And the Results are In!

Folks who read my blog know that just before last Christmas, I scattered parsnip and carrot seeds on some of my beds to see if they would take.

The theory behind this is straightforward: if you duplicate what nature does, nature will lead the seed to sprout at exactly the right time for your area and environmental conditions.

As part of this experiment, I used four beds — two for parsnips and two for carrots.  In each case, one bed was used for randomly scattered seed and in the other bed that seed was lightly tilled into the ground.

Where I live, we get heavy snowfalls after Christmas and it isn’t unusual to have three feet of snow on the beds in March.  Winter temperatures usually get no lower than -5 degrees, and typically hover in the teens at night.

The results are thus:

Parsnips did better in the beds where the seed was randomly broadcast but not tilled.  I have so many parsnips I don’t know what to do with them all!  Carrot seeds did best in beds where they were lightly tilled in.  In both cases, planting just before the heavy snows resulted in seeds sprouting at the perfect time and getting a head start on weeds.  By the time I weeded, the seedlings were large enough to be well differentiated.

Parsnips and carrots are part of the same family as parsley and celery — so it is possible that these latter two crops would do just as well with similar treatment.

So if you live in the North, now you know the deep dark secret for getting lots of parsnips and carrots with hardly any work except preserving them after harvest!

The Sanitation Emergency

Have you ever had a problem with your toilet and while you waited hours for the plumber to arrive it became a disgusting smelly mess?

Now, just imagine if the problem was caused by a total lack of running water, and you were without running water for days or weeks. What then?

Living as we do with instant and unquestioned access to clean running water and flush toilets, it never occurs to us that in places where those amenities are lacking diarrhea is one of the biggest killers on the planet. The diarrhea is caused by lack of proper sanitation. Diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhus run rampant when adequate sewage treatment is not available.

Properly composted human waste is safe, and eliminates the disease risks that come when our regular sanitation systems break down.

In the past few years we’ve witnessed a number of disasters where regions in the United States lacked electricity and running water for periods ranging from days to weeks. Because of this, I decided to cover the proper composting of human waste in my most recent book, The Mini Farming Guide to Composting.

Naturally, I have long maintained facilities for safely composting human waste. I don’t usually use them, but I’ve been grateful for those facilities during the handful of extreme weather events that have necessitated their use over the past several years.

Getting yourself setup to handle human waste safely via composting is easy and inexpensive. Because emergencies can manifest when least expected, it is better to be ready in advance than to be scratching your head at the last minute wondering what to do!

It’s a Lot More Space than You Think!

Commercial agriculture requires about 30,000 square feet to provide for the needs of a person. When I come along and claim you can meet 80% of a person’s needs in just 1,400 square feet, I hear two reactions. The first is of course incredulity. I can understand that. After all, why should my methods be any better than a multibillion dollar global conglomerate can devise?

I recently had the unfortunate experience of trying to deal with a couple of multibillion dollar corporations in an outside-the-box sort of way. FINALLY, and I really hate doing this, I got results by going to: the press, their customers directly and (and I really hated doing this) a government agent. Between all three for about a week, I finally got results. They figured out how to actually get a human being to alter 14 characters in a database to help their own customers. I’m not even one of their customers.

Just Friday I was doing what is called a “hot cut” on my day job. A hot cut is a live cut-over of, in this case, a mondo huge Internet feed that costs about $14,000/month. This cut-over involved coordinating the resources of two gargantuan companies. The cut-over had been planned since November of 2012. Guess what? It failed and we had to revert.

Don’t let anyone tell you that multibillion dollar global conglomerates are more “efficient.” They simply manage to bribe (legally or illegally) legislators to pass regulations that pose a barrier to entry for competition. These organizations are not nimble at all. They can’t respond. They can’t even get out of their own way. They have the compassion of the IRS, the organization of the Keystone Cops and the agility of an elephant in glass slippers and a tutu.

It’s not that my methods are particular ingenious that makes them more space efficient. There’s nothing magical going on. Rather, it is that my methods don’t require an implementation compatible with government paperwork, a staff of accountants and lawyers and mechanisms that deal with human beings as fungible commodities. Rather, my methods rely simply on you as an individual. And as a person, you are infinitely more capable of getting things done than some global conglomerate.

