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Common Ground Farm

September 17, 2009

Spuds anyone?

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

In the last posting on Late Blight in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast this season, I failed to mention its potential effects on this year's potato crop. In monitoring our potato fields we found that Late Blight had arrived on our potatoes. In late July I decided to mow all of our potatoes in order to kill any living tissue matter that the late blight fungus could attack and cause a potential crop failure. Since then we've started digging our potatoes. The results have been mixed with more success in the last few diggings than the earlier attempts.

In the spirit of fall and the tremendous varieties of potatoes I beg to ask: Do you recall the original Mr. Potato Head?

My grandfather tells me that back when it was introduced in 1952, the head wasn’t plastic. The toy consisted of plastic features that children stuck into a real potato which their parents provided. Different potato sizes and shapes increased the fun!

No other crop produces more energy per acre. Hardy and adaptable, potatoes grow from sea level to 14,000 ft in the chilly Andes, and produce food in a wider range of soil and climatic conditions than any other staple crop. The average American eats 120 pounds of potatoes a year. That is almost 365 potatoes per person—a spud a day! There are only 100 calories in an 8-ounce baked potato. Potatoes are only 20 percent solids and 80 percent water! Potatoes are fat free, contain vitamin C, are rich in potassium and are an excellent source of fiber. Potatoes shouldn’t be stored in a refrigerator, but kept dark and dry with good ventilation: ideally between 45 and 50 degrees.

Although last year was the United Nations International Year of the Potato it isn’t too late to go out and celebrate—vodka anyone?

Fact for the future: China and India harvest one third of all potatoes in the world, and developing countries are climbing in potato production while developed countries are on the decline. See the World Potato Production Chart for more information.  

For the time being I think we’ll just worry about our single acre of production. Even after a battle with the infamous Colorado Potato Beetle and the newly arrived Late Blight fungus, we are finding an above average potato year. And with 650 pounds of seed potatoes in the ground we hope to get over 5,000 pounds in return!

To the potato!

Devin Foote

August 05, 2009

How Are Your Tomatoes?

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

Between 1845 and 1852 the population of Ireland was reduced by 25 percent. Over a million people perished in one of Western Europe's great famines. The oomycete Phytophthora infestans was responsible for the—as it is more commonly known—Irish Potato Famine. Just three weeks ago P. infestans made its quiet arrival into our fields, and as rain continued to fall (near record levels this year) the spores began their tumultuous spread. Since its arrival we have pulled a quarter of our tomato plants. It has since spread to our potato plants, which we will soon mow to prevent the fungus from going tuber. Acting quickly, we have begun a spraying program on our crops with an organically approved fungicide.

Photo 1 Phytophthora infestans, or late blight, is a highly contagious fungus that destroys tomato and potato plants and has quickly spread to nearly every state in the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic. The spores of the fungus are often present in the soil, and small outbreaks are not uncommon in August and September; but the cool, wet weather in June and the aggressively infectious nature of the pathogen have combined to produce what Martin A. Draper, a senior plant pathologist at the United States Department of Agriculture, describes as an “explosive” rate of infection. There are two strains of late blight—tomato and potato—but the illness can jump between the species. A single open lesion on a plant can produce hundreds of thousands of infectious spores.

Fungicides can protect unaffected plants from disease, but there is no cure for late blight. Organic farmers, who are not permitted to use powerful synthetic fungicides, like chlorothalonil, have very few weapons against this aggressive pathogen.

Similar to the hand-me-down costs of our industrial food system, we now see residual effects by an  irresponsible industrial bedding plant nursery. The current outbreak is believed to have spread from plants in garden stores to backyard gardens and commercial fields. Geneticists at Cornell are tracking the blight, and have said the outbreak spread in part from the hundreds of thousands of tomato plants bought by home gardeners at Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Kmart stores starting in April. The wholesale gardening company Bonnie Plants, based in Alabama, had supplied most of the seedlings and recalled all remaining plants starting on June 26.

If the blight continues, there could be widespread destruction of tomato crops—especially organic ones— and higher prices at the market. “Locally grown tomatoes normally get $15 to $20 a box” at wholesale, cites John Mishanec, a pest management specialist at Cornell who visited our farm pre-blight. “Some growers are talking about $40 boxes already.” Almost every farm here in Dutchess County has been affected. It's the quiet gossip at our farmers markets—"How are your tomatoes?" we often ask one another.

