future need for antibiotics and new antibiotics since eventually resistance will develop. I have to wonder whether anyone is tracing the chain of antibiotic use as it gets passed from animal to animal and eventually to humans. People that choose to get their food from a large corporation instead of a local farmer may be subjected not only to resistant strains of bacteria but also to the chemicals that make the bacteria resistant.

The USDA had originally called a halt to one antibiotic, cefquinome, last year but lobbying by interest groups forced the only agency that has the authority to protect our food supply to continue allowing it's use. Cefquinome is a fourth-generation veterinary-use cephalosporin that is not affected by pH and can be used to treat infections caused by Salmonella, E. coli, Staphylococcus, & Streptococcus. It passes unchanged through the animal so giving this to an animal is like giving it directly to your corn or forage crops if that is what you do with your manure.

With the explosive rise in MRSA and other necrotizing fasciitis as well as epidemic levels of meningitis in states like Oregon, one has to wonder why there hasn't been more pressure to provide controls for these chemicals including certification that they were destroyed before animal byproducts were allowed to enter the environment or food chain. Veterinarians should be required to certify that proper handling and isolation procedures are in place at the time of use as a part of chain of custody agreements in order to write a prescription and could be as simple as checking a box on the prescription. We should be doing the same things with veterinarians that we do with doctors and train lower level practitioners to help deal with more routine matters so the overall cost of an affordable and safe food supply is ensured.

If we can’t ask or trust our licensed health practitioners and officials to protect the community’s health then who are we going to ask to do that? The signs are out there that a huge problem that we might not have any solutions for might be coming and it would seem that erring on the side of caution would get more consideration than supporting industries that only exist because they are so heavily subsidized in the first place. Our "cheap food" industry only exists because of taxpayer support for commodities like corn and milk, industries that are given billions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies every year. Hopefully some day we will have a government that invests in wellness and quality instead of supporting large company short term financial interests over the needs of the people that are being robbed to keep corporate and large government interests in power.

The current system of food production in this country is not only not sustainable, it is fragile and dangerous. Your next trip to a hospital could be because of an antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria currently being bred by the USDA in a large farmer's field. Supporting either wing of the Big Money Party, Democrats and Republicans, could end up being a death warrant for your grandchildren. We, government, can do better, we just choose not to upset the people that pay for and own our politicians. We also keep sending the same monsters back to Washington with results that should be predictable by now. Meanwhile one of the best protections you could give to your family is support local agriculture by getting to know who your farmer is and how they produce their food. Supporting local agriculture helps build strong communities that will be much more resilient and self reliant and have fewer exposures to vagaries in the economy and disease.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Straw bale gardens

After getting some detailed instructions I decided to experiment with some straw bale gardens in order to bypass having to break up any more sod. Even though our front yard was tilled early this Spring the silt soil managed to stitch itself back together into a rock like substance that seems more suitable for a parking lot than growing anything. The exceptions to that are the areas that we covered with 12-16 inches of wood chips, manure, and anything we could steal from our neighbor's garden waste bins three years ago. That soil is now loose, deep, and fertile. It holds water and grows enormous fruitful plants.

You can see instructions for straw bale gardening at our discussion group Pictures can be seen by clicking on the photos at the top of the blog.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Finishing up the beds

We are trying a lot of new things this year as we try to get all the starts planted. Realizing that we weren't going to be able to break the sod or get enough organic matter to turn our very silty soil into something that can retain water and nutrients I decided to shop for some hay bales and was pleased to be able to find some oat hay bales for $1 each. Those were distributed about the same time the big thunderstorm came through but I was the only one that got wet. We didn't get enough rain out of the storm to do more than dampen everything.

It was exciting to see the big black clouds suddenly darken the sky. I rushed outside to get the hay bales off my trailer and into position before it started raining. Hay bales are heavy enough without getting wet. Then they are almost impossible to move. As it turned out we got some relief from the unseasonably hot weather with temperatures dropping down into the 60s for the first time in a couple of weeks. The good news is that taking a chance to get vegetables started a month earlier than normal seems to have paid off. They suffered from the heat a little but are starting to grow again.

