Saturday, October 3: Field Shifts 42 and 43

Today was the last day of our official apprenticeship shifts.  It was a crisp morning, and we began with a field walk on farmers’ lives during the winter.  We talked about how farmers plan during the winter, scheduling when and where they will plant certain crops, how they will talk about changes for the coming season.  Farmers may continue growing through the winter in greenhouses, generally crops like salad greens or microgreens.  Some farmers will go to conferences to improve their knowledge in fields like cover-cropping and tool maintenance.  Winter is also the time when farmers will do maintenance on farm equipment since the equipment won’t be in much use during the winter.

farmall

Farmall (photo credit: Eric Pan)

After the field walk, we prepared some of the beds inside the new high tunnel using ground forks, to loosen the clay-like soil.  We then transplanted some parsley and lettuce using measuring tape and hand trowels.  Then we were tasked with killing carrots (since the carrot seedlings needed to have more space to grow, about 1″ at least between each sprout).  To finish the shift we hulahoed some beds and laid irrigation tape.

In the afternoon we started the shift by moving a tarp into the greenhouse and re-organizing some of the materials that were inside the greenhouse.  We did some more hulahoe-ing, then had a field walk on microgreens.  Microgreens are like sprouts except they are larger, usually about 3 inches long–and grow in trays instead of in jars.  Earth Dance supplies microgreens to several local restaurants–mainly from pea, broccoli, and beet seeds.  We planted trays of pea microgreens, using about 1 cm. of soil and then lightly covering them with more dirt.

We then finished the day by having a field walk in the garden to review the lessons we had learned throughout the apprenticeship.  We talked about guilds–groups of plants grown together because of the beneficial effects they have on each other, tip-layering–expanding the area covered by a plant by burying its new growth shoots, cover-cropping with Daikon radishes–to improve the nutrients in the soil, and composting.  We talked about the herb spiral, permaculture planning, and building terraces–so much I had never known about before coming to Earth Dance!  It has definitely been an interesting and rewarding season.

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Tuesday, September 29: Farmers’ Panel

Tonight for our class we started with a short presentation by a representative from the USDA, who gave an introduction to the resources available for organic growers in MO.  She gave us a folder of resources with information about grants, organic growing research, and Farm Service Agency programs.  She also spoke about the importance of encouraging pollinators to our potential farms.

Then we had a panel discussion with three farmers: Liz Greiznek, who runs a 58-share CSA in Columbia, MO; Paul Krautman, who owns a 38-acre farm, and Ted Geisert, who runs a 25-acre pig farm in Washington, MO.  Liz has been farming for six years, Paul for 23 years, and Ted for all his life–with the experience of five generations before him.  Each of the farmers use organic techniques in raising livestock and growing vegetables, though Liz’s farm is the only one that is officially certified organic.  All three of the farmers spoke to the physical demands of farming–how it is a career that can require you to be on your feet from sunrise to sunset–give or take depending on the season.  They said that they employed high schoolers, family members, and students on internships to get all the work done.
When asked about the best parts of their jobs, the farmers said that they liked the diversity of their work–how they are required to master many different skills, and how their schedule changes every day.  On a farm, there is an immense amount of work to do, and so there is always a lot going on at once.  Also, Paul noted that one of the most rewarding parts of his job is seeing how the cycles of nature work–from a young seedling to full plant to fruit, from birth of an animal to youth to adulthood.  His take on farming was that it is important to plan and structure your farm, but also to watch nature and let her natural cycles guide your farming practices.

Saturday, September 26: Field Shift 41

We started the shift today by talking about site planning.  We first discussed the scales of permanence, which are central to permaculture planning: prioritizing changes to the site based on their permanence.   Climate is at the top of the list as most permanent, and soil is near the bottom as least permanent, with elements like sunlight, structures, and water in between.  Next we talked about the attitudes to have towards site preparation: to shake off old preconceptions, to embrace change, to be observant, to go out and explore, to talk with other people, and to welcome criticism and suggestions for improvement.  We then looked at maps for Earth Dance farm and talked about the changes in design that Earth Dance has gone through over the years.  The takeaway message was that it is important to always be flexible, keep an open mind, and thoroughly investigate the location and all options before making any final decisions.