Authorities recommend that home gardeners inspect their tomato plants for late blight signs, which include white, powdery spores; large olive green or brown spots on leaves; and brown or open lesions on the stems. Gardeners who find an affected plant should pull it, seal it in a plastic bag and throw it away—not compost it. Many unaffected plants in commercial fields are being sprayed with heavy doses of fungicides to prevent the spread of the disease. (More information can be found at this Cornell Web site,)

The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., where I visited this past spring, has lost this year’s tomato crop. Because long-term management of the disease is of greatest importance, we might soon be pulling our entire first crop of tomatoes. In regards to consumers and our CSA members, we will be providing a hand-written letter on how we are actively managing this year's tomato and potato crops. 

Devin Foote

June 29, 2009

The Labors of Chickens

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

June 12, 2009

72 Labors

First, seventy-two labors brought us this food, we should know how it
comes to us.
Second, as we receive this offering, we should consider whether our virtue      
and practice deserve it.
Third, as we desire the natural order of mind to be free from clinging, we
must be free from greed.
Fourth, to support our life we take this food.
Fifth, to attain our way we take this food.
First, this food is for the three treasures.
Second, it is for our teachers, parents, nation, and all sentient beings.
Third, it is for all beings in the six worlds.
Thus we eat this food with everyone
We eat to stop all evil
To practice good
To save all sentient beings
And to accomplish our Buddha Way
.

- Meal Gatha, sacred chant performed before meals at a local Buddhist Monestary


The above words were uttered by our apprentice Heidi Kunz prior to our meal this evening. Forty minutes prior she had been pacing through the woods of a forested backyard, questioning her own choices about why she decided to become a vegetarian 17 years ago – “I feel like I have to decide right now if I want to keep eating meat,” she murmured in agonized mental confusion, tears streaming down her cheek.

Moments later she placed a sharpened knife at the jugular of a chicken.

We all know too well the modern minds’ seductive use of disassociation – not only have food companies and televised commercials aided in such separatist thought – but particularly pertaining to meat. Many attest – just give me the store-bought Cornish Cross, boneless chicken breast. We may think otherwise, but recent CDC studies show chicken to be the number one source of food borne illness outbreaks. So those eight-week old, four to five pound Cornish Crosses that topple over because they've been bred to grow so rapidly don't necessarily make the most appetizing (or humane) source of food.

The Cornish Cross, or Rock Cornish, is a hybrid variety of chicken, produced from a cross between the Cornish and Plymouth Rock strains. It has become a favorite because it lacks the typical "hair" seen in other breeds which often need singeing post plucking. It is a poor forager and would therefore be at a loss in knowing how to navigate our clover patches. 

Chicken coop So, in opposition to the antibiotic-injected, high protein diet, crammed indoor space of factory farms; our birds - a diverse group of eight different varieties - have been hanging out in their homemade mobile chicken coop. In the quiet months of March, we retrofitted the 1950s manure spreader that a local had been rotting in his backyard. We frequented the local lumberyard and piece-by-piece put together a homemade chicken tractor (see right).

About once every three days, the chickens get rotated through a section of fallowed clover cover crop. We supplement their local, organic feed from Lightning Tree Farm ($22/bag). With a rich supply of kitchen scraps and the clover abounding from our soil, our birds have been eating well since their arrival in February. After a few run-ins with mother nature's other species, we have 18 laying hens - all of which will begin laying in the coming weeks. As a side business we sell fresh eggs to those who ask - $5/dozen.

More than anything, these birds exist on our farm as a source of education. The mobile coop is part of the knowledge our apprentices gain from learning about about holistic farm management. And although we may be young at this, we aspire to provide a sound example of closed-loop farming systems, minimizing outside inputs of fertilizer.

Just like the disassociation from what appears on our plates at supper - we have become removed from understanding how humans can manage other animals in a humane and honorable way. Killing a chicken humanely and in the presence of others, for some, is a step in the direction towards honoring ones food supply. After participating in the process and asking, "why did you do it?" Heidi answered, "to justify my eating of meat - I can now understand why some don't do it."     

Devin Foote

June 01, 2009

Earthworms

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

May 28, 2009

The overcast, coastal-like mists have brought my attention to what is beneath all of the weeds that we are trying to stay on top of. And whenever I make a new pass through the field with the disc, I turn around to see swooping blue birds, yellow finches, and baby kill deer scurrying by to harvest the day's fresh offerings. My hand claps and whistles are never frequent enough to keep them away from our friend in the soil, Lumbricus terrestris.

