Baby season

Yesterday three new caprines arrived on the farm, via dog carrier in the back of my mighty little toyota yaris hatchback.

The three baby goats, named Pinto, Queso, and Cabrito, are the children of Taco, who was here on this farm when it was a Heifer International learning center. Sadly, Taco died recently and somewhat unexpectedly of a long term disease. My friend Laura, who had been keeping the goats since the education center closed, asked if I would like Taco’s kids. They are one month old and still need to be bottle fed.

Here they are getting to know the farm:

Getting to know me, and the camera

They are good at romping.

Looking for a bottle:

It just wouldn’t be spring without a few babies!



Here is a picture of Taco in 2007, with her two kids that year

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The chickens are enjoying the warm spring weather, and producing lots of eggs. The smaller eggs in the picture are from the young chickens that have just started laying. It takes a month or two to get up to a large egg size, but the small eggs are said to be exceptionally delicious. The green eggs are from the Auracana/Americana hens, the brown eggs from the Black Australorps, and the white from Brown Leghorns.

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Winter is fungi’s favorite season around here!  The December rains and January fog brought out an unusual number of mushrooms and fungi of all sorts.  At least more than I’ve seen in the past three years. (None though, that I would eat!)

2010 was also the first year that downy mildew and other similar plant diseases have been a problem for me.

Here is a leaf with some sort of infection. I’m still not sure exactly what the infection is, and it’s probably not important, though I am curious:

Usually mildews and bacterials diseases spread from plant to plant by splashes of water (such as rain), wind, dirt, and insects. Once a leaf is infected, this particular disease spreads through the veins. You can see on the above leaf how the brown coloring is spreading along the veins. If you break off that infected leaf, you’ll see that the veins are carrying the infection down to the main plant stem. It has gone “systemic”:

Here is a leaf where the infection is just starting:

The leaf’s central veins still look clear; they have not yet spread the infection to the rest of the plant:

I haven’t found much information yet about controlling mildews on a small organic level. Ideally I won’t plant susceptible crops in this garden area for a few years (crop rotation!), but I still need to get the current plants through spring.

Here are a few things that help control mildews, fungi, and bacterial diseases:

1) taking infected leaves off plants at first sign of infection.

2) Not crowding plants. There should be sufficient room between plants for air circulation and light penetration. The air and sun dry off the plants, making disease less likely to spread. Luckily, the goats are happy to eat the slightly diseased plants I pull out:

3) Milk! Spraying plants with watered down milk (10-20% milk mixed into water) can help control mildews. I haven’t tried this yet but want to!  Apparently the milk changes the surface pH of the leaves enough to discourage mildew growth. It works better as a preventative and for new infections than on already established infections though.

4) Compost Tea. Some people say the microorganisms in compost tea help the plant combat diseases. I don’t have an proof of my own to offer on this, but some people swear by it.

In other words, there are many experiments to do! But not today! It’s pouring outside!

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My obsession with Mennonite tomatoes

I admit it, I have a slight obsession with Mennonite tomatoes.

It started one day 2 years ago at the Peaceful Valley Organic Farm Supply store in Grass Valley, CA. While I was waiting for my order of various farm supplies to be filled I perused the seed racks and found the Old German Tomato, a Mennonite heirloom. Being 1/4 Mennonite and having a Mennonite middle name (Fretz), I didn’t want to spend any more money than I already had that day, so I didn’t buy the seeds. Anyway, they were described as (if you read between the lines) kind’a ugly and low yielding.

I stopped at my parents house in Sacramento on the way back to Modesto and told my mother, who was brought up Mennonite and Lutheran in Pennsylvania, that I had seen Mennonite tomato seeds. Her expression of approval changed to disappointment when I said I didn’t buy them. “YOU DIDN’T BUY THEM?” Coming from her, any admonition to spend money was to be taken very seriously, so I went straight to the computer and ordered the seeds online.