Once people figure out that my methods actually DO work, they get very enthusiastic and I’m pleased to say that thousands and thousands of people have indeed started their own MiniFarms!

Pretty soon comes the next reaction. You see, compared to 30,000 square feet, a mere 1,400 square feet doesn’t seem like a lot of space. So they run outside with a digging fork and spade to start double digging. That’s when they discover that 1,400 square feet is actually a LOT OF SPACE. And it is a LOT of work.

One of my recommendations for people is to start small — with just a handful of beds — and then add a few every year until they have enough. The reason is because in general I recommend double-digging, and double digging is serious work. Double-digging a single 4’x8′ bed takes a couple of hours of strenuous labor for someone in shape, and about four hours if you are usually sedentary. For most people, 2-3 beds is all you can do in a day.

There are situations where I encourage people to use sheet composting instead of double digging. That avoids a lot of the work, but it is still time consuming and it requires a lot of advanced planning because you make the beds several months before they are needed.

So yes, you can grow a lot in a little space, but start modestly and grow it a bit every year. Otherwise, 1,400 square feet will be too daunting to be done all at once.

Production for Use Versus Production for Exchange

There are two economies in the United States.

No, I’m not about the get political and talk about rich and poor, nor am I going to discuss the underground economy or black market. That is because all of the foregoing are part of the exchange economy where the only thing that is measured or assigned value pertains to production for exchange.

In fact, every economic number reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Federal Reserve or any other governmental entity measures production for exchange (PFE) exclusively. Because all of our media focus is on PFE, and that’s all that is discussed in economics classes, we often forget all about the other economy — an economy that can create maximum value for an individual.

That other economy, is Production for Use (PFU). In fact, the extreme emphasis on the PFE economy often results not merely in the de-emphasis of the PFU economy, but even outright hostility and a sort of pretentious “looking down one’s nose” at those who actively participate in PFU.

As an example, look at the parent who stays at home with his or her kids. That parent’s contribution to the economy is not measured or considered, because all that is measured is production for exchange.

I remember reading somewhere that if the tasks a stay at home parent performed were compensated, the job would be paid in the top 1% or top 2% of all wage earners. This fact recognizes something important, something that pertains to your self-sufficiency, and I want to convey it in mathematical terms using some examples.

I play guitar among other things. I own two tube amplifiers, both of which I built myself. Comparable units would cost  $1,000-$2,000 each, but my cost was $350 plus a few nights of missed TV infomercials. Since I enjoyed building the amplifiers more than watching infomercials anyway, my net economic gain from that exercise was $1000+$2000-$350 or $2650. In reality, I never would have spent $3,000 on amplifiers, as I would have considered such an expense unconscionable. So through Production for Use, I effectively created a lifestyle commensurate with an income where spending $3,000 on amplifiers for a hobby would have been a negligible expense.

According to the PFE economy, since I wasn’t watching TV to stimulate my desire for junk food, I didn’t sell the amplifiers to someone else and I didn’t go down to a music store and buy them, all I did was buy $350 worth of parts and throw them in the garbage while wasting my time. But in the reality of my household, those amplifiers raised my standard of living just as effectively as if I had gotten a $4,000 (minus $1,000 in taxes) bonus from my employer. I invested 16 hours in building them. That works out to the equivalent of earning $250/hr. Where I come from, $250/hr is a pretty decent wage and the fact I get that boost to my standard of living without having to report it on my tax return is a bonus.

In other PFU  will increase your standard of living just as certainly as getting a big raise.

My father taught me this. Obviously, he didn’t use the same words I am using, but when he had me outside helping him fix cars, build chicken coops or add a heating system to the house, he was doing some really important things. First, he was instilling a sense of confidence that regular people can in fact do things for themselves without need of an expert. Second, he was showing me that doing things for myself should create a sense of pride rather than a sense of shame. Third, he was showing me how to increase my standard of living far beyond my actual income without debt. Finally, he was showing me how to productively use the finite time of my life for the benefit of those around me.

