Posts Tagged ‘agriculture’

Worms and Potatoes

October 9, 2011

When I pulled back the worm bedding, this is what I found.

Two winters ago, J & I made a foray into vermiculture. We keep the worm bin in the basement, where we alternate layers of shredded newspaper with food waste. The worms plunder their way through this bin, leaving behind one of the richest manures on earth.

Throughout the winter, whenever I notice that something I’m storing in the basement has gone bad, I chuck it in the bin. (I store turnips, cabbages, squash, onions, potatoes, and other items in the basement over the winter.) In late winter this year, all the potatoes sprouted like crazy. Many of them were small and not worth saving, so into the worm bin they went.

Harvesting worm castings is a tedious job. The method is to make a bunch of little piles in the bright sunlight. The worms bury deep into the piles to avoid the light. You take the castings from the top and sides, then wait for them to bury still deeper and again scrape around the edges. But truthfully, you never avoid getting a bunch of the worms along with the castings—at least I don’t.  I tend to put the task off, but today I figured I better take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to get the job done.  When I dumped the box onto a tarp, I found the most amazing thing.

The potatoes I had tossed in months earlier, had thrived in the worm bin. With no leaves for photosynthesis, these potatoes had somehow multiplied like crazy. The worms didn’t seem to be eating them at all, but they did seem to eat all around them. Many of these potatoes came out of the bin shiny and clean (though not the ones in the photo here), except that they were covered in worms that were not eating them. None of the potatoes had gotten very big—most were smaller than my pinky, but some of them grew in sizable clusters.

How did the potatoes grow without photosynthesis? None of the potatoes still had the sprouts that had caused me to pitch them in the first place; they were not even trying to get to sunlight or set roots. And why did the worms leave them alone? Was the potato growth simply able to outpace the pace of the worms, or did the worms avoid eating them for a reason? And why didn’t these potatoes begin to decompose anyway, even without the worms? They were in a moist, sometimes wet, place for more than six months, I’ve seen potatoes rot under much better conditions, even in the ground.  I have to wonder if there is some sort of symbiotic relationship going on. If anyone has any knowledge about this, I would love to know more!


You Can’t Get Manure from Sacred Cows

January 4, 2011

Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind
Gene Logsdon
Chelsea Green Press

When Katie Couric televised her own colonoscopy to encourage early detection of colon cancer, it worked. Suddenly, people in late middle age found themselves having to answer to their children and friends as to the state of their bowels. The incidence of colonoscopies increased as death rates for the cancer decreased. Perhaps we need some celebrities to take up the case for the product of colons: manure. In the circles I run in, Gene Logsdon passes for a celebrity, but maybe we could get some extra lift if we recruited Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga. They might appeal to a different sort of audience than a curmudgeonly old farmer from Ohio.

With Logsdon, you don’t get a lot of sentimental prose about the uplifting feeling of holding sweet-smelling fully composted manure in your palm. No, he gets right down to business. He tells you where to get your animals to dump, how you handle a pitchfork, and for that matter the right kind of pitchfork to use. He doesn’t skip past the stage where the manure stinks to high heaven, he just helps you get through it.

By talking about pitchforks, I’ve already lost the policy wonks. They will tell us that the only way we can manage manure to save humanity is to build giant anaerobic digesters that will harvest the methane from the septic lagoons of factory farms. Logsdon argues convincingly and at times mockingly otherwise, pointing out that such farms are not only an abomination from many moral and environmental perspectives, but that in the long run they are not economically viable.

One of his favorite hobbies is attacking conventional wisdom as espoused by the talking heads. If agri-business considers something essential, he’s bound to show how it’s really an unsustainable fad. However, refuting the arguments of agribusiness is just a side track, the main line of the book is reserved for explaining how he believes manure management does work. He is confident that eventually everyone else will figure out what doesn’t work. (more…)

