Tuesday, June 8, 2010

F.H. King, an Agriculturalist Worth Remembering...

Franklin Hiram King was born on this day in 1848. He was an early advocate of sustainable agriculture and a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he studied soil and soil fertility.

His name might not mean a lot to the average Forge Farmer. But his work is recognizable everywhere -- particularly on the landscape of rural America. Consider what The Writer's Almanac said about him today as part of a birthday dedication: "His most famous legacy from his years at Madison was the invention of the cylindrical silo. He was always looking for ways to reduce waste in farming, and he was struck by how much silage rotted in the corners of traditional rectangular silos. So he invented a cylindrical silo, which quickly became the standard for farmers across the country, transforming the rural landscape."

More important, King was a pioneer of scholarship about soil and soil fertility -- and his work is as relevant today, in an age of resource pressures, as it was in 1911, when he wrote Farmers of Forty Centuries. The book -- part travel writing, part agricultural study -- explores the farming methods and rural culture of Japan, China, and Korea. King believed that these cultures had maintained a knowledge about growing a lot of food for a lot of people on very little land, and he thought the West would profit from studying them. He saw soil erosion and depletion, in particular, as the great problem facing Western farmers, and he believed that chemical fertilizers were at best a temporary solution. In the introduction, he wrote:
The great movement of cargoes of feeding stuffs and mineral fertilizers to western Europe and to the eastern United States began less than a century ago and has never been possible as a means of maintaining soil fertility in China, Korea, or Japan, nor can it be continued indefinitely in either Europe or America. These importations are for the time making tolerable the waste of plant food materials through our modern systems of sewage disposal and other faulty practices; but the Mongolian races have held all such wastes, both urban and rural, and many others which we ignore, sacred to agriculture, applying them to their fields.

The Asian farmers, he found, used everything to support their farming methods -- there were no waste products, not even human excrement, which was used to fertilize the fields.

King's observations and ideas, now almost 100 years old, may be radical today. They may be absolutely necessary someday in the future.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Free Fertilizer (Gross-Out Warning!)

One of the toughest parts about growing a garden in the city is the lack of access to traditional fertilizers and other soil inputs -- we're talking about manure, for the most part. You just don't see a lot of cows, horses, or goats in Rodgers Forge yards, for better or worse.

However, if you have the stomach for it, there is a free fertilizer available to just about anyone who drinks liquid: urine. Yes, we said it, and we'll say it again: pee is good for your plants.

Or so we're told. With this post, we are not saying that you should use urine in your garden, and we're not even saying we use it in ours. We are merely presenting another view on the virtues of using a waste product for fun and profit in the garden. The bottom line here: If you're going to use urine in the garden, do so at your own risk.

OK, down to business.... We are not the first people to suggest using urine as a garden fertilizer. Many organic gardeners already know about the advantages of using urine, especially for "heavy feeders," or plants that require a lot of nutrients. A magazine as mainstream as U.S. News & World Report recently covered the, er, golden opportunities with urine. The story focused on the work of Finnish scientists, like Surendra K. Pradhan.

The "yuck" factor aside, scientists who used urine to help raise a bumper crop of cabbages said the practice may not be a bad idea....

The use of urine as fertilizer is uncommon, but it is increasing in some parts of Finland, the researchers said. It also has been used to fertilize barley and cucumbers, the study said. "We assume the nitrogen contents of human urine could be a good fertilizer for many other plants or crops," Pradhan said.

The researchers chose cabbage as a test crop, because it needs a lot of nitrogen, it is distributed worldwide, and it can be preserved as sauerkraut.

The cabbage fertilized with urine was compared with similar plots of cabbage that either went unfertilized or where commercial fertilizer was used. At harvest, the cabbage enriched with the urine had several advantages: It was slightly larger, it grew to its maximum size more quickly, and, for most of the growth cycle, it suffered less bug damage than the commercially fertilized variety....

As a result of the findings, the team concluded that urine produced by one person over a year would be enough to grow 160 cabbages -- that's 64 kilograms (141 pounds) more cabbage than could be grown in a similar plot fertilized with commercial fertilizer. They recommend collecting urine from eco-type toilets, storing it, then scattering it on the soil around the plants rather than directly on them.

Additionally, a growing number of people have been talking about the risks of "peak phosphorous" -- that is, the dwindling supply of a vital plant nutrient, which is now mined in various parts of the world. As it turns out, urine is a great source of phosphorous.

Both oil and phosphate rock are finite, non-renewable fossil resources that were created in deep geological time, whether from decaying biomass for oil or millennia of pooping seabirds for phosphate. But there are substitutes for oil; there is no substitute for phosphorus, an element that forms bones, sustains cell membranes and gives shape to the DNA and RNA in all living things.

“We are effectively addicted to phosphate rock,” said Dana Cordell, a Ph.D. candidate who works with White and co-authored the recent studies. Cordell’s thesis, The Story of Phosphorus: Sustainable Implications of Global Phosphorus Scarcity for Food Security, was published as an e-book by Link√∂ping University in Sweden on Feb. 4.

