F.A. Farm

  (Ferndale, Washington)
Postmodern Agriculture - Food With Full Attention
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Potato Blight and the New Potato Solution

I have already dug over 400 pounds of potatoes this year. Most were sold, but I am also saving drops for seed potatoes and storing some for our own use. Last year, I started storage in mid-June and we finished off our storage potatoes just as I began harvesting new potatoes on June 6th. I like to eat new potatoes and I often say, "I never met a potato I didn't like." (With apologies to Will Rogers.) The downside to new potatoes is that you are stealing poundage from your crop. In other words, if you get a pound of new potatoes now, you could have had two pounds in September or October. However, I always plant way too many potatoes and have never been able to sell all my potatoes anyway. This year, I actually got 127 pounds of Bintjes (a very nice, productive Dutch yellow potato) from an 80-foot row (1.59 pounds per row foot), and they were all harvested in June. This is an outstanding yield for new potatoes, especially since my overall yield last year was 1.14 pounds per row foot. So, new potatoes are an early, tasty and nutritious addition to my CSA boxes and my diet.

Another thing I have been thinking about is late blight. I don't have it and I dutifully rotate my potato crops year to year. I also have 4 varieties out of my 20 varieties that are blight resistant. These varieties are Chieftains, Nicola, Island Sunshine and Desiree. However, if I remember my history correctly, the late blight that devastated Ireland's potato crops from 1845-1849 showed up via aerial transmission in August. The problem back then was that the Lumper, the variety most poor people were growing, is not edible until October. Thus the Irish crofter could not eat new potatoes. So, if a person is worried about late blight, the problem can be mitigated by harvesting some of your crop as new potatoes. Storage is not really a problem, even with the sensitive skins, as they will cure in storage. You just cannot stack them in layers inside your boxes. I have plentiful room in the canning room and an abundance of recycled banana boxes which I use for my CSA program. Any cool, semi-dry place would do for curing.

Integrated pest management (IPM) emphasizes knowing the pest cycle. If Phytophthora infestans is not active until August, there is a 2-month window for harvesting potatoes before the blight hits. For the home gardener worried about late blight, new potatoes provide an easy solution. An early 65 day potato like Bintje or Satina produce very tasty spuds and they store well. Socking away 400 pounds for a family before August is cheap insurance. Then, if you have no problems, you just rotate your stock as you eat your potatoes. My customers like getting 2 different kinds of potatoes each week and I eat them about every other day, year-round.

 
 

The Importance of Trace Minerals

This morning I dug up some Bintjes for breakfast. Bintjes are a Dutch yellow potato that is fast growing (65 day) and high yielding. They also have a buttery taste that make German Butterballs look like German Margarineballs. My potatoes also have a "complete" taste, because of my focus on adding trace minerals to my fertilizer mix. When I boil potatoes, I start with cold, unsalted water and when they are done, they don't even need salt. The key is to add both greensand and langbeinite (sul-po-mag) to my fertilizer mix. Both are ancient seabed deposits. The greensand comes from New Jersey and the langbeinite from Utah. They both add trace minerals in addition to being a potassium source.

Trace minerals are very important. They not only allow the plants to utililze the N-P-K more effectively, they also help round out the nutritional needs of the plant, so their immune systems can fight off pests. It works the same for us humans. Since I feed my soil trace minerals in addition to N-P-K and lime, the plants I eat out of that soil transport complete nutrients to my own immune system and other bodily functions. There is a noticeable step-up in the taste of the potatoes I grow now and those I grew in the past and I am convinced a big factor is my emphasis on trace minerals.

Back in my youth, we always had a salt block out for the cows, and a red trace mineral salt block at that. Many of the old skinflint farmers in the area would only buy the white salt blocks, which were just salt and cost slightly less. Norwegian-American farmers are known for their penny-pinching and their distrust of something new. Let's see - I can spend a tiny bit more at the feed store so my cows can utilize their feed more efficiently and give more milk - OR I can keep the extra few pennies and buy another pinch of snoose and spit the extra nutrition out the window at the neighbor's dog that always runs after my truck. Uff da, what a quandry!

 
 

New Potatoes

We had our first new potatoes for supper last night, June 6th! This was a week earlier than last year, when the first potato arrived on our plates on June 12th. Our Red Thumb fingerlings had just started to flower, so I thought I would "tickle out" some spuds (so as to preserve the plant). I was quite surprised at the size of some of them. Red Thumbs grow fast and big anyway, but it is only 57 days since planting. I have been putting langbeinite (sul-po-mag), as well as greensand, in my fertilizer mix for the last two years and the spuds really respond to the quick shot of potassium and probably also to the trace minerals. I also notice that my potatoes don't even need salt, which I assume is because I am feeding the soil properly. Another thing I noticed last year is that the plants haven't even used much of the "drop" or "chit" when I dig up the plants. Evidently, they start grabbing nutrients from the surrounding soil as soon as they can, eschewing the stored carbohydrates from the drop. Anyway, we had a wonderful supper as usual, with fresh salad greens, sauteed Chinese cabbage with shallots, and fagioli. Toni had a mojito with spearmint from her herb garden and I opted for some of my homemade beer. We don't make much money from the farm, but we sure eat good.
 
