Sunday, April 15, 2018

Week 3 Thursday: Introducing Nikki Silvestri!

This Thursday we have the privilege of welcoming Nikki Silvestri to our campus! She will be joining us for breakfast and conversation, so in preparation for her visit, please watch the following keynote speech she gave at the Organicology conference in 2017 (suggestion: the speech is an hour long, including questions--perhaps you will want to listen to it during your drives to and from the farm this week):

In the comments area below, please reflect on what Nikki said in her talk and Q&A that either surprised you or resonated with you in some way. How do you see the ideas in her talk being relevant to your life and what you want to do with it? 

Then, write a couple of questions that you'd like to ask Nikki while she's here. 

A few additional resources you may want to peruse before class:

Nikki's website:

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Page on Carbon Sequestration:

The Savory Institute:
(It might be worth noting that Allan Savory's work on range management and carbon sequestration has been controversial. If you are interested in learning about the nature of this controversy, just google him.)

Week 3 on the Farm: Plant Propagation

Weather forecast: Tuesday, high of 35 degrees F, cloudy. Wednesday, high of 52 degrees F, possible light rain.

This week on the farm we'll continue our work with seeds and teach you how to start plants from seed. We know that for those of you who had never heard the terms "hybrid" or "open pollinated" prior to last Thursday's class, our crash course in plant genetics probably left you confused. Never fear! We will go over that again with lots of time for you to ask questions and to discuss the implications of each type of plant breeding and we'll take a look at a number of different seed catalogs so that you can learn how to tell which type of seeds are offered in each.

John is also going to teach you a different way to propagate fruit crops through grafting. You'll be working with apple varieties, so in order for you to come to class with a little background about the cultural history of the apple and why it is usually propagated using clonal techniques (like grafting), please watch the first 31 minutes and 25 seconds of Michael Pollan's documentary "The Botany of Desire," available at this link:

In the film, you'll learn that this "all-American" fruit is actually an immigrant from Kazakhstan, but the film doesn't dig too deeply into its connection with colonial history in the Americas. In fact, Johnny Appleseed (who IS mentioned in the film), took advantage of a movement in the late 1700s when settlers were being enticed to move westward across the North American continent by companies such as the Ohio Company of Associates, who offered settlers 100 acres of land to establish a homestead on Ohio's "frontier." One of the conditions of receiving deed to the land was that the settlers plant 50 apple trees to prove their intent to stay. So John Chapman (Appleseed) capitalized on this market for tree seedlings and apples moved across the continent with the settlers.

But back to seeds: in order to successfully midwife seeds through their germination process you need to know a few things about the plants you are working with. A couple of key questions include:

Can the seeds of this plant be directly seeded into the garden in Michigan? Or would starting seeds indoors and growing a transplant that can be planted into the garden at a later date be more successful?

At what temperatures or time of year does this plant prefer to be planted outdoors? If you need to start this plant as a transplant, when should you start seeds indoors so that the plants are ready to go in the ground at the right time? If this plant prefers to be direct-seeded, what is the earliest date in Spring in Michigan that you can safely plant the seeds of this plant outdoors?

In your comments on this blog post, practice answering the above questions for your favorite annual vegetable! List your vegetable, then do some research to find out how and when to start the seeds of your plant in Michigan and type the answers into the comment box.

We look forward to seeing you on the farm!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Week 3 Thursday Potluck Breakfast

To welcome our Week 3 guest Nikki Silvestri, we are going to make her breakfast together! I found out from Emiline that Nikki is following a mostly paleo diet right now. If you aren't familiar with this diet, here's a brief description from the Mayo Clinic:

I don't know that every single dish at our breakfast has to be paleo, but let's try to follow paleo guidelines as much as possible so that Nikki has plenty of yummy things to choose from. Lee suggested that a big frittata might be a good, fast way to feed a lot of us. It looks like there are paleo frittata recipes out there we could try or adapt:

John and I will plan on bringing plenty of duck eggs that we can use as the base of a frittata. One option for the rest of you would be to bring a paleo ingredient like a vegetable or a meat that you like and think would be good in a frittata. We could make a couple of them to suit people's preferences.

