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Regenerative Fiber Farming

It was sheep shearing day on my grandpa’s ranch in the mid-20th century, and all I knew was that I was having fun. Everyone, including Grandpa, was clad in blue denim jeans on this sunny day. Gathered with other neighboring small-scale ranchers, we sheared and then stuffed and stomped wool into the gigantic bag that would be taken to market

organic cotton farming in California

Sally Fox of Vreseis Ltd., a Fibershed producer member in the Capay Valley of California, amidst the organic, naturally colored cotton she has been breeding for over 30 years.

Though considered old-fashioned and outdated in that era of get-big-or-get-out agriculture, small farmers in our area still gathered for shared missions like this. And there was no reason at the time for a kid like me to realize that what we were doing — raising textile fiber (a.k.a. fiber farming) in an Earth-regenerative manner — would become a world mission to support the health of the planet.

Holistic by default, Grandpa’s sheep were rotationally pasture-grazed, the ranch was diversified, and he planted by the moon’s cycles. That’s the only way he’d ever farmed. Yet that type of farming didn’t appear out of an inability to know better. It evolved from a powerful ability to sense what is needed to thrive.

Fast-forward to being a grandparent myself, and climate change adds a sense of urgency for not just our food and fuel to be Earth-restorative, but also our clothing and textiles. The after-harvest processing of fiber must be considered when improving the ecological impact of the textile industry, but eco-farmers serve the initial production of the fiber themselves, and it must happen in a way that also sustains them financially. Continue Reading →

How to Grow and Use Lemon Balm

I always get excited when I talk about herbs, especially when I talk about medicinal culinary herbs like lemon balm. Lemon balm’s simplicity, beauty, flavor, ease of care, and exceptional medicinal properties make it one of my favorites.

Harvesring lemon balm stems

Harvesting the long stems of lemon balm.

I particularly like the way lemon balm attracts beneficial insects and butterflies to my garden, and occasionally even the hummingbirds find it intriguing.

I am also partial to lemon balm tea, especially on a cold winter night, when its deep, earthy, lemony flavor brings back a touch of summer sunshine.

Sometimes referred to as Melissa or Sweet Melissa, Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a member of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, of plants. Like other mint family members, lemon balm has scalloped, oval- to heart-shaped leaves that grow opposite one another on square (four-sided) stems. Its leaves are bright green on top and whitish below.

Lemon balm is a great herb to share with kids because the leaves are wonderfully fuzzy to touch, and they leave a trace of lemon scent on the fingers. Most people don’t stop to look at the flowers of lemon balm because they are very small. Up close, the tiny white to pale pink two-lipped flowers form whorled spikes that are quite pretty.

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Natural Weed Control

There are many ways for growers to implement non-toxic weed control methods on their farms. The most obvious is to take the chemical farming approach and find an organically-approved material to do the killing. Very strong vinegar has been the most marketed material. The important factor in vinegar formulas is to include a surfactant to strip away any waxy protective coating on the plant surface to allow the desiccation (drying out) of the plant. Salt provides the same mode of action and may be included in the formula.

Natural weed control

The primary condition that promotes broadleaf weeds is the ratio of available phosphorus to available potassium, as shown by a LaMotte soil test. The further you deviate from a 1:1 ratio, the stronger the broadleaf pressure.

Other modern mechanical approaches to weed control include flaming, cultivating, and smothering. Cultivators are a modern version of hoeing or hand pulling. Rotary hoes or spiked harrows are special adaptations of the cultivation approach. Using plastic films, whether biodegradable or not, is a form of smothering that is similar to mulching with any material. The cover denies sunlight to prevent growth.

Repeated cuttings of a perennial weed in a fallow field may weaken a plant over time by using up its stored energy. Farmers should also make every attempt to prevent the reseeding of an offending species. Treating isolated patches is worth the effort to keep them from spreading. If a field is overwhelmed to a point of not having an economic crop worth harvesting, be sure to take the whole field down before the weeds go to seed. Keep in mind that there are seeds in your fields that may have been there for years. Just lime or activate the calcium in your soil and watch clover appear in uncultivated ground, even if you haven’t seeded it since you bought the farm.