 

The Calorie Cost of Using Tillers

We don't use tractors for tilling, planting or cultivation. If I need some field mowing done, I hire the neighbor and I spend about $100 per year. My gas costs last year for my tillers was less than $100 and my estimate of actual gallons used was 27.5 gallons. A gallon of gas contains approximately 31,000 calories. [By the way, these are kilocalories, but calories is the usual shorthand used. Some scientists prefer joules, but since calories are understood by nearly everyone as a valid unit of energy produced and consumed, I still use calories. This is science adapting to cultural usage.] Therefore, my tiller gas last year amounted to 852,500 calories (31,000 X 27.5). As a contrast, I estimate I put in 1000 calories per day into the farm out of a total calorie usage of 2500 per day. In other words, I put in 365,000 calories to grow food in 2008. These are gross estimates of course, but I only have this one job and it is my main focus. I do participate in other activities and I do drop 10-15 pounds in the summer each year, so after subtracting 1250 calories for the daily maintenace of my body from my calorie count per day and 250 calories for non-work activities, I feel 1000 calories per day for farm work is a good conservative number. It might be less but probably not more.

I cultivated 2.5 acres last year by hand and with my tillers, so if I contributed 365,000 calories and the tiller gas I used contributed 852,500 calories, the total of just these two energy sources was 1,217,500 calories, or 487,000 calories per acre. Now, based on last year's potato production of 1,998.6# for 1785 row feet, or 4,462.5 sq. ft. (rows are on 2.5 foot centers), I produced the equivalent of .448# of potatoes per square foot, or 19,500# of potatoes per acre. Potatoes are about 350 calories per pound (some say 385 but I will use the lower figure), so that is 6,825,000 calories per acre. If I had produced potatoes, at this rate, on 2.5 acres, I would have had over 17 million calories produced, for a calorie cost of 1.2 million calories. In realistic terms, potatoes form the upper limit on calories produced per acre as they easily produce twice as many calories per wheat per acre. [The usual metric is 6-8 million calories per acre for potatoes and 3-4 million calories per acre for wheat. Diversified vegetable production is always going to be lower than just potatoes, hence potato production as defining the upper limit.]

Here's the bottom line. Potatoes produced at a rate (remember this is a relative rate, not an absolute quantity) of 17 million calories and human+gas inputs at 1.2 million calories equals a 14-to-1 ratio. This is a very nice metric and reinforces my claim that I produce over 10 calories of food for every calorie I put into producing the food. What is new about this analysis is the role of tiller gas. It would be an affront to mathematics to try and isolate the role of the tiller gas vs. human labor, because there is also an interaction between the two variables. In other words, I get a lot of work done because I use a combination of tiller gas and human sweat to drive both engines (the tiller and my body), which are combined into a practical meta-engine of the human behind the tiller. However, I can say this: The most practical alternative right now, at this time in history, is a human using a walk-behind tiller. The gas costs in dollars and calories are low and the human sweat provides an added dimension to the calories produced by the fossil fuels. In the brave new world after petroleum is no longer feasible, it is likely farmers will actually make a fair return on their labor, so I might be able to make a living on only half an acre that I till, plant and cultivate entirely by hand.

 
 

Chinampas

Up here in the Fourth Corner, we get plentiful rain in the winter and sometimes we have quite a bit of water standing in the fields until late spring. Some farmers have had to wait until late June to even get out to their fields in past years (and maybe this year). We also have drought conditions in summer, so irrigation is necessary. Building up organic matter in the soil only goes so far in regulating soil moisure, so I am going to take a page from ancient agriculture and try chinampas this year. Chinampas were an intensive cultivation system used by the Aztecs on Lake Tenochtitlan. When Cortez and his men saw them in 1519, they referred to them as "floating gardens," but they were actually raised beds recovered from lake and marsh areas. Chinampas are still used in Mexico City to this day, usually for growing flowers. The typical chinampa was 15-30 feet wide and 300 feet long. They were constructed by digging trenches on the side or bringing muck and dropping it in a marked-out area. When the chinampa was finished, the Aztecs planted willow trees around the perimeter to anchor the soil. They also used an early version of soil blocks for plant starts - an aid in maximum plant survival to harvest versus direct seeding. There are three main requirements in intensive agriculture; irrigation, fertilization, and labor. The structure of the chinampas maximized soil moisture and additional water was available in the ditches/canals next to the chinampas. Fertilization was provided by the muck (similar to the Nile flooding, by the way), and human labor was plentiful for the Aztecs.