“The quality of the remaining phosphate rock is declining,” Cordell said. “We’re going to have to shift away from our use of it. There is no single quick fix solution.”

Worldwide, according to Cordell and White, five times more phosphorus is being mined than is being consumed. Stated another way, 15 million tons of phosphorus is mined yearly to grow food, but 80 percent never reaches the dinner table: It is lost to inefficiency and waste....

Mature animals, including humans, excrete nearly 100 percent of the phosphorus they consume. But only half of animal manure — the largest organic and renewable source of phosphorus — is being recycled back onto farmland worldwide, studies show. And only 10 percent of what humans excrete is returned to agriculture as sludge or wastewater.

“We need to start talking about our pee and poo more seriously,” Cordell said. “We need to be thinking in terms of 50 to 100 years.”

So, those are some of the arguments for using pee in the garden. Now, here's how most people suggest using it: Collect the stuff in a vessel, like a watering can, and dilute it -- at least eight parts water to one part urine. (Pure urine could burn your plants, experts say.)

Also, we would suggest pouring it at the roots and not on the plants that you plan to eat whole, like salad greens. That's just gross. Urine is said to be sterile in most people, so contamination tends not to be a problem.

One more thing: If you're eating a high-salt diet or consuming medications that could pass through your body and into your urine, it's probably best not to use urine at all.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Power of Community

Have you ever wondered what large-scale sustainable agriculture will look like in a post-petroleum world? Since the early 1990's when the Soviet Union ceased to subsidize it, Cuba has been living that reality. The very interesting organization Community Solutions has produced an enlightening documentary on Cuba's experience forging a sustainable agriculture without oil entitled The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.

The Baltimore Food and Faith Project will be screening The Power of Community Wednesday, June 16 at 7 p.m. at Divinity Lutheran Church, 1220 Providence Road, Towson, MD 21286. For more information, see the poster here. For more information, please call (410) 502-5069, or write the Baltimore Food and Faith Project at angsmith@jhsph.edu.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hamilton Crop Circle on Kickstarter

Arthur Morgan, a good friend of the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative, is the chief organizer of the Hamilton Crop Circle in the Hamilton-Lauraville neighborhood. The Hamilton Crop Circle does fantastic things like maintain the school garden at Hamilton Elementary-Middle School, provide local produce to restaurants along Harford Road, and cart leftover produce from the Farmer's Market under 83 to Our Daily Bread. They're a great bunch of folks who need as much support as we can provide.

Arthur and the Hamilton Crop Circle are trying to fund the different projects they have through an innovative site called Kickstarter. Check out the video here and consider donating!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Charmin' ChilibBrew at 2640

This just in from one of our friends in Cedarcroft....

"This charity homebrew competition and chili cookoff aims to bring together some folks who get a kick out of sticking it to that commercial product pipeline and living more locally, whether that means brewing, gardening, bike-building, crafts... Even if you don't do anything of the sort, come have a sip and a bite and meet some people who do. Not only will it be delicious, but who knows, it might be the start of a wonderful new hobby!

Attendees will be offered the opportunity to judge chili and homebrew to award the titles of "Charmin' Chili Champion" and "Ruler of Brews" with their accompanying prizes, plus you'll leave toting a lovely commemorative glass. The proceeds will benefit two great community organizations that embody the DIY spirit: the Velocipede Bike Project and the Baltimore Free School."

Check it out here: http://bmorecharmin.intuitwebsites.com/

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Park School hosts local food events

Ever wonder how to prepare the variety of vegetables you can find at the Farmer's Market? How about canning or freezing fresh fruit and vegetables? How do you prepare healthy meals in 30 minutes or less?

Park School is hosting a series of events around local food that will answer these questions and more. Space is limited, so reserve you spot now.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Please Vote--For fresh and local food in Baltimore Schools!

A Recipe for Change is a new documentary that chronicles the efforts of Tony Geraci, food service director for Baltimore City Schools, to transform the way Baltimore City kids eat at school. Mr. Geraci's goal is to replace the processed food served in the Baltimore City Schools with fresh, locally grown food--all 83,000 meals a day! His bold vision also includes a vegetable garden at every school, student-designed meals, meatless Mondays, and nutrition education in the classroom.

In the movie, Michael Pollen, the best-selling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, says, "If Tony makes this happen here the way he wants to, I think you’ll see this happening all over the country."

A Recipe for Change is competing to win $50,000 from Pepsi's Refresh Project. The funds would be used for final editing and distribution. The deadline for voting is March 31st. Please follow this link and vote for fresh food in Baltimore City Schools!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Alert: Composter/Rain Barrel Sale April 24!

It's that time of year again: Baltimore County has announced their annual Composter sale. Hosted again on the parking lot of IKEA at White Marsh Mall, this year's sale will be on April 24 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. rain or shine.

Baltimore County will once again sell the Earth Machine composter. These composters are valued at $80 but will sell for $35 plus tax!

We're very excited to share the news that this year Baltimore County is introducing the sale of 55-gallon Systern rain barrels. The Systern rain barrel has a mosquito mesh and comes with installation instructions, spigot, screws, and an overflow hose. Valued at $90, the rain barrels will sell for $45. This is a first come, first served, so arrive early.