So what does this have to do with MiniFarming? Quite a lot.

I want you to think for a moment about the qualities of food produced by MiniFarming. That food is rich in micronutrients that are depleted in ordinary food, thus being more healthy. It is organic, which many studies show to be more healthful as well. It is better tasting. It is more fresh, retaining more vitamins. If you were to go down to a store and buy it … what would it cost?

Well, for one thing, it cannot be purchased at any ordinary store. Even in the organic section you are still getting food that has been shipped long distances (often from other countries!) and whose varieties have been selected for shipping qualities rather than taste. You are still getting food far less fresh than you get in your back yard. As expensive as organic produce may be, it still isn’t comparable to what you grow yourself using MiniFarming methods.

The only way you can have that quality of food without growing it yourself is to employ a gardener. And, in fact, that is precisely what many of the super wealthy do on their estates that are set far back from the road. People in houses you can see, no matter how large, aren’t usually seriously wealthy. The truly wealthy folks live in houses you cannot see. But if you were to see them, you’d find that they often have gardens tended by a staff.

In the case of a MiniFarm, you are both the Lord/Lady of the Manor AND the staff, but the quality of the food you obtain this way is such that it is only otherwise available to the most wealthy people in the country. In effect, it increases your standard of living dramatically. Organic food in China, incidentally, is grown behind security fences surrounded by armed guards and is provided only to the highest party officials and foreign dignitaries. You get to have it for little more than a bit of effort.

This same idea applies to making your own wine, cheese, beer, vinegar and so forth. Just try the Monadnock Ale recipe in my book on fermenting, or make some wine from fresh apples growing in your yard and you’ll see what I mean: you cannot buy food that good at any price.

In my book on fermenting I explain how to do solera aging — which is something you can apply to both vinegars and fortified wines. Properly solera aged vinegar goes for $30/ounce. No, that isn’t a typo. Only the super-wealthy can afford solera aged vinegar, but once you set up your own solera method, YOU can have it any time you like.

Maybe that won’t show up in the GDP report because it isn’t Production for Exchange, but it will definitely show up on your plate and palate, and it will be divine.

Video Advertisement for the Mini Farming Series

Guess what? My publisher has made a really excellent video to advertise my series of MiniFarming books! It’s a really professional production.

Unfortunately, the video wasn’t completed in time to be run during the fourth quarter of the Superbowl despite the pleadings of the TV station.  (*grin*) Maybe next year?

I strongly suspect that for the cost of running an ad during the Suberbowl I could literally put in Mini Farms for tens of thousands of people. If I had that kind of money, that’s exactly what I’d do too: I’d find people who could benefit from MiniFarms and hire a crew to install them for people and teach classes in how to maintain them and preserve the food. This, I suspect, is why I am an engineer and writer rather than a CEO.

The Composting Book is Here!

Mini Farming Guide to Composting compostbook

Over the years I have received more questions about composting than any other subject. I cover the essentials of thermophilic composting in Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre, but even though that form of composting is generally considered ideal, it is also the most labor intensive and not everyone interested in sustainability and self-sufficiency has either the time or the physical ability to shovel (literally) tons of compost.

The second most frequent questions I get pertain to soil fertility and soil management. Composting is intimately tied to these issues.

So the solution for me was simple: write a very comprehensive book on composting, soil fertility and soil management from a sustainability/MiniFarming perspective. Because this book was written following years of both reader feedback and personal experimentation, I am really pleased with the results and I’m sure you will be pleased too!

Everybody and his brother covers aerobic thermophilic composting, and so do I. After all, thermophilic composting is the only approved method for USDA certified Organic growing. But what is very rarely covered (if at all!) is anaerobic composting. I cover anaerobic and mesophilic composting thoroughly while also giving instructions on how to make your own anaerobic digester. Anaerobic and mesophilic composting are especially valuable if you have physical or time limitations. Because anaerobic composting can introduce safety issues, I very clearly spell out how to use anaerobic digesters and mesophilic compost safely.

