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The lengthening days make a farmer’s pulse quicken, as much from fright as anticipation. We have finished digging our winter potatoes. That crew has now begun to cut seed potatoes for spring planting. Truck after truck arrives at the farm with composts made from either dairy manure or urban yard greens. Our neighbor, Tom Bursey, broadcasting the dark, earthy fertilizer, drives in between white bags neatly marking the fields. Moments later, powerful tractors work fresh microbial food into the awakening soil. Flocks of small birds follow the disk, looking to pick off an easy snack. – denesse
National Public Radio’s food and agriculture correspondent Dan Charles was in town the other day. The radio man journeyed from our nation’s capital to the Valley to report on farm labor issues, our long-simmering immigration crisis in particular. Calling ahead to inquire if I’d speak on that delicate subject, we cut a deal — Dan would appear as my “Down on the Farm” radio guest where we’d discuss labor. I’d negotiated similar choppy waters back in October with Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies author Dr. Seth Holmes who encouraged Charles to look me up. Unfortunately, most farmers are uncomfortable talking about this issue, obviously concerned for both our businesses and employees’ wellbeing. [Read more…]
Fresh ideas abound at our ongoing Eco Farm Conference, as they have over now thirty-five annual organic confabs. This year’s event is all abuzz about “carbon farming”. Querying many farmers on the role carbon plays in their agricultural practice would yield blank stares or stammerings. After all, carbon is not something we buy in a sack and add to the recipe, like nitrogen or potassium. However, 2,000 attendees are this week absorbing, possibly for the first time, profound awareness that the business of all life on planet Earth, including that shepherded by agriculturalists, is essentially cycling carbon. EcoFarm presenters explain that while a relatively small portion of the “stuff of life” floats about Earth’s atmosphere, twice that amount of carbon resides in our soils, with the lion’s share deep in oceans. At any point in time, barely 1% of Earth’s total carbon store is temporarily incorporated into its living beings. I lobbied all last year that my friends Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser of Sebastopol’s Singing Frogs Farm be invited to demonstrate how they harvest $250,000 in organic vegetables from 2.5 acres without tilling their soil. If Thomas Jefferson held that “cultivators of the earth are the most virtuous”, why did Paul and Elizabeth renounce their birthright? They, among few, understand that our nation’s virgin soils, on average, harbored more than twice the carbon in organic matter as they do a few years after being subjected to the plow. Like bellows on a forge, tillage forces an oxygen blast into a soil’s living system, where under natural conditions this gas only diffuses slowly. Supercharged microbes respond by consuming organic matter at an accelerated pace, blowing off CO2 into the atmosphere. In fact, since agriculture’s dawn, humans’ soil plowing released more carbon into Earth’s atmosphere than had our burning of fossil fuels until 1955. With 40% of this planet’s dry land surface now managed for human food production, astute soil scientists estimate that all the miscreant, climate-disrupting carbon in our atmosphere could be sequestered in agricultural soils where it once safely rested. To forestall climate chaos, the world’s farmers would necessarily abandon an age-old tillage habit. Some actually have, few of these vegetable farmers, even fewer yet organic practitioners. Satisfy your curiosity about Paul and Elizabeth’s small, organic, tractor-less miracle, where little time is spent yanking weeds, by reading Todd Oppenheimer’s “The Drought Fighter” in a new online quarterly magazine, Craftsmanship. –Tom Willey
Denesse and I are headed to a 35th annual EcoFarm Conference at Pacific Grove’s Asilomar this week. Many organic farmers were first awakened to complex life underfoot at that venue some twenty years ago when pioneering soil microbial ecologists Elaine Ingham and Vicki Bess made rousing presentations. However, as each strove to develop commercial, practical methods for characterizing the diversity and health of vast, largely invisible, living communities in farmers’ soils, animosity ensued. Bess, while admitting fewer than 5% of soil-dwelling species could be grown on artificial media, argued that a handful she cultured in petri dishes were indicative of the many. Ingham insisted on direct microscopic observation, even though she could not distinguish one bacterial species from another and fungi’s value could only be inferred from hyphal width. [Read more…]
Willey family just returned from our annual pilgrimage to Yosemite’s water temple, where the big rumpus is over two blokes’ midwinter free-climbing of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, never before scaled by mere hands and feet. Dry and warm weather favors this youthful pair’s attempt to conquer “the world’s most arduous free-climb”. It favors no one else. I sadly characterize our Yosemite watershed’s snow cover as little more than a dusting after we encountered just six inches of the white stuff at an elevation where six feet is not uncommon for early January. Spring melt from what’s up there now, halfway through this rainy season, will not fill many reservoirs. Retired UCSB anthropologist Brian Fagan’s Before California cites evidence that one extended drought cycle threatened food supplies and the social stability of California’s long-established native communities around 1000 A.D. [Read more…]