Other paleo breakfast possibilities include fruit, nuts, and, well, it looks like most recipes can be adapted fit paleo guidelines! Some other stuff that might be fun to make:

Paleo smoothies:
Paleo muffins:
3 ingredient paleo breakfast ideas:

I'm sure if you do some googling you'll find lots more recipes as well!

I wish we had asked all of you about your dietary preferences in class so that we can make sure to have things that everyone can eat! In the comments section below, if you have dietary restrictions and feel comfortable sharing them, please post them so we can be respectful of your needs. And please post what you would like to bring for our breakfast! If you are bringing an ingredient for a frittata, please indicate that.

I think we'll plan to spend the first 20 or so minutes of class chopping, blending, cooking, and making small talk as we do. Then we can throw the frittata in the oven and talk with Nikki as a class as it cooks. If you are bringing a different dish that will need some time in the oven during class, let us know.

Also! If you would like to be reimbursed for your food purchases, save your receipts and bring them to class.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Amy's Post: "Organic" Farming?

Since we've been talking about how important soil care is in the type of farming we do during these first two weeks, I thought it would be fun to bring up some recent controversies regarding the National Organic Program standards, including the debate about whether soil is a critical component of organic growing or not.

First, I'd  like to share with you an article that I wrote for the Michigan Organic Connections newsletter that reflects on my reasons for farming using organic methods:


Ethics, Esthetics & Ecology: Why I Farm Organically

 by Amy Newday

Since the last MOFFA newsletter, which included several great articles on the “what” of organic agriculture, I’ve been pondering the “why.”  For me and most of the farmers I know who use organic growing practices, certified or not, the reasons are more complicated than a market-driven response to consumer demand.  After all, there are a lot of easier ways to make a buck.

I farm organically because before she married my dairyman grandfather, my grandmother taught nature studies.  My primary babysitter when I was too young to help with farm chores, she introduced me to many farm residents who I still count among my friends: the bullfrogs that moo in the duck pond on warm spring evenings, the thrushes whose bell-choir holds the ravine rapt in summer.  On clear nights she’d spread a blanket in the hay field so I could learn constellations and ponder my small place in the nature of things.

It seems to me that “conventional” agriculture as it is currently practiced has its root in a fallacy that runs through our culture—that the human place in the nature of things is one of inherent opposition: Humans vs Nature.  Which also seems to me to be a really weird way of thinking about ourselves.  We don’t talk about other species this way.  To think about “bears vs nature” would be absurd.  We might even say that bears are nature, or part of it.  Certainly, their lives depend upon it—for bears to thrive, they need functioning ecosystems within which they play vital roles.  Somehow we have convinced ourselves that we are the only species to whom this doesn’t apply.

And so we pollute air as if it does not constantly pass through our lungs, spread poisons in water as if our bodies were not over fifty percent composed of it, strip life from soil as if it were not the source of our own living energy, and diminish the diversity of our ecosystems as if we didn’t know that other threads plucked from the ecological web tremble our own.

To counter these acts, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer calls for “acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world.”  She encourages us “to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink ... to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it.  Because they do.”

For three quarters of my life, this piece of farmland has fed me and I have drunk from the stream beneath it that feeds my well.  Organic farming is my act of restoration, of giving back to this land and my community.  Though since my farm isn’t certified, perhaps I should find a different term for what I do.  I like “ecological farming” because it reminds me of Aldo Leopold’s call to recognize that I am a “plain member and citizen” of an ecosystem community that includes “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”  When it comes to the “whats” of ecological farming, I follow NOP guidelines, but I also measure my decisions against Leopold’s prescription for cultivating an ethical relationship to land:  “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.  A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Of course, my ability to live up to this ethical ideal (and to do so without engaging in practices that degrade and destabilize ecosystems other than my own) is constrained, in part, by the socio-economic structures built by my human community.  It’s hard to farm ecologically within a culture that doesn’t recognize the inextricable ties between human well-being and ecological health and that doesn’t include downstream and long-term consequences when factoring value.  I’ve got some work to do before my farm is able to sustain a truly reciprocally supportive relationship with the biotic community in which I live while also remaining economically and energetically sustainable.  Pursuing that goal means both refining my farming practices and working to increase ecological awareness and sustainability within my human culture and community.