If you have ever tried to save your kitchen scraps for composting, you’ve quickly discovered your indoor compost bin becomes a noxious fly-attractant. For those who like to compost indoors (or would like to do so, if only it didn’t smell so badly!), I have covered vermicomposting (composting inside using earth worms) and also an indoor rotating mesophilic aerobic composting bin and system. I’ve used both systems in my own home very successfully and I explain how to make them work for you.

The past few years have seen a large number of major natural disasters in the United States. In any disaster where running water and electricity become unavailable, one of the most urgent needs is proper sanitation when toilets won’t flush. Anywhere in the world without proper sanitation systems sees large numbers of deaths from diarrhea arising from the uncontrolled spread of intestinal pathogens. To make sure you know how to handle this, I dedicate a chapter to the proper handling and composting of human feces, showing both my own humanure toilet and humanure composting bin.

Compost tea has become popular. I cover the basics in Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre, but in this book, The MiniFarming Guide to Composting, I cover compost tea in depth. Not only do I demonstrate how to brew your own inexpensively, but I also cover the pros-and-cons of which compost is best to use for making compost tea and safety considerations in its use. Compost tea is not without controversy, but I demonstrate the difference in makes in soil bacteria populations with photographs I took through my microscope.

Though this book is among the most comprehensive on composting, I don’t short-change soil fertility! Composting is obviously a cornerstone of self-sufficiency and sustainable farming methods, but in order to know how much compost to add to your garden, you have to know how to measure the current biological fertility of your soil. I give two methods of how to do that. I also cover soil amendments for both macro and micro nutrients extensively, including all of the formulas needed for making your own fertilizers. Though I explain biochar in one of my earlier books, in this book I not only explain it more extensively, I even show how to make your very own biochar reactor and explain how it works.

When I look back at this book and all that it contains, I am really amazed. I can’t believe both the depth and breadth of information I crammed into it while still keeping it readable. When you’re done with this book, you’ll be a composting Ninja! Do not, however, blame me if unenlightened people look askance at your vermicomposting bin or composting toilet!

The MiniFarming Guide to Composting is available at finer book stores along with:

Amazon Barnes and Noble Indie Bound

Horse meat and trusting yourself

As a source of protein, objectively speaking, there’s nothing wrong with eating horse in preference to cow or pig. Horse meat contains twice as much iron as cow meat, a whopping THIRTY TIMES more healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and twice as much vitamin B12. Plus, it carries no risk of mad cow disease. (1)

So I’m certainly not telling you not to eat horse if you are so inclined.

The problem is that you have a right to know what you are eating, and a huge scandal has recently gripped Europe where it was found that everything from Burger King Whoppers to frozen dinners advertised as beef really contained horse. (2)

At issue here is the fact you cannot always trust what other people say, particularly when there is a financial motive involved. Ultimately, sales is sales and selling a used car or whole life insurance is not much different than selling a burger or organic food. Sales and marketing are complex fields that invest untold millions into studies that improve the manipulation of human perceptions and behavior in order to separate people from their hard-earned cash.

There is a reason why so many boxes in the cereal aisle are yellow: yellow boxes appear bigger. Cynical? Not me — I’m not the guy who decided to make them yellow after studies showed people would perceive yellow boxes to contain more product even when they contained less. When you get a chance, check out a “one quart” jar of tomato sauce in the grocery store and you’ll quickly notice it is shaped to appear like a quart jar but has been downsized to contain only 28 or even 24 ounces of product.

The people who make the food in stores are not in the business of improving either your health or your budget. They are in the business of making money. There’s nothing wrong with making a buck, but it makes sense to realize that there are times when your family’s interests and those of a global food conglomerate do not converge.

As the horse meat scandal proves, even in countries with incredible levels of government regulation and punitive laws, “compliance” is largely a matter of hiring accountants, clerks and lawyers to fill out forms and paperwork and very little ACTUAL oversight takes place. Mostly these regulations serve to create barriers to entry that keep small operators from competing and protect the profits of existing large operators rather than actually keep people safe.