I planted the seeds and tended the plants. (In fact, that spring I was offered an apprenticeship on another farm, and one factor in my turning the offer down was that I didn’t want to leave my Old German seedlings behind.) When the plants produced, the tomatoes were a bit ugly and low yielding, just as the packet said. But they were also huge, yummy, and Mennonite.

When I bought the seeds, I’d never knowingly eaten a specifically “Mennonite” tomato, and had no basis to judge it’s adaptability to California. Growing unproven seed from across the country doesn’t really seem like something a practical Mennonite farmer would do.  In fact, it seems pretty silly.

But here’s the thing. Say the phrase “Scots-Irish” and nothing really comes to my mind (sorry Dad’s ancestors) . The words pecan, alligator, broiler chickens, soybeans, or cotton, may remind me of my wonderful relatives in Georgia who grow those things… but they really don’t make me want to put an alligator in the pond.

“Mennonite” on the other hand, contains an entire ideal world in a single word. It’s the thought of a simple farm life and close community amid green hills and streams, and a sense of pride in their hard work, faith, and general way of life. Way out here in California, on a sunny day off, it’s easy to idealize a far away time and place. But having that ideal isn’t a bad thing; in fact it’s good to be reminded of ideals sometimes, even if they aren’t ever fully realized. Plus, “Mennonite” tomatoes come with an interesting cultural history, are a good example of heirlooms, and remind me to make funny cake or shoo fly pie once in a while.

So I’m happy to announce that this year’s Old German Mennonite heirloom tomatoes are busy sprouting in the greenhouse. They are there along with the better producing, more beautiful, disease resistant, standard varieties and other heirlooms. Though I will probably never rely on heirlooms, I will probably always have something “Mennnonite.” After all, who wouldn’t want to munch on a giant tomato and dream about a perfect life?


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The winter garden

My winter garden tends to get a little messy. Above you’ll see the remains of the two broccoli and cauliflower rows, and then the rows of greens and roots that keep going through the cold months.

Winter is a time of renewal for garden and gardener. Rain recharges the groundwater, earthworms come near the surface in the moist cool weather, and green is everywhere! I like to let the weeds go a bit in winter. And not just because I’m trying to stay warm and out of the rain! Weeds provide organic matter for the soil, they protect the soil surface from erosion by wind or rain during winter, help alleviate compaction, and draw moisture from the air to the soil. Plus, the only planting I do in December and January is in the greenhouse, so there is not any need to till up the soil. To top it off, leguminous “weeds” fix nitrogen, pumping it from air to soil and into a form other less talented plants can use. And quite a few are edible as well.

Of course, you don’t want to let them go for toooooo long….  can you find the lettuce in this picture? : 🙂

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Have you heard it?!

Here on the farm I heard it last week, when the sun finally came out after so much fog. There are hundreds of bees congregating around one maple tree, and if you listen carefully you can hear the buzz even from 50ft away. A sure sign that spring is approaching. 🙂

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Why Seed Matters

Seed – it’s the hope and joy of every January, the basis of food security and tradition in every culture, and a narrative of our relationship with nature.

“Why Seed Matters” was one of the themes of the recent Eco-Farm Conference. In one workshop representatives of the Organic Seed Alliance, Center for Food Safety, Clif Bar Family Foundation (a funder) and Organic Farming Research Foundation spoke about encouraging farmers to grow seed, why using specifically organic seed is important, and protection of seed resources from GMO contamination.

At the closing plenary session we heard from people from two very different environments each explaining how “seeds are the key to urban and rural food sovereignty.” Anna Marie Carter, the “Seed Lady of Watts” talked some about her work spreading seeds and knowledge as the basis of stronger, healthier communities. Two speakers from the Hopi reservation in Arizona talked about the work of redeveloping native food systems, including growing their own seeds.

Blue Hopi and Purple Hopi corn. This year I hope to grow enough and have the correct timing so that I can save seeds for the next year.