When my grandmother let nettles grow tall in the corner of her yard and taught me to peek between their folded leaves to find Red Admiral caterpillars, I learned more than butterfly identification.  I learned that I have the ability and responsibility to nurture beauty and diversity in this world.  Each year I farm I realize a little more of what that means.  Sometimes the lessons are hard, reminding me of just how much more I have to learn.  I’m grateful to be a part of this organic community, which inspires, supports, and teaches me.  Together I hope we are moving toward a cultural change that will enable all of us to live with more integrity and beauty in relationship to each other and our ecosystems.

Works Referenced
     Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013.
     Leopold, Aldo. Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, 1949.


Even though I claim to use organic farming methods in the above article, because we aren't certified, we can't label our produce as organic. It might be useful to think a little bit about the history of the term "organic" as currently applied to farming systems. Obviously (or maybe not so obviously), human cultures across the earth have developed diverse farming systems specific to the ecosystems in which they lived. Some of these systems were ecologically destructive, reducing biodiversity and using up soil nutrients so that after a period of time the land would be no longer productive and the people would have to move their growing activities to new land. Some agricultural systems, however, actually increased biodiversity and soil health, enriching the ecological web while providing the people with nourishment for generations.

I suppose that some of these indigenous, ecologically-based farming systems could have been organically certified if such a certification had existed during the times they were practiced, but really that term is a relatively new one that has evolved over the past century to refer to a specific set of rules managed by a governmental group called the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). Here's brief history of the development of organic regulations:
History of Organic (SARE):

And here are the regulations as they currently stand. You definitely don't have to read all this! But take a look through the table of contents and click on one or two of the subject headings just to get a sense of what this document looks like:

National Organic Regulations:

Here is how the USDA tries to simplify the organic rules for the general public (do read all of this one!):

USDA Organic 101:

Sounds pretty good, huh? Except that as more and more consumers have become concerned about the toxic effects of chemical farming on the environment and their health and have turned to buying organic food as a solution, big business has entered the organic market. You would think that would be a good thing that led to more farmers being able to grow healthier food in more environmentally sustainable ways. Except that the businesses that are now running these organic farms aren't really committed to organic principles; they are committed to making as much profit as possible. And while making a profit is of course important for a business, the influence of big business on the organic food system has led to a number of recent controversies including scandals over a lack of enforcement that has allowed imports of grain into the U.S. that were fraudulently labeled organic and a rule that would have improved animal welfare standards being withdrawn from consideration. The organic standards also don't provide protection for farm workers laboring on large organic farms and in what was the final straw for some organic growers already fed up with the system, the NOSB voted last year to allow hydroponic growing to be certified under NOP standards. Because the original premise of organic farming rests on stewarding healthy soil to grow healthy plants, these farmers say that farming without soil is not organic farming.

Here's an article from Modern Farmer that goes into more depth on both sides of the hydroponic debate:

That article was from May 2017. In the fall of 2017, the NOSB voted to allow hydroponics to be certified organic. One NOSB member, farmer and agronomist Francis Thicke resigned from his position on the board in protest after that meeting. Here is the statement he released after his resignation:

As Thicke mentions, there are coalitions of farmers working together to create add-on or alternative certification systems to the current organic program. Here are a couple:

Regenerative Organic:

Real Organic:

Questions for you: In the comments section, please respond to what I've shared by reflecting on your own knowledge and beliefs about the word "organic." Prior to reading this post, what did you know about organic food and farming? When you see food labeled "organic," what assumptions do you have about where that food came from and how it was produced?

Also, what opinions do you have on the organic hydroponics debate? Do you think that food grown in soil-less mediums should be considered "organic"? Why or why not?