For the next part of the shift we transported alpaca manure onto raised beds and raked it over them, leaving about 1″ spread on top.  Then we transported woodchips to the compost pile in wheelbarrows.  We each then took a turn using the tractor to turn the compost windrows–digging in deep in one side at the bottom, then moving the tractor forward while lifting the front bucket and then dumping it over the top.  It was a little hard to coordinate moving all the levers in the right directions but I finally was able to do it.

Then we finished up the shift by weeding rows of turnips and transplanting lettuce.

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lettuce, chard, mustard (photo credit: Eric Pan)

Tuesday: Medicinal Herbs

Our class today was given by Crystal Stevens, who runs the La Vista CSA in Godfrey, IL, with her husband Eric.  Crystal received a degree in herbalism and knows many medicinal qualities of certain plants.  She introduced us to the qualities of these plants and also methods for preparing tinctures and salves.  We started by going on a walk around the farm to identify herbs and other plants.  Plantain, commonly considered a weed, is especially good for reducing the swelling from bee stings, if chewed into a pulp then placed on the sting.  It is also edible, and can serve as a good band aid–wrapped around a cut finger.  Dandelion also is a weed which is especially healthy to eat, full of vitamins K, A, and C–though it tastes bitter raw.  The root of dandelion can be boiled to make a strong detox for colds.  Thyme and Sage are especially good for aiding digestion, and Red clover is known for having qualities to balance female hormones.

Crystal did a demonstration on how to prepare a tincture–a substance to be taken when sick in order to provide the body with health-promoting nutrients.  It is taken orally, generally by drinking 20-30 drops mixed into a glass of water.  The first step of the process is to sterilize the jar–by boiling.  Second, dry herbs are added (during the demonstration she added sage, parsley, verbena, bee balm, dandelion root, lavender, yarrow, mullein, and Echinacea leaves).  Third, vinegar or alcohol is added to fill to the top of the jar.  The most inexpensive option is to use cider vinegar, though Crystal also recommended Everclear alcohol.  Fourth, the mixture is shaken for 2 minutes, then placed in a cool, dark place.  The jar must then be shaken for one minute each day for four weeks.  The last step is to strain out the pieces of herbs that remain, using a cheesecloth or muslin.  The vinegar tincture can last 1 year without refrigeration, and the alcohol one can last 5 years.

At the end of the class Crystal showed how to make a first-aid salve, using beeswax and different oils.  She boiled it in a pot inside another pot like a double boiler, to keep the oils from burning.  This salve can be used to help heal minor cuts, scrapes, burns, and to moisturize dry skin.

Saturday, September 19: Field Shift 40

Today we started by folding a large clear plastic tarp that had been used for solarizing a field–for killing early weeds by raising the temperature under the tarp.  We then had a lesson on the greenhouse and high tunnels.  The greenhouse design is called a “gothic arch” design, since it has a point at the top of a rounded arch.  Inside the greenhouse the arches are supported by interior trusses attached to horizontal lengthwise pieces.  For heating, there is an electric heater which heats the air inside the greenhouse.  Earth Dance is currently installing a different kind of heating system for the greenhouse, which will run heated water through tubes on the tables holding the plants.  This system should be more efficient, because it will only need to heat the space where the plants need the heat the most–instead of the entire space.  This is also more natural for how plants would receive heat outside the greenhouse–through the soil, not the air.  To make sure that the temperature inside the greenhouse does not get too hot, there is a computer-controlled system that raises and lowers the sides of the greenhouse, according to the temperature inside the greenhouse.  The system works in increments of five–so the first raise of the sides will only be one-fifth of the total.  This is to ensure that the greenhouse isn’t cooled too much at first.  Then the system evaluates the interior temperature a second time, after a few minutes when the sides have been raised the first increment, and raises them again if necessary.

For the plastic covering over the greenhouse, there is a double layer and a fan that pumps air between the two layers.  This is to improve insulation and also give structural support to the walls.  By having a “pillow” of air between the metal bars, there is less of a chance of the plastic sagging and tearing–and also less of a chance that snow and ice will weigh down the plastic.  During the winter, there is the inevitable problem of dealing with snow, and worse–ice.  It may be necessary sometimes to cut the plastic and let the snow fall through–rather than risking the collapse of the entire metal-beamed structure.