Midway through the conference we heard that the USDA had declared GMO alfalfa safe and acceptable for use.  The negative reaction of conference-goers to that statement is of course very different from the opinion of many conventional growers. So I’ve been thinking about GMOs and seed saving and all.

In defense of GMOs:

.            genetic modification can lead to useful productive plant types faster than traditional breeding, sometimes.

.            with changing climate genetic modification may be an important tool for our adaptation to new conditions.

.            Not all genetic modification involves putting genes from a fish into a plant or other combinations of unlike organisms.

I could list many downsides to GMOs.  They definitely are annoying to organic farmers. Pollen from GMO crops can drift to other fields and contaminate open-pollinated crops with wildly different and not particularly useful genes. Corn or cotton with the bacteria “bt” expressed throughout every plant will force caterpillars to evolve much faster to resist the bacteria, thus making bt less useful for organic farmers. And so on.

But here’s my real problem with GMO seed:

Seed reflects the relationship of humans with nature. Year after year for thousands of years, farmers and nature have worked together to produce plants that thrive in a particular environment, support particular traditions, and provide sustenance to a people.

When farmers grow their own seed they are working in partnership with nature on the evolutionary journey toward plants, and people, that are most fit for their environment.

When seed is saved, it embodies a relationship not only with nature as a whole but with a particular place, a particular field. The Hopi at the conference told how only seed from their reservation grows well there. Seed from elsewhere, even in the same state, does not thrive in their unique and harsh environment. My farm is on an ancient flood plain/river bed, and is a little bit lower than most surrounding areas. The soil is deep and sandy, the fog stays,  and I need plants with slightly different adaptations than someone in, say, Oakdale would need.

Genetically modifying seed takes this relationship out of the hands of farmer and environment, and puts it in the hands of a scientist, university, or corporation, whose goals may be very different. I’m not saying being a corporate plant breeder isn’t an honorable and useful profession, but I don’t think they can take the place of the relationship between each farmer and each field.

For example. GMO rice with additional nutrients bred into it may be very useful  in some areas. But there is no way it can reflect the diversity needed for ecosystems and farming practices in even a few square mile radius in Vietnam or Cambodia. And because farmers must buy GMO seed new every year, there is no way for the plants to adapt to local and changing conditions, and no way for the farmer to choose what traits best suit him or her (disease resistance, climactic considerations, traditional preferences, etc.)

These are bean pods. I saved the healthiest, biggest ones for planting this summer.

Now I don’t think that everyone needs to save their own seed. There are plenty of good professional seed companies out there growing non-GMO seed, either open pollinated or natural hybrid, organic or not, in a wide variety of conditions. Growing all of our own seed may be ideal, but especially for gardeners and very small farmers who are not growing much of any particular variety, it is actually better to leave selection to someone, preferably near-by, with a whole field (or at least a whole row) of one variety. Collecting seed from just a few plants leads to genetic bottlenecking, and over time restricts diversity.

Right now I actually do not grow much of my own seed, but as I learn more I’m working on planning garden layout and timing better so I can. When I buy seeds I choose the seeds as carefully as possible. I don’t plant any GMOs, and choose breeds that do well in this climate and in organic farming conditions.

(Picture of garlic drying. Garlic is one of the easiest things to save to the next year’s planting.)

In reality, seed DOES matter. The seed we buy, grow, or save says a lot about our relationship with nature, and it determines our long term success in agriculture. I don’t think there is any simple answer about what kind of seed should or should not be used. I just hope that the link between seed, land, and farmer is maintained and appreciated.

Now, out to the sunshine!!!

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Ecological Farmers Unite! And Dance!

This past week I was lucky enough to be able to go to the Ecological Farming Associations annual conference. Eco-farm is a great organization working to encourage an ecological mindset in farming and to support existing farmers and farms through education, advocacy, networking, and a good dose of fun and celebration.

The conference was 3 extremely full days of workshops and speakers on a huge range of topics, amazing meals from mostly local organic/sustainably grown foods, well over a thousand agriculture-involved people, and of course, some dancing.