The National Organic Program in the United States is much the same. The standards are incredibly strict, and certification requires the payment of fees (sometimes quite substantial fees), the filing and maintenance of tons of paperwork regarding farm methods and provenance of materials and even a walk through inspection. But what it does NOT require is testing of the soil to make sure the farmer doesn’t have a bucket of malathion or carbaryl out back that he uses when the walk through is over. In other words, compliance with the standards is, in effect, little more than paperwork and a walk-through inspection from a person whose paycheck is made possible by the issuance of organic certifications.

No doubt, the overwhelming preponderance of organic producers really are in compliance because they are conscientious individuals committed to both the spirit and letter of the National Organic Program. Just like most cow meat in Europe comes from cows instead of horses and I’m sure you can usually trust that Burger King’s burgers are made from cows. But there is no guarantee. And there is even LESS of a guarantee when you consider that this time of year most organic produce is literally flown in from countries in Asia and South America. The governments of most of these countries make a disturbingly regular habit of “disappearing” people simply for the opinions they hold — so how much can you trust that the produce exported is really organic? There are no protections for whistle-blowers in such places.

What’s my point?

My point is that YOUR self interest and that of your family does converge. There is no competing interest where maybe you can squeeze out an extra dime of profit by lying to your kids about what you spray on your garden or what you feed your chickens. Your supply chain is simple and easily seen and understood: from your garden to your kitchen. You see it all and understand it all.

You can’t and shouldn’t live your life in a state of perpetual paranoia. That would be paralyzing. But what you should do, as much as possible, is ascertain the business ethics of entities from whom you purchase goods and services and, as much as practical, make and supply your own. I have no opinion over whether or not a person should eat horse. But I believe that if you are going to eat horse, or malathion or anything else, you should know that’s what you are doing.

 

(1) http://science.kqed.org/quest/2011/01/07/how-nutritious-is-horse-the-other-red-meat/

(2) http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/09/world/europe/uk-horsemeat-probe/index.html

Weymouth Garden Club, 1/12/13@10:30am

I will be speaking at the Weymouth Garden Club on Saturday, January 12th, 2013 at 10:30am.

I’ll be speaking about why you should endeavor to grow your own vegetables, the economic benefits of sustainable practices on a small scale, and other aspects of food self-sufficiency.

The meeting will be held at 8 Nevin Road, South Weymouth, MA.

I will be happy to sign books!  I will also have some for sale, and the profit will be donated to help the Weymouth Garden Club promote gardening!

Planting Nature’s Way

I save a lot of seeds, sometimes factors more seeds than I will ever need simply because it is easy to save them. This means I can afford to experiment with planting methods without it costing me an arm and a leg.

When we are mini-farming, we are in many respects simply adapting natural processes for our convenience. It therefore stands to reason that we can take a few cues from nature to save a bit of labor or time our planting perfectly.

Nature is pretty savvy. Plants and seeds in the wild just seem to know what to do and when to do it. Have you ever seen a bunch of tender weeds killed by a late frost? No? Me either. It just doesn’t happen because nature knows exactly when to sprout those weed seeds for the longest growing season without danger of a sudden frost.

In the past, I have correlated the sprouting or blooming of certain plants in my area with when I should plant certain things. For example, broccoli goes in the ground just a week after my apple trees bloom. But over the past couple of years I have noticed some other interesting things.

One thing I’ve noticed is that if I leave a tomato behind to rot on a bed, the next year those seeds will sprout of their own accord. This isn’t exactly a newsflash but the implications are tremendous because I have tried this for a couple of years and even though those tomatoes emerge well before I would usually plant, they are never frost-killed. This means nature does for my tomatoes exactly what it does for weeds.

Now, because I do bed rotation I wouldn’t leave those young plants in the same bed where their parents grew the year before — instead, I would dig them up and put them in the new location. And it works.

Think about this for just a moment. Instead of gathering up a dozen slightly over-ripe tomatoes of the variety I want to plant next year and going through the whole wet method of seed saving,  I smash those tomatoes in the bed where I want to grow those tomatoes next year. The next spring, the seedlings emerge and I just weed out all but the strongest at proper spacing. I saved no seed and a grew no seedlings. Instead, I just let nature do the work for me and all I had to do was a bit of thinning for five minutes. As a bonus, there is no transplant shock or any other difficulty. I just prepare my bed in the fall and smash the tomatoes where I want them in that bed.

