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Archive for October, 2013

VA 100 mile map - BLOGWhen I taught the class Four Season Food Production at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, the first project of the semester was a 100 Mile Food Plan. Working in groups, the students were to imagine their food supply was going to be disrupted and their only food, beginning January 1, was going to be from local sources. The project was due in mid-September, so they were to feel fortunate that they had this heads-up months in advance. In real life disruptions occur with increasing frequency with no advance warning. They would have to source their food within a 100 mile radius of where they lived.

The students would need to find sources for winter food and be able to store it or preserve it now. Or, they would need to know a farm where they could buy it as needed, since the grocery stores would be closed. They could grow it themselves, of course, but that would take awhile and winter was coming on. This was a year-long plan, so growing it themselves would be planned in. If the animal products in their plan depended on feed shipped in and not grown locally, that would be a consideration.

My intent in assigning this project was to acquaint them with the local food system. I wanted to get them out to the farmers markets to talk with the farmers and find out what was available. I also wanted them to think about exactly what it was they ate and how much they needed for a year. They received extra credit if they brought in a highway map of Virginia with their location pinpointed and circles at 25, 50, 75, and 100 miles away. It had to be a highway map so that it showed all the localities. When they first thought of this 100 mile limit, many students thought it would severely limit their choices until they actually put the circles on a map. Even if you are not familiar with Virginia, you can see from my map that there are mountains on the left and the ocean on the right—all within 100 miles from my house as the crow flies. The area goes north into Maryland and dips into North Carolina to the south. Make a map of your own and see what you would have to choose from.

This project sure was an ice-breaker. One thing that always happened in my classes was that people talked to each other. Each group had to assess the strengths of each of its members. Someone may have land available for future growing and others may have money, tools, skills, storage facilities, or muscle to contribute to each “community”. They would need to show on a chart what foods they found and where, how much they would need of each food for the year for their group, and how it would be stored or preserved. I also wanted their comments on what strengths and weaknesses they found in our present local food system. This generated plenty of discussion about what would happen if everyone had to suddenly depend on these local sources and what, if any, changes in their lifestyle and diet this project encouraged. I always enjoyed the interaction among everyone. I remember one group that had both a long-time vegan and a young woman whose family ate mostly meat.  When you are planning for a community, everyone must be considered.

Ashland Market SignWhen I first started teaching at the college in 1999, farmers markets were few and far between. It amazes me how many there are in 2013, with the number growing each year. I was one of the founding farmers of the Ashland Farmers Market. I stopped selling vegetables after the 2001 season to concentrate on teaching in order to put more knowledgeable consumers and producers at the markets. The produce, meat, eggs, and honey sold at the Ashland market must have been grown within a 30 mile radius of the town. If shown as a circle on my map, it would be just outside the inner circle. Most markets don’t have such a limit. Besides farmers markets, there are many other options for people to connect with local growers. You can find sources for food grown in your area by checking www.localharvest.org.

The two items my students had the hardest time finding were grains and cooking oil. There was much discussion about the possibility of making oil from the black walnuts that are prevalent in the area. That was before the Piteba, a home-scale oil press, was available. Even with that press, I’m sure the novelty of making oil from walnuts would wear off quickly. There was also much discussion about a source for salt. To really learn, you need to begin with questions and my students generated lots of questions while doing this project. You are probably familiar with Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a story of one family eating locally for a year. Once that book came out in 2007, many people began to think seriously about where their food comes from. About the same time, the book Plenty by Canadians Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon was published. This couple had fewer resources than Kingsolver’s family did. They ate a lot of potatoes and tried their hand at sauerkraut which smelled up their small apartment. I encourage you to read both books.

It can be quite a shock to your system to change your food supply suddenly. It is much better to ease into it and make changes gradually if you want them to last. The change needs to start in your mind, and that’s why I had my students do this project. I didn’t expect them to come up with all the answers to a plan that could be implemented right away. That would take much more planning. I did expect them to begin to question their diets and food sources. It certainly got them to focus the rest of the semester on actually growing their own food.