The earthworm is a special sort of worm. Almost alone among its brethren, the earthworm does not inspire horror. In fact, the earthworm is almost alone among all invertebrates in the tenderness it inspires. Knowing that a worm in the sun is as good as dead—since its skin has no defense against desiccation—children often place them gently in the shadow of a log or cover them with a light handful of soil. We all remember our interaction as children with earthworms—be it a friend's earthworm box in their room or digging them up before going fishing with Dad. Without question, gardeners—above all—venerate the worm.

In his book Dirt: The Estatic Skin Under the Earth, William Bryant Logan points out much of what we already know: when worms are happy, there are lots of them. It is said that in a Danish forest soil, researchers have found a density of one million to one-and-a-half million worms per acre—more than two tons of worms! A rich grassland may bring up more than 500 worms out of a square-meter hole. This is not so remarkable when you recognize that eight relatively healthy worms will produce 1,500 offspring in half a year’s time.

The common earthworm is not native to the United States, having been brought over by colonists in the mid-nineteenth century. When it first appeared, it was not numerous. But as fields were cleared, its numbers increased to such a degree that the water of springs and wells became polluted by the number of dead worms. As often witnessed in nature, the corresponding introduction and increase of robins and other vermivores corrected the imbalance.

Regardless, the presence of earthworms is by and large a very good thing for the soil. Unlike a given fertilizer, it acts simultaneously on several different soil variables.

More than any other creature, the worm defines topsoil. Worms are basically blind; therefore, they see literally by eating. A worm is a long intestine. Soil, rich in dead organic matter, leaves, and especially manure, goes in one end and comes out the other—concentrated, enriched and well mixed—in the form of “castings.” Castings are so rich a source that at the farm I worked at last year, in preparation for making our potting mix, we would take a shovel and bucket into the woods, peel back a few leaves and collect two gallons per batch. It is said that a well-manured soil is almost always rich in worms. Up to ten tons of worm castings per acre per year enrich a soil under favorable conditions. The worm also senses and creates the topsoil in a very basic way: by going where the organic matter is, mixing it, and excreting it behind or above itself. Worms also bore down to the water table, but not into it. At the dry surface, too, they stop.

Some earthworms leave their castings on the surface, others in the body of the soil. These castings concentrate nutrients. Scientists estimate that worm castings contain five times more nitrogen, seven times more available phosphorus, 11 times more potash and 40 percent more humus than is usually found in the top six inches of soil. In addition, the castings mix the soil ingredients, facilitating further breakdown by microbes.

The earthworm's blindness does not hinder its motion; worms are pathfinders. A single acre of cultivated soil has been found to have more than six million worm channels whose presence significantly increases the soil’s ability to hold and percolate water. A clayey orchard soil had more than two million large channels—some the size of a little finger—in an acre, the equivalent of a two-inch drainage pipe! Others have found that down to a depth of four inches, up to 50 percent of the soil’s air capacity consists of the tunnels and cavities dug by worms.

Earthworms are the watchers of the soil. If you build soil, worms will come.

Now that our cover crops have been dried and turned under, the organic matter of which they are composed is the perfect food source for microorganisms and earthworms. As ecologically senstitive farming goes, large amounts of earthworms and microorganisms are often present in abundant numbers. We hope that our well-managed soil will pay off as we harvest for our first market this weekend and start our first distribution next Tuesday. Here's to the earthworm!   

Devin Foote

May 08, 2009

The Plow

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

May 5, 2009

Hands The plow is perhaps the greatest attempt to imitate the hand. The harrow drags its fingers through the soil, loosening and breaking clods. Although harrows were once nothing but a rack of sharpened sticks drawn behind an ox, they are the same in principle today, despite a change to sharper and more durable metal materials. Plows, little changed over 4,000 years of existence, have increasingly sought to hold the curve of the human hand and to imitate its trick of both pulling up and laying down.

The 18th century New York inventor Jethro Wood made arguably the finest plow. Wood was obsessed with finding the curve that would lift and turn the soil with the least resistance, making the plow easiest to draw.

He was not alone in this quest. His sometime correspondent, President Thomas Jefferson, was also in pursuit of “the mould-board of least resistance” and indeed thought that he had found it. But Jefferson designed on paper, using a grid. Jethro Wood designed on potatoes.