Hay bale gardens are another way to break the ground, smother a lot of weeds and provide long lasting organic matter to the ground. First you start the rotting process by soaking the bales for the first three days. You want them to absorb as much water as they can. Then you start feeding and watering for the next few days 1/2 cup of ammonium phosphate or about a cup of blood or feather meal. I would be interested to hear if anyone has an opinion on which of those two would work best as a nitrogen source to keep the bales decomposing in a semi hot compost. You need to slow down the feed after that and stop no later than day 10. If the bales aren't hot on day 11 then you can start planting directly into the bales. It helps to have a supply of compost on hand to place around the seedlings and protect their root system until they get established in the bales. If your bales are really coarse you might want to put up to 2" of compost or potting mix on the top of the bale to help close it up. This will help retain moisture and decay more evenly.

I got three sets of bales set out in different parts of the yard. I still have the large patch in the bamboo grove that was planted with a daikon cover crop this spring left to deal with and will have to check and see which is easier-digging the daikon by hand or hauling another trailer full of hay.

I tried broadcast seeding a number of different cover crops this year and the daikon was by far the best, mostly because our soil is so hard and poor that fenugreek and soil builder(cereal rye and field peas mostly) mix just couldn't establish a good foot hold. I was able to mow the 3 foot tall daikon radish with my lawn mower which left the radishes in the ground. Daikon left large roots 6-8 inches long. If I put hay bales on top of that they will leave a very open soil structure to integrate the bales more quickly with the soil layer.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Some States Still Accepting Organic EQIP Applications

USDA is allocating $50 million of funds through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to be set aside for a new Organics Initiative to assist organic farmers and those transitioning to organic. Current organic producers and those transitioning to organic will be eligible to receive contracts for implementing conservation practices and conservation planning under the program, but they’ll have to act fast.  Applications will be accepted beginning Monday, May 11, 2009.To ensure consideration for assistance from this pool of funds, producers must file an EQIP Organic Initiative application no later than May 29.

The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) is administering the EQIP Organic Initiative. To apply, producers should visit their local NRCS Service Center. Use the NRCS Service Center locator to find the one closest to you -

Update: The NRCS has created a webpage with information about the Organic Initiative. The site explains the eligibility requirements and provides guidance on how to participate and resources on organic production -

According to the NRCS, the states in the chart below have extended the deadline to apply for the EQIP Organic Initiative past May 29th. States not listed in this chart will still continue to accept applications, but may not be able to fund them in 2009. This chart is continually being updated, so please check back.

State New Deadline State New Deadline
Alabama 6/5/09 Montana 6/12/09
Alaska 6/12/09 Nebraska 6/12/09
California 6/26/09 Nevada 6/12/09
Colorado 6/12/09 New York 6/12/09
Connecticut 6/12/09 North Carolina 6/5/09
Delaware 6/26/09 North Dakota 6/15/09
Florida 6/12/09 Ohio 6/12/09
Georgia 6/5/09 Oklahoma 6/12/09
Hawaii 6/15/09 Oregon 6/12/09
Indiana continuous Pacific Basin 6/15/09
Iowa 6/13/09 Pennsylvania 6/12/09
Kentucky 6/12/09 South Carolina 6/5/09
Louisiana 6/12/09 South Dakota 6/12/09
Maine 6/12/09 Utah 6/12/09
Maryland 6/26/09 West Virginia 6/12/09
Massachusetts 6/12/09 Virginia 6/30/09
Minnesota 6/30/09 Wisconsin 6/12/09
Mississippi 6/12/09    

Even though your state is not listed here, it still may have extended the deadline for applying to the EQIP Organic Initiative. Call your state NRCS office or visit your state NRCS webpage to find out your state's deadline or any other state specific information. If your state has extended its deadline and is not listed above, please contact Tracy Lerman at (831) 426-6606 x 108 or To find your state NRCS office go to

If you have any questions, contact Tracy Lerman, Policy Organizer at (831) 426-6606 x 108 or

Friday, May 22, 2009

Welcome to Camas Permaculture. I will be posting articles on a regular basis discussing research I have done on local food production and what is going on at our home, designed using Permaculture techniques.