Obviously, this won’t work if you want to switch varieties. But will it work in other ways?

Yes it will. I first noticed that dill and mustard re-seed easily. These plants produce copious quantities of seeds, as do carrots and many others.  Domestic mustard and carrots are descended from wild mustards and wild carrots. Obviously, nobody goes out in nature and carefully replants those seeds. All that happens is the seeds are spread around the ground by wind and then buried by snow and rain while temperatures are too low for them to sprout, but come spring at just the perfect time, they sprout.

Obviously, the germination percentage is much lower than when planted perfectly, but plants make up for this through sheer quantity of seeds.

As I mentioned, I save a lot of seeds — many times what I will actually need. Sometimes I use them for experiments.

In this case, after adding compost and other amendments to my squash bed, I carefully spread about 800 carrot seeds over a 4’x16′ space. This is exactly what nature would do. Some of those seeds will rot. Some will be eaten. The germination percentage will be absolutely abysmal. But many of them WILL make it through the winter and will sprout at the exact perfect time in spring. I may have to thin a little.

I am curious to see how this works. It worked well for tomatoes and we’ll soon know how well it works for carrots!

 

 

Monday Night, I Harvested Carrots!

I live in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire, which is not exactly the warmest spot on earth. It’s not as bad as Minnesota, thank goodness, but it is far cooler than where I grew up in Virginia.

Yet, with no greenhouse,  snow forecast for today, and well past the first frost of the year, I was out in the garden with a flashlight harvesting carrots and salsify after Thanksgiving!

Too often, folks suffer from the misconception that you can only grow food in summer, when in reality this only applies to tender plants such as tomatoes and squash. Planned well, you can actually grow a great many crops all the way from earliest spring through late fall including:

  • Carrots, Parsnips, Salsify
  • Turnips, Beets, Chard
  • Potatoes (yes, potatoes!)
  • Onions

When you consider that you have a much longer growing season than is self-evident and you can actually grow and harvest even when temperatures have been dropping into the mid 20’s at night, you can use this fact to orchestrate the order in which you plant crops to make maximum use of space.

I explain how to do this in Mini Farming: Self Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre, but the idea isn’t difficult.

Look at the packet of seeds for a frost-hardy crop. I’ll use cabbage as an example. Look at the number of days to maturity. For the cabbage I grow, that number is 65.

Now, that number — days to maturity — is assuming a spring or summer planting, and hence a lot of energy from the sun. So when planting for a fall harvest, you’ll need more time. Add two or three weeks to that number — so 21 days. That gives us 65+21 or 86 days between planting and harvest.

Cabbage can be directly seeded, but it works best from transplants. Usually they are started indoors six weeks before they are planted. (I include a table of this stuff in the book, but you can find that data on your seed packet as well.) So you should start your seeds indoors 6 weeks plus 86 days before your expected harvest, or 6×7 = 42 + 86 = 128 days.

But when is your expected harvest? For a hardy crop, you can harvest 6-7 weeks after the first autumn frost. In my area, the first autumn frost is usually around October 6. So if I add 7 weeks to that, I get November 24. So I should start my seeds for my fall cabbage crop 128 days before November 24 (July 19th), and put my transplants in the ground 86 days before November 24 (August 30th).

(If you don’t like counting backwards on a calendar, you can use this handy website.)

So … I have that entire patch of ground where I am planning to put my cabbage completely available for any other purpose up until August 30th! That means I have plenty of time to grow practically anything short of melons or long-season tomatoes. I like to alternate between plant families and between root and leaf/fruit crops, so I’ll grow my spring potatoes in that bed, harvest them completely, and then replant with cabbage.

People who haven’t tried it themselves sometimes think I exaggerate how much food I can grow in just a few hundred square feet. But the real key is planning — not just in terms of space, but in terms of time. I grew three crops where I grew cabbage this year: chard followed by potatoes followed by cabbage.

You can do it too!