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Posts Tagged education

Shedding blight on the subject

25 June 2010

Tomato seedlings that won't make it to the field: the lower one simply isn't happy in the flat, but the upper one shows signs of disease -- maybe blight?

Last year, area farmers took a blow from the pervasive appearance of late blight (Phytophthora infestans) on tomato crops.  A water mold that ran amok in last year’s cool, damp summer, the blight remains famous for its historical reasons: it was responsible for the crop losses that caused the Great Potato Famine in Ireland in 1845-1847.  And last year, it devastated the tomato harvest.

Dave felt the blow: his total harvest of heirloom tomatoes was easily halved, thanks to the damage to plants and fruits caused by this disease.  This year, we know we face the threat again, since the blight inoculum remains in the soil.

As you might have noticed above, the same disease can affect both potatoes and tomatoes — both are nightshades, of the genus Solanum — and since eggplant is also a nightshade, I wonder about that as well.  Dave practices crop rotation faithfully this year, avoiding the placement of tomatoes in the same areas as the previous year, but since potatoes are another large crop on the farm, there is bound to be some overlap of Solanum species.

So when we heard that late blight had been confirmed both in Pennsylvania and Michigan, Dave decided it would be sensible to take precautions.  There are a few sprays and such that are approved for use on certified organic crops, and the prime candidate used as a preventive against blight is copper hydroxide.  The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), the group that certifies Dave’s farm as organic, approved the use of this substance, so Dave called in an order for it, receiving it the very next day.

Hope and spray for the best

As with other sprays, copper hydroxide must be handled with care (it is mildly corrosive) and must be applied on a dry and not windy day.  Dave pulled out one of his sprayers, mixed up a batch, and applied the preventive to two plots of tomatoes, leaving a light turquoise mottling on the leaves and early fruit.

Along with the spraying regimen — every 7 to 10 days, or after rain — we will keep our eyes open for potentially diseased foliage, fruit, and plants and remove them from the field as quickly as possible, adding them to the burn pile since they are not compostable.  We’re using that same vigilance on the potatoes and eggplant, too, and I find in my own gardens I am eyeing the plants warily for suspicious spots.

Everyone connected with agriculture — farmers, researchers, and others who have a keen interest in the subject — are paying attention to blight this year, given last year’s destruction and this year’s wet start to the season.  Cornell University — excellent resource for all matters agricultural — has a great fact sheet about blight that will answer many questions. has a regularly updated map showing where late blight conditions are favorable or confirmed.  There’s nothing showing in our area yet, but we know it’s there, waiting.

Here’s hoping we’ll be ready for it.

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Arts and grafts

10 June 2010

This week, I started to get into a serious summer schedule at the farm.  Now that school is out for summer, Dave welcomes me coming to work earlier (since he doesn’t have to take his son to school in the morning) and staying as long as need be to get the work done.  That meant that on Monday I put in a seven-hour day, and Tuesday stretched to eight hours.

If you wonder how I held up, I’m pleased to say that despite minor injuries and regular aches, I did very well.  But then, we had an exciting week.

Room for more tomatoes, but not for ours

We still had tomatoes left after I planted the last patch last week, and we still had the lower third of one bed open for tomatoes.  But these wouldn’t be ours.  Instead, Dave had agreed to be part of a tomato-grafting trial this season, research being done at the OARDC here in town, and he left this section open for the Cherokee Purple tomato seedlings that the researcher would bring.

Grafted and ungrafted Cherokee Purple seedlings from the research station

On Tuesday, Michelle showed up with a flat of 40 Cherokee Purples — 10 ungrafted, with the rest grafted onto three different strains of hardy rootstock.  The goal of the research is to find out whether this grafting process for tomatoes provides enough disease resistance and general hardiness to make the time-consuming grafting worthwhile.

Can you imagine grafting something this small?

See, on fruit trees and other perennials, grafting makes sense because you’re investing a comparatively small amount of time on plants that will be around for decades.  But tomatoes, an annual crop, with such small stems and thus more delicate grafts?  Well, apparently the technique has met with success in Japan, Michelle notes, but these are early days for the method here in the States.

Note the graft (the "V") well above the soil and even the mulch

Michelle gladly answered our questions and shared ideas as well as her own questions about the farm — she’s enthusiastic about the farms she’s visiting for this project.  We talked while Dave’s daughter and I planted the seedlings (Michelle laid out the seedlings the way she wanted them to be arranged), being careful not to sink the plants so deeply as to cover the grafts.

One question I had was whether the seeds saved from the fruit of these plants would then carry the characteristics of both the rootstock and the Cherokee Purple strain.  (I don’t know much about grafting, so this may be a silly question.)  The research, however, is new enough that she wasn’t able to give me an answer — they simply haven’t thought yet to consider that aspect.  The seeds will produce Cherokee Purples again next year, but whether or not they will produce plants with increased hardiness remains to be seen.

Cherokee Purple trial patch, marked for different grafted rootstock varieties

In the meantime, we will watch this patch and see how things go.  (Since it’s the lower part of the bed, I suspect we’ll see some problems with excess water, but I hope it won’t be too bad.)  And when it comes time to harvest, we’ll be keeping special records on yields, resistance, and whatever else is notable.

