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Archive | Soils

The Best Worm-Friendly Worm Bin for Composting

Worms harvested from a DIY worm bin

Continuous-flow worm bins makes harvesting easy on you and the worms.

Composting with worms produces a consistently superior product called vermicompost, which contains high counts of beneficial soil micro-organisms. Harvesting the finished vermicompost from most worm bins presents a problem, though: one either stops feeding a significant part of the bin to take it out of production, encouraging the worms to vacate the area to be harvested, or the worms have to be physically separated from the finished compost.

The Continuous-Flow Worm Bin

Continuous-flow worm bins are designed to provide a continuous output of finished vermicompost without disturbing the worms or taking any part of the bin out of production. This design makes it much easier to harvest the finished compost. Most continuous-flow designs have a winch-powered knife that cuts a slice of finished compost from the bottom of the bin about 2’ above the ground.

Hügelkultur Gardening

Hügelkultur (pronounced “hoogle-culture”) is German for “hill culture.” Hügelkultur entails growing crops on a raised, earthen mound that consists of a foundation of fresh or rotting logs and branches covered in layers of manure, compostable materials and soil.

Hügelkultur (pronounced "hoogle-culture") is German for "hill culture."

Planting potatoes in a hügel bed.

Hügelkultur (pronounced “hoogle-culture”) is German for “hill culture.” Hügelkultur entails growing crops on a raised, earthen mound that consists of a foundation of fresh or rotting logs and branches covered in layers of manure, compostable materials and soil.

Hügelkultur Construction

  • Hügel beds can be made to any length, width or height desired. The average hügelkultur bed is three to five feet tall and can be rectangular, square, round or horseshoe-shaped (keyhole).
  • Beds are typically built on top of the ground and sometimes in 12- to 15-inch deep trenches.
  • Beds are generally free-standing, without any physical support or enclosure, but can be framed at the base with blocks, untreated lumber, logs or hay bales as desired.
  • A mixture of soft (faster-rotting) and hard (longer-lasting) woody base materials usually includes freshly dead or rotting firewood rounds, stumps, branches, brush and twigs.
  • Avoid wood from allelopathic trees like black walnut (for its juglone toxicity); high-resin trees like pine, spruce, yew, juniper and cedar; and hard, rot-resistant woods such as black locust, Osage orange and redwood. Any type of wood with sprouting potential (such as willow) should be completely dead before using.
  • Small branches, twigs, sawdust and coarse woodchips are used to fill voids in the woody base before construction is complete and periodically as the bed breaks down.
  • A simple hügel is covered with three to five inches of rotted manure or compost, followed by another three to five inches of garden soil or topsoil, but this can also include multiple layers of various organic materials in the fashion of a “lasagna-style” garden bed.
  • Hügel beds are ready for planting immediately after construction.

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Poisoning Our Children: Pesticide Residues

In December 2014, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent out a news release to all the media outlets in the country about the results of its 2013 Pesticide Data Program (PDP). The headline: “Report confirms that U.S. food does not pose a safety concern based on pesticide residues.”

Poisoning Our Children by André Leu, on pesticide residues

Because people consume a variety of foods, with around 77 percent containing residues of different types of agricultural chemicals, most people consume a chemical concoction.

The news release contained the following statement from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “The newest data from the PDP confirm that pesticide residues in food do not pose a safety concern for Americans. EPA remains committed to a rigorous, science-based, and transparent regulatory program for pesticides that continues to protect people’s health and the environment.” So according to the EPA and the USDA, parents should have no concerns because the pesticides in food are safe.

Hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers by scientists and researchers challenge this assertion. So, let’s look at the science to understand why experts have serious concerns about the safety of pesticides.

What Gets Tested?

One of the greatest pesticide myths is that all agricultural poisons are scientifically tested to ensure that they are used safely. According to the United States President’s Cancer Panel (USPCP), this is simply not the case: “Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety.”

The fact is that the overwhelming majority of chemicals used worldwide have not been subjected to testing. Given that, according to the USPCP, the majority of cancers are caused by environmental exposures, especially exposure to chemicals, this oversight shows a serious level of neglect by regulatory authorities. Continue Reading →

Regenerative Fiber Farming

It was sheep shearing day on my grandpa’s ranch in the mid-20th century, and all I knew was that I was having fun. Everyone, including Grandpa, was clad in blue denim jeans on this sunny day. Gathered with other neighboring small-scale ranchers, we sheared and then stuffed and stomped wool into the gigantic bag that would be taken to market

organic cotton farming in California

Sally Fox of Vreseis Ltd., a Fibershed producer member in the Capay Valley of California, amidst the organic, naturally colored cotton she has been breeding for over 30 years.

Though considered old-fashioned and outdated in that era of get-big-or-get-out agriculture, small farmers in our area still gathered for shared missions like this. And there was no reason at the time for a kid like me to realize that what we were doing — raising textile fiber (a.k.a. fiber farming) in an Earth-regenerative manner — would become a world mission to support the health of the planet.

Holistic by default, Grandpa’s sheep were rotationally pasture-grazed, the ranch was diversified, and he planted by the moon’s cycles. That’s the only way he’d ever farmed. Yet that type of farming didn’t appear out of an inability to know better. It evolved from a powerful ability to sense what is needed to thrive.

Fast-forward to being a grandparent myself, and climate change adds a sense of urgency for not just our food and fuel to be Earth-restorative, but also our clothing and textiles. The after-harvest processing of fiber must be considered when improving the ecological impact of the textile industry, but eco-farmers serve the initial production of the fiber themselves, and it must happen in a way that also sustains them financially. Continue Reading →

Managing Parasites in Livestock

Internal parasites are part and parcel of the animal’s ecosystem, or its “body ecology.” Wild ungulates are continually moving, leaving their parasite loads behind where they desiccate in the sun or just plain run out of nourishment before the animals return to the pasture. However, animals that are subjected to pasture or loafing areas without adequate rest will build up parasite loads, especially on humid landscapes, where moisture and temperature are conducive to their growth and reproductive cycles.

Young animals and those with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable, and this includes pregnant and lactating animals. Never allow your stock with parasite challenges to become underweight.

Parasites: Landscape Management

The first and most important component in parasite management is landscape management by employing sound rotation practices. This includes not only the adequate amount of time for the rest period between rotational grazing, but also grazing height management.

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Consider Biodynamic Growing

Viticulture and dairy are two of the best areas of agriculture for revealing the virtues of biodynamic growing — viticulture because quality is what wine excellence is all about and dairy because every tank of milk is tested for quality. Biodynamics is about quality and self-sufficiency. Both depend on life force to attract nitrogen from the atmosphere rather than using nitrogen fertilizers.

Peter Proctor workshop in apple orchard in India.

Chemical agriculture is largely a 20th century phenomenon based on the great 19th century chemist, Justus von Liebig’s premise that plants only take up nutrition as soluble salts — an assumption he repudiated toward the end of his life. However, by then the fertilizer industry was making great strides by capitalizing on his error.

The shortcomings of ‘chemical’ agri­culture became the starting point for bio­dynamic agriculture and was why Rudolf Steiner introduced his Agriculture Course in 1924. But, by then the chemical approach had become dominant with the discovery in 1909 of the Haber Process, which produced ammonia from natural gas and air. Meanwhile, biodynamic agriculture became pigeonholed and marginalized as a cult of true believers rather than a truly scientific method born ahead of its time. Continue Reading →