The sale will be a joint effort hosted by Baltimore County’s Department of Public Works (DPW), Bureau of Solid Waste Management and the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management (DEPRM). For more information on this event and home composting in general, visit the Bureau of Solid Waste Management web site at www.baltimorecountymd.gov/recycling or call 410-887-2000.

For more information on rain barrels or stormwater management, please contact DEPRM by e-mail (watersheds@baltimorecountymd.gov) or call 410-887-5683.

Monday, January 18, 2010

2010: a year for high food prices?

Now's the season for people to start thinking about their garden plans for the coming year. While you're considering those, consider this, from a New York Times story about the recent cold snap in Florida:

Vegetables were among the hardest hit. At least one major tomato grower, Ag-Mart Produce, has already declared that most of its Florida crop is “useless due to the freeze.” Other vegetable farms were expected to lose their entire crop, and wholesale prices have already increased.

“Tomatoes were down around $14 for a 25-pound box; now they are up over $20,” said Gene McAvoy, an agriculture expert with the University Florida, who predicted $100 million in vegetable losses. “Peppers — just after New Year’s they were $8 a box; now they’re up around $18.”

Translation: get ready to pay up to an extra dollar a pound at supermarkets in New York and Chicago.

A number of outlets are predicting that 2010 will be a year of climbing food prices:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects overall food prices to rise as much as 4 percent in the U.S. by the end of 2010. Yet, some economists think they could climb by as much as 5 percent. Even using the government's more conservative numbers, the price for eggs is forecast to rise 3 percent and beef is seen increasing 2 percent. Lamb, seafood and fish? All three categories are expected to jump as much as 5 percent.

A 5 percent boost in your grocery bill may not seem terribly devastating, but consider this: If you spend $300 a week on groceries now, you'll need to squeeze a raise of about a thousand dollars a year out of your boss (don't forget withholding tax) just to keep up with higher chicken, beef, pork and dairy prices....

[C]onsumers are still paying about 45 percent more for food now than they were just two years ago. Bill Lapp, former chief economist at food giant ConAgra (CAG) and now president of Advanced Economic Solutions, a consulting firm in Omaha, Neb. that specializes in analysis of food costs, says at the peak of the global food crisis, food prices in the U.S. grew 6 percent. In 2010, he thinks they could jump 5 percent. Yikes.

Establishing a garden can be a great investment with long-term paybacks. We're planning to set up times in the next month or so to meet with Rodgers Forge neighbors to talk about vegetable gardening and what we can do to help get your gardens going. (Contact us at theforgefarm@comcast.net if you're interested in meeting.) It's a good year to start planting.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Who will grow our food?

In a recent post from a great food and sustainability writer, Sharon Astyk, on one of our favorite sources, www.energybulletin.net, comes this stunning quote:

As of 2002, the average American farmer was nearly 56 years old. The average American small farmer is over 60. More than one out of every four farmers is over 65 years old and rapidly facing retirement, and less than 6% of all American farmers are younger than 35 years old.

Astyk goes on to point out why this is so alarming: Two hundred years ago civilization used 1 in 2.5 people to farm, yet today we employ only 1 in 100 people to farm. This drift toward centralization of farming resources, which is using fewer and fewer people on larger and larger farms, has left us extremely vulnerable to large demographic shifts. And this is exactly what we are facing.

The average age of American farmers is part of the broader aging of the American population. This aging of the population might not be significant if adequate numbers of young people were pursuing farming careers. Yet they are not -- at least not in the numbers that will be necessary to replace all the farmers lost to old age. Farmers have historically grown up on farms, apprenticing at the feet of their family, learning through long experience the intricacies of growing food. As fewer younger people apprentice with older farmers, essential farming knowledge is lost.

The Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative was born out of a desire to grow our own food in healthy and environmentally sustainable ways. We imagine a greater role for suburban yard gardens in the food supply of our community. Now we even imagine a greater role for small home-scale gardening in the food supply of our great country. Sharon Astyk concludes that future American farmers may not come from the traditional backgrounds:

So where do they come from? This is a new problem for human society -- while we've always had some people take up agriculture as a new profession (and when that happened, say, during the settlement of the US west, there were always extremely high failure rates and ecological costs), the vast majority of those who did the work and stayed at it grew up on farms. We have never before in human history (except perhaps when we developed agriculture, and that didn't happen all at once) had to teach an entire generation of non-farmers to farm. But that's the problem we face.

In A Nation of Farmers one of the things that Aaron and I argue is that the next generation of American farmers will have to come out of the garden, and from other nations rather than off the American farm. That is, the children who grow up with some knowledge of growing things will largely fall into two categories. They will grow up with parents who garden, and teach their children to garden, and who take that set of skills and build upon it, or they will be the migrants themselves or the children of immigrants who come from cultures where agriculture is more common than it is today.

The future of American food production may no longer depend on farming families but on gardening families. Happy New Year, Rodgers Forge farmers!