Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Book Review #3: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener by Eliot Coleman

Whoa! I just devoured the second text from my Market Gardener Training Class, and all I can say about Eliot Coleman's "The New Organic Grower" is that it is intense. This book isn't for the amateur or novice who wants to throw a couple of tomatoes and peas in the ground and just go with it. The words "Master's Manual" in the extended title let the reader know what they will be getting into with this book.

Intense? Yes, intense. Coleman describes in great detail eight year crop rotations with corresponding green cover rotations, and the mechanics and how-tos of making a mobile greenhouse including history and the winter sun's angle; And just when you think it's all jargon just like the last sentence, Coleman brings it back down to Earth with awesomely effective hand illustrations. Being that crop rotations are a place where I completely lack experience, I intend to initially rip off Coleman's model these upcoming years.

I also like the attention given to rock minerals, clay minerals, and the wide-world of animal manures. I've been curious about soil blocking over the last month, but Coleman sold me. Soil blocking is a must. The winter gardening section is amazing, but apparently not amazing enough to keep Coleman from writing an entire winter gardening book. Again, most of this information will be beyond the average backyard organic gardener, but is perfect for someone who is about to go into market production (like me).

DEFINITION: COMMUNITY-SUPPORTED AGRICULTURE, very commonly known as just CSA. The following definition is in my own words.

A CSA is a form of farming, where a group of people prepay a farmer for his goods throughout an entire growing season. The group could be tiny (say two or three) or very large in size (say 300). The farmer may actually be a single farmer or a group of farmers. The growing season is normally defined by a number of weeks, like 10, 12, or 16 weeks. Often, members of the group will do some kind of community service-like work at "their" farm (say weeding or picking blueberries). Individual CSAs are unique and may contain other variables like home delivery or centralized pick-up; some include meat, dairy, eggs; others are veggie only; sometimes members pick their own vegetables. So, the variety of CSAs is endless.

The basic benefit of the CSA to the farmer is that it allows the farmer to focus his energy on the farm during peak production periods, instead of sales outlets during that same period. The prepayment of cash isn't a bad thing for the farmer.

The basic benefit of the CSA to the customer is the customer knows where their food is coming from and generally how the food was produced. Other benefits to the customer can include reduced time food shopping (what's called an opportunity cost by economists) and the "allure" of spending a day or two helping out on "their" farm.

I bring up CSAs in this book review because Coleman seems to have a straight-up beef with the term. He prefers his own term, "Food Guild," or, "Organic Food Club," or the generalist concepts of "subscription marketing," or worse yet, "producer-consumer copartnerships." His tone during these two pages of the book feels bitter to me as a reader, like he missed the hippie-boat in the late 60's on CSAs and didn't hear about them until the 80's (at which point Coleman was already an organic guru).

To Coleman's credit, this book is 15 years old. Maybe in 1995, CSA was not such a ubiquitous term yet. However in 2010 here in Cleveland, we have five or six CSAs already, including a web-based one. The term CSA is here to stay. The bitterness that Coleman exudes towards the term CSA gave the book a weird vibe, enough for me to write about it. Maybe, I'm just sensitive.

Bottom line:

Buy this book if you want to, are thinking about, or already involved in small organic market garden/farm production for money. Buy this book if you are a freak with expansive curiosities specific to hardcore organic gardening. A software engineer with about 200 square feet of space, an automatic watering system (self-installed, of course), a composting system comprising of a red wigglers AND a classic pile, may be an example of such a freak.

Don't buy this book if you are just getting into organic gardening. Wait a couple of years on this one. There are plenty better introductory books on the subject. Don't buy this book if you're overwhelmed by detail. I think most people can fit themselves into one of those four statements.

Otherwise, I've been out there. In Cleveland. Networking. Kissing hands. Shaking babies. On Saturday the 20th, I went to a fruit tree pruning seminar at the beautiful Dunham Tavern Museum, courtesy of the OSU Extension office. I met a fellow paw paw head by the name of Josh Klein who organizes the Gordon Square Farmers Market with reasonable overhead for us urban farmers. And then through entirely unique circumstances via disk golf and then rock n roll, I met another Clevelander with access to autoclaves, agar cultures, and laminar flowhoods (those are the capital ingredients for a mushroom farm enterprise). Needless to say, I'm stoked. Tonight, sweet potato donuts for my fellow market gardener trainees.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Soil Tests in the Snow

You know you're a Cleveland farmer when...

Despite the 20 degrees, the half foot of snow, the kite-famous wind from the lake, and the current blustery conditions, you put your best soil probe forward and plunge deep into the frosted urban tundra. That's just what I did on Tuesday afternoon, and now you may wonder just what I found below the surface level. It can be summed up in one, maybe two words: clay aka clayaeceous. It's not so bad that I'm considering changing my business plan to Old Husher's Mud Bath and Sauna. However, my future need for voluminous amounts of organic debris seems to have increased exponentially by the tractor truck load.

I had a pretty good feeling this was going to happen.

So let's bring on the ploughs, and seed some deep rooting cover crops, and bring up the horse manures from the Parma stables and the coffee grinds from Loop. It's on.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Book Review #2: Market Farming Success by Lynn Byczynski

Right now, I'm taking a Market Gardener Training Program through the OSU Extension office. Our first textbook is "Market Farming Success" by Lynn Byczynski. After reading the book at a rapid pace akin to a crack binge, I let my thoughts stew a bit. It's been several days now, and I simply love this book.

First, the book is extremely thorough taking the reader through site selection, crop selection, season extension, watering, marketing, etc. Being extremely thorough however, Lynn still knows how to show restraint and resource out the details of this book that would make it cumbersome. For example, Lynn goes to great lengths to extol the virtues of hoophouses, and then provides a website with all the necessary schematics to build a hoophouse. This allows the reader/farmer to focus where the reader/farmer wants to focus. If you can't tell through this example, I'm very interested in hoophouses.

Second, I love the real life examples and stories. These tales come early (like page 1)in the book with profiles of market gardeners along with their respective salaries and acreage. I feel this initial detail is critical because it basically sets the stage for the reader to decide if they want to continue reading the book. Apparently, the micro-farmer can net anywhere between $15K and $50K on acreage of 3.5 acres. That's enough for a house payment in Cleveland.

Third, the book fills in gaps that I personally needed filled in. I know I'm able-bodied, but I still didn't know what kind of acreage standard one person could realistically work without hired help or major agriculture machines. It turns out on average one person is able to work approximately one acre. Another example: I know I'll be needing insurance in the future, but exactly kinds, types, and amounts I wasn't so sure of. Of course, Lynn fills this void and for about $300 a year I can be relatively secure.

If I had to gripe, what would be my gripe? My biggest gripe is that the book is written in 2006-the golden years when everyone's houses were ratcheting up 20%-30% gains and $150 jeans seemed kind of reasonable. However, local food movements have appeared to have gotten stronger, especially here in NE Ohio. So my gripe is more of a concern to consider when planning and budgeting future realistic income.

I totally recommend this book for anyone who wants to start a market garden or farm, or anyone who is at all interested in the aesthetics of the local foods movement.