My idea is to take the chinampa idea, add some insights from the old Irish "lazy beds," and adapt them to Whatcom County. The lazy beds of pre-famine Ireland were usually four feet wide and the seed potatoes were laid on the ground. Ditches were dug on the side using the loy, or turf cutter, and the overturned sod laid on top of the potatoes. Hilling up later in the season was done by digging deeper in the ditches. I have tried growing potatoes under mulch and it worked well. I don't do this now because it is more labor intensive than row cropping using a tiller and I grow a lot of potatoes. So, combining the chinampas and the lazy beds, I am going to lay out a grid with 4 foot wide raised beds and the soil will be provided by digging an 18" wide ditch on each side. The 18" is the width of my cultivating tiller, but I could actually go 2 feet wide since there will be some "roll-down" from the raised beds. A 4 foot wide raised bed allows me to reach 2 feet in from either ditch, so that is optimal. Right now my salad mix beds are 30" wide and I can straddle them if needed. However, if I dig my ditches deep enough, I can actually stand in the ditch and weed and harvest without bending over too much. Soil moisture should not be a problem and I can actually do some ditch irrigation if needed. This will certainly be cheaper than drip irrigation and should use less water than an impact sprinkler. I will also throw the biomass from weeding, cabbage leaves, stalks, etc. into the ditch to decompose. If I am tilling the ditch and there is plentiful soil moisture, the composting process in the ditches should be speeded up. An added benefit of raised beds is to gain an extra degree in soil temperature for each inch you have above the surrounding soil, so this system could actually allow earlier planting because of dryness AND warmer soil temps.

I am looking forward to testing out this idea. The fly in the ointment is the labor requirements. I already have access to more land for this experiment, and I might pitch it to a local high school for one of their projects. I could come out and help set up the markers, show the students how to dig efficiently and let them have at it. They could grow potatoes or any number of crops. Then, next year, we could see if we could get out on the chinampas a couple of weeks earlier than normal.

 
 

Dining With Michael Pollan

Toni and I regularly eat a late supper. She works long hours as a social worker and I am always "on" with farmwork, housework, computer work, etc. I also get stronger as twilight comes on, what the Old Norse called "kveldulfur" or "evening wolf." This is nothing to sneeze at, as I am nearing 60 and being tired in the middle of the day is a common occurrence. Anyway, last night KUOW, one of the Seattle radio stations, had a replay of Michael Pollan's talk in Seattle on January 12, 2009. Since I read his last three books and Toni and I are actively involved in the same proselytizing, we made supper and ate while listening to his talk. Our menu hit several points he made in his speech (basically a recap of his latest book, In Defense of Food). There was the red wine (the French paradox), fresh Brussels sprouts and boiled potatoes (eat mostly plants), grass-fed hamburgers (stay away from corn-fed beef), homemade whole wheat bread (do for yourself), and pumpkin pie (take a cue from the Native Americans and adapt it to your needs). A wonderful repast - the conversation and background were sparkling.

Okay, now to a single crux point. One of Pollan's rhetorical flourishes was to ask, "How do we change the western diet without changing western civilization?" The answer is, "We can't. Nor should we." Western civilization is one of the major problems in the world. Over the last 40 years, as a "dirty hippie," street radical, homeless ragamuffin, ski bum, circus ringmaster, medieval armor-maker, archaeologist, word processor, law school student, grad student, anthropology instructor and now sustainable farmer, there have been several constants in my worldview. One of these is that state-level societies are the real problem. Clan-based societies never really marshall enough resources to change the world in such a dramatic fashion as we have witnessed in the last 150 years. Only civilization could produce industrialism. A return to tribalism is now being identified as a key to the conflict in the Mideast and the greater Arab world. Obviously, there is a pushback against western civilization, as well as an implosion since it just doesn't work. Ancient civilizations required slaves and our modern civilizations are built upon the energy slave of petroleum products. This will not last and civilization itself seems doomed. So . . . Is this a bad thing? I didn't think so in the 60's and I don't think so now. We can hasten the demise of western civilization by not eating a western civilization diet. The idea of eating as a political act has been hammered to death over the years, but it still survives. Like tribal and clan culture, eating food (not food-like products) will survive the collapse of western civilization. Many people look for a seamless transition from our current troubles to a localized community. It's not likely, so amongst the joy of eating good food, we should keep our wits about us and try not to get hit by the debris of the crumbling western empires.

 
 
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