After the lesson on the greenhouse we then folded a shade cloth–a large black mesh cloth that had been placed over the greenhouse during the summer to prevent extreme hot temperatures inside.  We transported this shade cloth and the solarizing tarp using the tractor, and placed them where they would not be affected by the elements.  We then did some work preparing the high tunnel for planting by spreading a thin layer of compost over the raised beds in the ground.  We ended the shift by taking wire cages that had been used around the tomatoes and placing them around young fruit trees that had suffered from deer grazing.  Earth Dance has not generally had too many problems with deer, except for recently with these new trees that were just planted this past spring.

Tuesday, September 15: Sweet Potato Project

For class today we took a trip to the Sweet Potato Project, also the site of Good Life Growing, in the Ville.  This is a project to bring economic and social development to North St. Louis, through teaching skills to local youth for growing, cooking, and selling healthy food.  We first had a tour of the Good Life Growing site, which has several raised vegetable beds–for tomatoes, basil, melons, beans, lettuce, and peppers.  Beside this outdoor garden there is a greenhouse which holds an aquaponics system.  There is a tank at the entrance to the greenhouse with fish, whose excrement is then piped through to tanks of water underneath trays of pebbles holding plants. The fish waste is so nutrient-rich that no other chemical additives are needed.  From what we saw, plants are placed into the pebble beds without soil (or just a little from the original transplant), and seem to be in healthy condition.  There are a few tomatoes and young kale and lettuce starts–though most of the pebble beds do not have many plants yet.  Outside the aquaponics greenhouse there is a pretty arbor covered with squash and cucumber vines.

The second part of the class was to see the Sweet Potato Project–which is composed of several beds simply growing one crop: sweet potatoes.  By focusing on this one crop that is relatively simple to grow, the project can appeal to people who may have no previous experience in gardening.  It also allows for more of the project to focus on other aspects like preparing and marketing the good.  The sweet potatoes are baked into cookies, which are then sold by the kids in the project to raise money for the project.  We got to try some of the cookies–and they are pretty delicious!

With these two projects in the Ville, there have been a few problems because of the nature of the location.  There is heavy narcotics trading in the area, and associated violence.  There was one night when the project’s garden shed lock was melted with a blowtorch and some lawn mowers were stolen.  However, there has not been as much vandalism and theft as could be expected from the area.  Generally, the site is picking up new interested visitors and workers and is becoming the cool hang-out site for many of the local teens.

Saturday, September 12: Field Shift 39

We started this morning with a lesson on crop planning, and learned much of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into preparing the beds, ordering seeds, and planning CSA shares.  We started by talking about the goal yield that Earth Dance has: to provide enough food for a 70-member CSA, wholesale, and farmer’s market.  For the CSA shares, Earth Dance has to plan so that there is a variety of vegetables in each share, and so that each week the share is different.  To do this, Earth Dance categorizes vegetables based on their family/type: root (beet, carrot, turnip, radish, potato), salad green (head lettuce, arugula, Mesclun, spinach), fruit (tomato, zucchini, cucumber, tomatillo, husk cherry), cooking green (chard, sweet potato greens), head (cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli), cooking herb (basil, oregano, thyme), and tea herb (lemon balm, mint).  Every week, Earth Dance aims to have one of these types of vegetables–and this is planned out months in advance.  This is then used to plan the schedule for when certain crops will be harvested–and this is in turn used to determine the time those crops will be seeded and transplanted.  Earth Dance keeps all this information in Excel spreadsheets as part of its crop plan.  For determining the beds to use for certain crops, a general rule is to never plant a crop in a field where the same crop was in the past two years–because of the nutrients that that crop took from that soil.  We also talked about ordering seeds–because Earth Dance is certified organic, it must buy organic seeds.  If there is a certain variety of seeds which the farm wants that are not offered organically, then Earth Dance has to look for them in two other places before ordering non-organic seeds.  Earth Dance buys from a number of different seed catalogs, the majority of which are surprisingly located in Maine or Massachusetts.  Earth Dance also saves seeds and reuses them.  Typically Earth Dance does not keep seeds any longer than 2 years.  Apparently the germination rates after 2 years go down to about 20-40%, generally speaking.

After the crop planning lesson, we gave feed and water to the chickens as usual, then harvested some extra kale to bring over to the farmers’ market.  We then picked flowers for an event on the farm later today–zinnia, celosia, and gomphrena–and arranged them.  Then I helped build a table inside the greenhouse, using PVC pipe and plastic beams–while the others seeded trays of spinach and lettuce.  At the end of the shift we did some cleanup tasks around the greenhouse, sweeping and organizing supplies.