Pototo People who saw him walking the lanes of his hometown of Scipio, carving away on a spud, soon came to know him as “the whittling Yankee.” His plow was not a product of the Cartesian grid, but rather, was formed directly on a product of the soil.

In a letter to the Patent Office of 1819, Wood repeatedly tries to describe his mouldboard, without success. “The figure of the mouldboard… is a sort of irregular pentagon, or five-sided plane, though curved and inclined in a peculiar manner,” he said. “The peculiar curve has been compared to that of the screw auger; and it has been likened to the prow of a ship,” he added, but neither description was accurate. Finally, he gave up trying to describe it in detail: “The mouldboard, which is the result of profound reflection and of numberless experiments, is a sort of plano-curvilinear surface.”

Mouldboard He then went on to provide a web of measurements so obscure that the document functioned only weakly as a patent, meaning that although his design was almost universally adopted, he saw little revenue as a result.

During the course of ten days, we have put all of our potatoes in the ground. Six hundred pounds of potatoes and 11 varieties in all. I used Wood’s (not Jefferson's) mouldboard shape to test its usefulness in turning over a beautiful cover crop of hairy vetch. Aside, we have been busy with planting and the season of continuous cultivation has begun. Now until September... .  

Mouldboard in action

Devin Foote

April 21, 2009

Onions

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

April 16, 2009

Onions 1 About three weeks ago I sat patiently in the greenhouse with a pair of scissors, trimming onion tops. We trim our onion tops down to four inches about two weeks prior to transplanting in the field (photo). Researchers tell me that doing so invigorates the plants for transplanting and once transplanted, they really kick into gear. On that note, here’s a bit of what I know about onions: 

Onions are day-length sensitive. While the days are lengthening, the earlier they are set out, the more chance they have to make top growth. The more top growth, the greater the bulb size. After summer solstice and day length begins to shorten, their energy switches to bulb growth.

Onions contain allicin, which benefits the heart and immune functions and aids the onion plant with antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. Gardeners and small-scale farmers often use a garlic spray to help in protecting against diseases. Researchers have seen effective results in the use of liquid allicin compounds against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in hospitalsand maybe now for hog farmers. Research at Cornell University has shown that the more pungent the variety, the more cancer-fighting antioxidants it contains. Breeders are trying to develop sweeter, less pungent onions that retain the nutritional benefits.

Onions 2 Onions provided an important part of the diet in ancient Egypt. Seeds were found in a tomb dating from 3,200 BCE, according to Allison and Paul Wiediger in Growing for Market, Greek athletes ate pounds of onions, drank onion juice and rubbed the juice on their bodies to prepare themselves for competition.

Onions are second only to tomatoes as the world’s most economically important vegetable. In the United States they have a $4 billion annual retail value. While the average American eats 18.7 lb per year, Libyans consume almost four times as many per capita. 

All in all we planted more than 10,000 onion plants. It took us approximately three full days. About 7,000 of the total are storage onions that will be used for distribution beyond the expected harvest sometime around the middle of July. We expect 10,000 onions will cover our 120-member CSA for approximately 16 weeks of our 23-week distribution season.

Devin Foote

March 30, 2009

Spring!

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

March 24, 2009

1 The greenhouses have been a whirlwind lately. Between hustling the endless trays of newly seeded lettuce (round II), cabbage, kale, chard, kohlrabi, peppers and snapdragons, we've been attempting to squeeze tables together to see how many we can fit in the big greenhouse. Somewhere in the process we’ve been setting up a new heating system (see right).

2 Local farmers claim that this new Instant-On Hot Water system will reduce our propane bill down to 10 percent of the original cost (see water tubes, left). Trial-by-fire is our motto, since we are only the third farmers in the area to implement such a system.

Across the river Ron and Kate Khosla put in a similar system at Huguenot Street Farm, and they have been an excellent resource in our new endeavor. As a side note, Ron has worked at length with the United Nations, and has been hired by the UN-FAO as an International Organic Certification Consultant. He designed a Participatory Guarantee Scheme (PGS) for India's Organic Agriculture Council, which is now operating successfully with tens of thousands of farmers. He has worked closely with an alternative certification systemCertified Naturally Grownenabling growers who meet USDA organic standards to avoid the bureaucracy and paperwork associated with becoming USDA Certified. On a personal level, he has been a great asset in discussing the national and worldwide implications of linking policy and farming.