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Glyphosate: A Toxic Legacy

Journalist and Author Carey Gillam Shares Decades of Research into Monsanto and its Ubiquitous Weed Killer

Carey Gillam discusses glyphosateCarey Gillam is a Kansas-based journalist turned glyphosate geek. Her first book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, fills a gaping hole in the literature and is getting excellent reviews. Erin Brockovich says Whitewash “reads like a mystery novel as Gillam skillfully uncovers Monsanto’s secretive strategies.” Publishers Weekly says, “Gillam expertly covers a contentious front” and paints “a damning picture.” And Booklist calls it “a must-read.” Gillam brings more than 25 years in the news industry covering corporate America to her project investigating Monsanto’s premier product and the malfeasance that surrounds it. During her 17 years employed by the global news service Reuters she developed her specialty in the big business of food and agriculture. Besides covering topics like economic policy, corporate earnings and commodities trading, she was pulled away to write about presidential politics, natural disasters and a range of other general news and feature topics. Two years ago she became Research Director
 with U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer group that pursues truth and transparency in America’s food industry. Gillam says she always knew she “wanted to be a journalist, to build a career on the simple pursuit of truth. My work is based on the belief that by sharing information and ideas, airing debates, and unveiling actions and events critical to public policy, we help advance and strengthen our community — our humanity.”

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch Continue Reading →

Growing Great Garlic

Garlic is a great low-maintenance cash crop. Brian Fox planted 35 pounds of garlic in his garden 11 years ago. He now plants 700 pounds every October using 15 tons of hay mulch at Salem Mountain Farms in northeastern Pennsylvania. He harvests about 4,000 pounds the next summer. “I can’t imagine stopping,” he said. “It’s certainly a satisfying thing to grow. It’s one of those things we see in the spring before actual leaves start growing on trees.”

How to grow garlic

Brian Fox plants 700 pounds of garlic every October and harvests 4,000 the next summer.

He is not super busy when garlic needs attention. He hand-pulls it after his busy planting season in June and early July.

“It’s a natural fit with the things we do on the farm,” he said. “We isolate it from everything else.”

Fox started with a mentor and has since been able to pass along his knowledge. He presented a workshop to more than 40 farmers entitled “Growing Great Garlic: Three Years to a Low-Maintenance Cash Crop” at a Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) field day.

“Eight or 10 were people I knew who just wanted to see how I did things,” he said. “Others were looking for something to grow or had been growing garlic on a small scale.”

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Growing Beans: A How-To Guide

Staple and comfort food icon, the bean has played an essential role in the survival of people and animals since ancient times. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence that old-world legumes (len­tils, peas, broad beans, chick peas, and soybeans) were used as food for more than 10,000 years in eastern Asia. Caches of lentils have been found in Egyptian tombs, signifying the reverence paid to this plant. In “His­tory of Legumes: Man’s Use of Legumes” (www.healthguidance.org), Jason Ladock writes that “Legumes are second only to the cereal grasses as sources of human food and ani­mal forage.”

Growing beans is easy, and, when dry, they can be stored for long periods of time without losing viability if they are kept in a cool, dry, dark environment.

Beans are easy to grow, and, when dry, can be stored for long periods of time without losing viability if they are kept in a cool, dry, dark environment.

Why are legumes so popular? Le­gumes, members of the bean or Fabaceae plant family, have many significant at­tributes. Beans are high in iron, potassium and magnesium, and are also an important source of protein and fiber. They are easy to grow, and, when dry, can be stored for long periods of time without losing viability if they are kept in a cool, dry, dark environment. Beside their nutritive benefits, the USDA Soil Quality Institute reports that beans have an ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen with the help of symbiotic Rhizobia bacteria living in their roots.

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