I was doing work trade so I worked at both the organic beer and cheese tasting and the healing center (as well as workshop attendance counting). At the beer and cheese table, I was given responsibility over a table of locally made organic and sustainably produced cheese, so basically I was in heaven. I didn’t know much about the cheeses technically, but WOW they were good.

One was a fresh cheese from Sheana Davis, made of a blend of triple cream cow’s milk and goat milk. And then there was a beautiful cheese from the Burroughs Family Farm in Oakdale. When I ran out of information about the cheese (after about 1 sentence) if people asked for more info I told them it was from the heart of dairy country and that Oakdale is the cowboy capital of the world. A few people were familiar with Oakdale and we shared in central valley pride.

Working the Beer and Cheese tasting is a great opportunity for celebrity spotting. 😉 Many of the people I look up to in the farming world were there! Among the people who came through the line were a farmer from the successful and spirited Full Belly Farm, urban farmer and writer Novella Carpenter, the Rancho Piccolo CSA farmer from Atwater, and more!

The healing center was also great. Farmer’s need a good massage once in a while, and it was good to see people’s blissful expressions after their session. There were four very talented healers each with a different style. One person did barefoot shiatsu and thai massage, another did acupuncture, another did western, and a fourth did a mixture of shiatsu and sports massage.

Ok so you might be wondering if I went to any workshops! I did! Among the workshops I went to were the ups and downs of farmers markets, dynamic young farmers, why saving seed matters, christian spirituality in agriculture, and the spotted wing drosophila (a pest fly). There was a plenary session featuring successful farmers, and a session with members of the Hopi, talking about rebuilding their local food system.

And then there was the contra dance, the seed swap, and many other things. There was a LOT going on!

Tomorrow I’ll clue you in to some more of the informational aspects of the conference.

Have a good day everyone!
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Sunshine at last!

Hello! Sorry about the long lapse in posts, I know how important reading blogs can be for procrastination 😉 Most of you know that we’ve been having fog soup here for weeks on end. If you live or work in Ceres or other topographical dips, you know that we’ve been having fog STEW. With beans n greens. Yum! 🙂

Luckily, the sun has come out today! (Hallelujah!) And it being February and time to begin planting for spring and summer, I am slowly coming out of hibernation and revving up for some action.

In case you’re interested, I spent January working on various projects, including reupholstering some furniture, repainting things, wood carving, planning next seasons garden layout and seed order, drawing up a budget for the year, organizing, researching, and doing some harvesting and other garden stuff. I also got to go to the Ecological Farming Conference near Monterey!

So while I won’t bore you with the details of furniture upholstering, I will be putting up some updates on how the garden is doing. As usual, there are many experiments  going on, mostly related to determining what the minimum amount of time that I have to spend outside in the cold fog each day is. 🙂


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past the solstice

I wrote this for my church’s (Modesto Church of the Brethren) advent devotional, but since it is vegetable related, I figure my readers here (Hi Anne and Teresa!) might enjoy it as well. I hope you can read it in whatever way suits you, spiritual, religious, or not! (replace “God” with whatever word you like: Goddess, life, love, sun, cat, you get the idea… 🙂 ) It is meant to be read slowly and reflectively.



Reaching out in the darkness

Have you ever opened a cupboard to pull out a bag of potatoes, only to find them all sprouting? The potatoes that I carefully store each year in the darkest corner of the coolest room seem to have an innate certainty that there is a world of sunshine just beyond the burlap and cardboard enfolding them. Once, opening a forgotten box of potatoes, I found a forest of stems still searching after many months of darkness for a ray of light, unseen but expected.

In the darkest of times, when we cannot see God’s light or feel it’s warmth, can we keep watch through the night, trusting that God is there somewhere, and that the light will reach us? Do we dare reach out in the pitch black to feel our way to the light, perhaps pushing away, or embracing, something that stands in the way? Whatever the circumstance, may we wait for the light knowing at our core that it will come. Keep watch.

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