3 The second grower in the area using the Instant-On system is Jack Algiere in Pocantico Hills at the Stone Barns Center (see right). Jack is another young grower who has become a great inspiration to me. He grows year-round for chef extraordinaire Dan Barber at Blue Hill Restaurant at Stone Barns. Just this past week we visited Stone Barns, where Jack showed us their $2 million Dutch greenhouse and walked us through square foot greenhouse numbers in relation to economic viability for year-round production. 

4 This is a topic both Tim and I have focused on at length while a part of the year-round CSA at Michigan State (see left).

The main purpose of our visit to Stone Barns was to meet with long-time farmer and food systems thinker, Fred Kirschenmann, the President of Stone Barns. I’m still happily writing down notes from the discussion.

5 The farm here in Beacon is moving along. It’s amazing what the sun has done to our spring cover crops. The fields are beaming with mammoth red clover and I’ve noticed evidence of hairy vetch in last year's winter squash patch. Both are leguminous and will therefore fix nitrogen to our soils if able to grow long enough. Along with the sprouting of cover crops, we are unfortunately already seeing weed growth, the majority of which is chickweed. In response, we’ve taken to weeding the garlic and taking a trip to the local municipality to inquire about obtaining leaf mulch. Leaves are not only a great phosphorus additive for crops like garlic but help prevent weed growth, conserve moisture and are free! When garlic harvest rolls around you can turn them in, which adds an excellent source of organic matter to your soils.

Devin Foote

March 13, 2009

New Beginnings

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

Common Ground Farm began in fall 2001 out of the vision and hard work of community members who wanted to start a farm project in southern Dutchess County, New York. The farm leases nine acres (with six acres in production) from the Stony Kill Environmental Education Center. The farm’s focus is on its 120-member Community-Supported Agriculture program that works toward ecologically sound and economically viable agriculture, with an emphasis on connecting local consumers to where their food comes from. Common Ground participates in two weekly farmers markets, Beacon and Fishkill, and regularly holds workshops, farm tours and community events.

This year, my farming partner Tim Heuer and I will be managing the Common Ground Farm. Last year, we participated in the Mid-Hudson Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmers in Training (CRAFT), a model for sharing supplemental farm training in cooperation with a number of participating farms. Visits to other farms offer a chance to see how different operations work and a chance to network with other farmers and farmers in training.

March 4, 2009 – The Waiting Game

A nor’easter hit last week, dropping five inches of snow and stacking drifts across the fields. It felt like a reality check for the warm weather we have been receiving of late. I walked the fields, attempting to wrap my head around all that is going on here… or, shall I say, all the work that needs to happen.

Although I commute four miles to the farm, it has been on my mind almost every minute. I wake in the morning thinking of trellising peas, wondering if we have enough seed in the cooler to feed our community, which prompts me to place another order of last-minute seed varieties. You know you won't have enough time during the season to wait a week for more seed or a spare part, so you debate, going back and forth on whether to front the cash now or see if you can make it through the year without needing it.

Tool Touching, feeling, seeing, smelling and the occasional swing of the hammer are how I measure my days. I look at seed packets and try to visualize their bounty in the field. I look at our two-bottom moldboard plow (check out the etymology!) and scratch my head because I am accustomed to using a chisel plow… “This will be interesting,” I tell Tim, who is more of a creative spirit than farm implement junkie.

Chicks Last week twenty-five chickens arrived at the Post Office in Beacon. Eight of them perished over the course of the week, prompting us to order another 25 courtesy of Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa. We got 13 roosters and 12 hens; five have since died.

The first week of March means seeds. Sorting, unpacking, repacking, and rubber banding. After all that, we try and get comfy in the greenhouse. This week we will seed up scallions, celeriac, lettuce, parsley, thyme, rosemary and foxglove.

Farm planning requires patience and as a beginning farmer, I am starting to realize the widespread use of farm planning sheets, aka Excel. It’s amazing how few U.S. taxpayer dollars are diverted to small growers; USDA Extension offices seem to lack any knowledge of farm planning sheets for diversified vegetable farmers.

Seed For instance, we had supper last week with the farm managers at Poughkeepsie Farm Project, comparing notes on farm planning sheets and their inefficiency. We laughed at all the miscellaneous spreadsheets floating around on our computers' hard drives and not in our own heads. In an attempt to resolve this issue, we’ve taken to mapping our spreadsheets out in our living room. Yes, it gets a bit messy but it seems to be the only way to visually picture growing for a 22-week distribution of vegetables. 

Devin Foote