The Unending Gift of Compost

October 11, 2010


A picture of compost soil

Image via Wikipedia


Compost is amazing. I spent a few hours yesterday sifting the last couple months worth of the compost I’ve been collecting. Or rather, I’ve collected vegetable scraps and they are now sweet-smelling compost.  I use a 35-gallon plastic trash can for my main compost collector. I drilled holes in the side and bottom to provide air flow, and I roll it around once a week to keep it aerated. I also have a less-useful metal trash can with no holes drilled in it that I use when the first collector fills up. Because of the lack of air flow, the compost in the metal can gets pretty stinky, but I stir it around as best I can with a stick once a week. Yesterday, I poured all the compost onto two tarps in the morning and let it dry all day before sifting it. When I returned late afternoon with my sifting frame (some hardware cloth stapled to scrap 1x2s), the sun was already hanging low in the sky. Summer is truly waning. How pleasant then, to come across the mass of corn cobs and to remember sitting around the fire when Heather, Jonathon, Eliza, and Simon came to visit. We laid the fresh corn on the coals, then pulled back the shucks and silk to eat up. (The corncobs, of course, were not yet decomposed and went back in the collector.) Sifting farther, I came across a wine cork and remembered the lovely bottle I shared with Sigrid when she visited. Digging still deeper, I found the stem from last year’s jack-o-lantern, hardly decayed at all. I thoroughly enjoyed my unorthodox excavation of food scraps. It’s practically just a bonus that I now have about 40 gallons of compost in the basement, waiting to be mixed with potting soil or applied to the garden.

Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Emissions

July 15, 2010

Many of us in the bread belt are unaware that the agricultural sector is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The World Resources Institute has released a graph that charts the emissions from 1990 to 2007 (below). To see an interactive version, check it out on Google labs.

Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT), World Resources Institute. 2010. Accessed via EarthTrends Delivered - Created with Google's Public Data Explorer -

Haitian Farmers Raise Cane over Monsato

June 11, 2010

Chavanne Jean-Baptiste, of the Peasant Movement of Papay

Organic food.  Does the phrase conjure images of high-priced specialty items being served to privileged suburbanites?  For some reason, this is the image purveyed in the media.  The idea is that you would have to be both rich and out of touch to dream of the luxury of food grown without toxic chemicals.  Except this is how most of the world has always done it, and many are now fighting like mad to keep doing it that way. recently ran an article about Haitian farmers planning to burn “aid” in the form of Monsato seeds. Some of these seeds carry chemical coatings so toxic that in this country, the EPA requires workers who handle them to wear special protective clothing.   Sam Smith, a 74-year-old farmer from Massachusetts visited Haiti, observed the seed-burning, and shared his thoughts on a blog devoted to Haitian issues.  Since Monsanto has been pushing for market share in Haiti for years, and since seed supply was not impacted by the earthquake, Smith says farmers are asking:

“What was the purpose and meaning the gift at this time? Did not Monsanto know that we had a sufficient supply of our own seed for the coming planting season, seed that is our cherished inheritance as well as appropriate – unlike Monsanto’s foreign, hybrid cultivars –to our diverse soil habitats and subsistence, agricultural infrastructure? And, if indeed, we were to plant the hybrid seeds, what would we do with our own indigenous seeds – the seeds that we saved from the previous harvest – other than sell them for food or let them rot?”

Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, of the Peasant Movement of Papay, (more…)

Organic Gardening 101

January 20, 2010

I was asked to give a talk recently about organic gardens. I thought that some of my blog readers might enjoy this very brief season by season overview. I also had two handouts, one on crop rotation and one on tilling. The source of information for tilling was a workshop I attended at an organic farming conference, but I no longer have the name of the presenter. All of the documents are in pdf format.

The presentation: OrganicVeggie

The handouts: Tips for tilling, Crop Rotation

Krome Plated Activism

December 15, 2009

Margaret Krome is the policy director at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. She serves on the boards for the National Center for Appropriate Technology and the Wisconsin Board of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. She has been instrumental in efforts to promote local, sustainable food systems in the state. She spoke with Erstwhile Luddite about her experiences as was the first woman to lead sustainable agriculture policy efforts in Wisconsin.

Margaret Krome: Before we start I want to explain that although I suppose I was the first woman to do a number of things, that wasn’t my intent.  I’ve always believed that the sustainable agriculture movement was better when you didn’t try to be a trail blazer, when you are part of a group working together.  I came into my career at a time when the movement was starting, but being the first to do something wasn’t a goal. Had I recognized that I was the first on some things, I probably would have backed off a little because I think that when movements have people who start to self aggrandize, that’s a real problem.

Erstwhile Luddite: So noted. How did you get into the field of agriculture?
MK: I was an English lit major at UVA.  I loved botany but almost all the biology classes there were premed.  The exception was this biological station up in the mountains that I visited.  I became passionate for botany.  I graduated and did other things, but always tried to take botany and forestry classes.  Did you know the USDA has its own grad school?  When I was in Washington, D.C., I took classes there on agriculture and biology.

I was working for a time on a Legal Aid project.  I wasn’t an attorney, this was just a job I had to help me learn lobbying and pursue other interests.  It was a really good job, but I found myself clearly uncomfortable in Washington, it’s all about the star system, not the cooperative style that I prefer.  The attitude there is “If you can’t take credit for it, why bother?”  I was a good lobbyist, but I knew I couldn’t live there long-term.