Sunday, April 8, 2018

John's Post: Seeds and Their Stories

Always I have been fascinated by seeds--their vivid shapes and colors, their power and mystery. When I joined the Seed Savers Exchange ( in 1982, I fell in love with the stories attached to seeds gifted to me. Most of our culture at the time had not yet awakened to the "heirloom phenomenon" we see today. Matter of fact, most gardeners and farmers had come to believe as they were told by seed companies and university breeding programs that modern hybrids were far superior. These beautiful seeds that I had requested would arrive at my door accompanied by wonderful handwritten stories about the seeds like these:

"My family lost almost everything during the Great Depression, but these beans kept us alive."

"This was the only corn to make ears during the great drought of '34."

"My people carried these beans on the Trail of Tears."

I added my own stories when I sent seeds in return: "Midnight, late July, Aunt Mary's Sweet Corn in full tassel and silk--strong stalks and setting two ears--I feel such powerful ecstatic energy."

Seeds and culture intertwined. There is more encoded in seeds than their DNA. Seeds have stories to tell and they are still waiting for us to listen.

So, yes! I do think seeds have agency. They are my sisters, brothers, and teachers. Since it appears that climate change may encourage us to rethink agriculture, what kinds of questions should we consider that connote a relationship between us of mutuality and reciprocity? Here are a few that I have been pondering:

Have we misinterpreted our ancient ancestors' true motivations for selection of seeds for food crops? What about the seeds/species we did not select (such as perennials) and those we have chosen to leave behind?

How might a nurturing/stewarding seed culture emerge in our Great Lakes Bioregion?

What critical consciousness skills will we need to bring to the table when we consider genetically modified organisms?

What about all the seeds that sit in cold storage in seed vaults? Where are the gardeners to find out if these seeds could have a new "homeland"?

How might we re-vision our educational ethics so that seeds and our healthy relationship to the biotic community mean more than power and money?

This talk at a Bioneers conference by John Mohawk talks about the role that the human relationship with "domesticated" plants has played in allowing humans to adapt to many different environments and how that relationship will be important as we adapt to the coming climatic changes. Take a listen:

In the comments section, write about your reactions to the film "Seed: The Untold Story" and John Mohawk's talk. Do any of the ideas in the film and the talk challenge your ideas about your relationship to food and plants? If so, how so? Do parts of the film and talk resonate with your experiences and beliefs? If how, tell us how! Do any of my questions above resonate with your own ponderings? What other questions arise for you as you contemplate your relationship with the plants that sustain your life?

Looking forward to exploring these ideas with you in person!

Week 2 on the Farm: Garden Design and Seedbed Preparation

Forecast: Tuesday, partly cloudy, highs in the mid-40s; Wednesday, mostly cloudy, highs in the mid-50s.

One of our farm goals this week is to get the garden beds behind the house and across the driveway ready for planting. We've designed these gardens with permanent raised beds that we maintain (mostly) with hand tools such as broadforks, cultivating hoes, shovels, and rakes. Whether you are growing on 80 acres, 1 acre, or on a patio, planning out the design of your garden so that it is integrated efficiently and enjoyably into your lifestyle is key to a sustained and successful farm or garden. During your time at the farm this week, we'll have you help us prepare these gardens for planting, talk about why we designed them the way we did, and help you think about design possibilities for different types of farms and gardens.

To get you thinking about farm and garden design before you arrive, please watch the following video by Jean-Martin Fortier, a market gardener in Quebec. He and his wife Maude-Helene Desroches make a living growing on an acre and a half of permanent raised beds. Fortier's book "The Market Gardener" has become a popular guide for farmers wanting to grow organically and intensively on a small acreage without large equipment:

The Market Gardener with Jean-Martin Fortier, Part 2 (18 min.):

As a part of preparing our beds for planting, we'll be working with the soil to maintain good tilth and make sure that the seeds and seedlings we'll be planting in a few weeks have the nutrients they need to get off to a good growing start. In preparation for talking about developing and maintaining soil fertility in raised bed systems, please watch the following video, again from Jean-Martin Fortier:

The Market Gardener with Jean-Martin Fortier, Part 5 (16 min.):

As we mentioned when we met on the farm last week, your learning in this course will be driven by your curiosity. To cultivate that curiosity, please come up with a question that you'd like to ask after watching the video segments above and type it into the comments section of the blog. We will have time on the farm for you to ask your questions--maybe we will even have some answers!