I rounded out my work Tuesday with replacing other tomato seedlings that had succumbed to root rot, clearing out the old kale bed, harvesting garlic scapes for market, helping Dave lay the rest of the drip lines, and planting melons and winter squash.  Since we planned to spend time Wednesday preparing for a farmers’ market, we wanted to push through the field work while we could this week.

Wednesday morning greeted us with low skies and a steady rainfall that had me soaked through shortly after we started harvesting produce for Dave’s Wednesday market.  But the unofficial Post Office motto of “neither rain nor snow nor heat nor gloom of night” applies to farmers as well, so we persevered and harvested kohlrabi, turnips, beets, radishes, kale, mustard greens, and snow peas for market.

Everything for sale is weighed and packaged with care

“There’s an art to preparing for market,” Dave asserted as we started the day’s work.  From making clean cuts to harvest the produce to cleaning off unsightly leaves in the field, from washing produce thoroughly and cleaning off more problem spots to bundling produce together for sale, he demonstrated his techniques and explained his desire for the best-looking produce display.

Nope, not quite pretty enough for market

For example, turnips that looked perfectly good when pulled from the ground had to be reevaluated once cleaned — and these, sad to say, did not make the cut.  (They did, however, make it into a bin of seconds for me to take home.)

Bundles of turnips, ready for market

By noon, we had prepped all the produce he intended to take to market, laying bundles of root vegetables carefully in plastic bins and tucking leafy greens into plastic bags (stems all down, bag bottoms snipped to allow drainage).  And with that, my day’s work was done.

As we head further into farmers’ market season, I expect my weeks will follow more of this pattern — long days Monday and Tuesday, morning harvest Wednesday, and possibly another afternoon of harvesting later in the week.  So it’s good to get some of the basics of that process down now.  And I look forward to learning more about the art of farming.

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Growing my way

22 February 2010

OEFFA exhibits

Exhibits at the 2010 OEFFA Conference

Back in the summer of 2008, a conversation with one of my favorite farmers at the downtown market found its way around to the topic of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA).  I’d heard of the group, but I assumed that only active farmers were members.  Not so, Mary told me; they welcomed anyone interested in organic, ecological, and sustainable agriculture in the state.

Well, I prefer my food grown sustainably, thanks, so I thought, I’m in!  I submitted my application and fee and hooked up with the local chapter, conveniently meeting at the library downtown.

Through the chapter, I saw familiar faces from the downtown market, along with other folks from organic and ecological farms in this county and neighboring ones.  I kept my ears open, hoping to learn a few things.

At the same time, being on the membership rolls put me on the email discussion list, so I could find out about all the other OEFFA-related events around the state: workshops, meetings, questions and answers, and more.  I also started to hear about the annual conference, a weekend event that brought together farmers from around the state for educational workshops on a wide variety of topics.

Coming from a family that prized education, I found the thought of a farming conference exciting.  (I know, I know — I have a warped sense of fun.)  But I couldn’t attend last year’s conference and had to wait for this year’s event.

The 2010 theme was presented as “Growing With Integrity, Eating With Intention” — which pretty much summed up my approach to food and farming.  The program appeared to have a mind-boggling array of workshops listed, so I knew there was no chance of me being bored.  And since I had a friend in town willing to put me up overnight, I saw no obstacles to signing up.

Good thing I did: this year’s conference sold out.  Approximately 800 people crammed into Granville Middle School for the conference, and from what I saw, everyone else had as much fun as I did.

While I didn’t get to every workshop I’d circled in my program, I did learn a few things from those I attended:

  • At the workshop on weed control, I learned that the 5-7 week period after planting seeds or seedlings is the critical time for weeding — and that I’d better get a good hoe in my tool “box.”
  • While I found several large-scale grain growers at that chapter meeting, I found more small-scale grain growing information at the afternoon workshop on “High Quality Organic Small Grain Production.”  I also met a couple of other people who were intrigued by my experience of growing a 10′ x 10′ plot of buckwheat and wanted to learn more.
  • For a friend, I stopped by the “Solar and Wind as Cash Crops” talk Sunday morning and learned about some of the existing incentives for farmers to install renewable energy equipment on their property.
  • Going beyond washing hands, the session on “Food Safety Begins on the Farm” really opened my eyes about the many ways that produce can be mishandled — and how to avoid those problems.

I also made several passes through the exhibits in the gymnasium (pictured above), picking up brochures and information sheets and talking with people about their organizations and products.  At one end of the gym, a long row of tables held countless books on sustainable agriculture, and surprisingly, I only bought one.

Okay, I tell a lie: I bought two.  But I wouldn’t have bought the second had not my dear contrary friend Gene Logsdon been sitting there, signing them.  Having met Gene a couple of times before, I greeted him gladly and gave him a friendly bit of ribbing that he thoroughly enjoyed.  As sustainable farmers go, he’s been out and about for years, spreading the word, and it was good to see him at the conference — especially after I’d been talking up his book Small-Scale Grain Raising at the previous day’s session.

All of this talk about the workshops ignores the point that we also enjoyed some very fine local meals at the conference, and I had the chance to talk with a number of similarly minded farmers, both beginners and veterans.  What a treat!

Exhaustion hit a day or so after I returned home, but the excitement of what I learned lingers on as I plan my course for this season’s growing.

With integrity and intention, of course.

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