The next project was on cover crops and then there was one about designing a season extension structure to cover a 100 ft² bed. Although it was not required to build the structure they designed, many students did and managed to get it planted that fall. With the first project, all agreed that if we actually had to depend solely on local supplies, there would not be enough food for everyone. With that in mind, they went ahead and built their structure. For the last project, each student was assigned a vegetable and had to write a newsletter about it as if they were a farm and this was their featured product for sale. I left the college in 2010 to be able to address a larger community. The classes continue with my daughter Betsy Trice as the instructor. Betsy has put her own spin on the classes, but she still assigns the 100 Mile Food Plan. If all the grocery stores were to close on January 1, where would your food come from?Homeplace Earth

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lima beans on a livestock panel trellis

lima beans on a livestock panel trellis

Last year I grew pole lima beans for the first time. I had several tall bamboo tepees in a garden bed with a bamboo pole connecting them along the top. The plants grew up the poles and along that top bar with a mass of foliage. I felt the urge to step into the welcoming shade, but I would have had to step in the bed. That’s when I had the idea to grow them so they would grow over a garden path, rather than the garden bed.

My large garden is divided into four sections of nine 4’x20’ beds each, with a 4’ wide grass path between each section. I decided to connect five pairs of beds with trellises over the path between two sections.  Each trellis was made with four metal t-posts and a 16’ livestock panel. The posts were put at the corners of the beds and the fence panel was bent between them and attached to the posts with wire. I use old electric fence wire for things like that. You could put all four posts in at once, then with a helper, bend the panel and slide it between the posts. Or, you could put in three posts, add the panel, then sink the fourth post and adjust the panel. I wrote about using these livestock panels many ways at https://homeplaceearth.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/in-praise-of-livestock-panels/.

limas-bushel gourds-limas on trellises

limas-bushel gourds-limas on trellises

It is no trouble to bend them into shape. Just anchor one end against something (a post or a person) and pick up the other end and walk forward. The 16’ long panel made an arch 7’ tall over the 4’ wide path. At 52” wide, this trellis is slightly wider than the garden bed, which is why I didn’t trellis every pair of beds along that path. It would have been too crowded getting in and out of the 1½’ wide paths between the beds.

In deciding what to plant over these trellises besides lima beans, I chose luffas and bushel gourds because I knew they would put out lots of vines that would last till frost. It is interesting to try new crops, so I also chose Malabar spinach for one of the trellises. Friends and family who had grown Malabar spinach told of how it climbed over everything in their gardens and I imagined I could just go out and pluck some leaves as needed for dinner from a trellis as I strolled through the garden. I learned that the variety that climbs over everything is Red Malabar. The variety I bought was green and didn’t do much climbing. I still took a walk in the garden and picked for the dinner table as needed, but next year I’ll be planting Red Malabar to fill out the trellis.

luffa hanging on the trellis

luffa hanging on the trellis

The luffas performed as expected, covering the trellis in a hurry. I will be harvesting 20 luffa gourds from one trellis! The plants only occupy four square feet of garden space—a 6” strip along the end of each bed. The luffa trellis has many yellow flowers poking out the top right now, although it is too late for the flowers to do anything but beautify the garden—which they are doing very well. One year I grew luffas along a fence and measured a vine that was 20’ long

bushel gourd

bushel gourd

I knew bushel gourds were good for lots of green vines. In fact, if you don’t watch out, they can get away from you. I had some growing 10’ into the beds on each side of the trellis before I cut them back. I let them go a little wild and some vines hung down so far over the ends of the trellis into the path that under that trellis would have made a good meditation shed or a children’s playhouse. As a bonus I’ll have five large gourds to play with. I finally cut the overhanging foliage with a machete and fed it to the compost pile. The luffa and bushel gourd plants will stay green until the frost kills them. Winter squash would probably finish earlier. That could be an advantage if you grew them over a trellis such as this, but then wanted them to be gone so you could cover the trellis with plastic to make a winter greenhouse. Seminole squash vines are pretty prolific. The description for Seminole in Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) catalog subtly warns about that when it says to give it “room to roam”.

lima beans overhead

lima beans overhead

This all started with lima beans. The variety of pole limas that I grow are Worchester Indian Red Pole. The description in the SESE catalog designates it as the hardiest lima and says it is heat and drought resistant. These are the ones I grew last year and saved the seeds. I let the seeds dry in the pods on the vines, so I haven’t picked any yet, but they will certainly be easy to see and pick. This has been fun this year and I’m already looking forward to doing it again next year. It is rather magical to walk under these trellises in the garden as I go about my regular work. I enjoyed the shade in the paths and didn’t notice any problems with shading in the beds because of the trellises. I already had these fence panels and old t-posts left from other projects. Buying everything new could get pricey, so use what you have, but make sure your trellises are sturdy. If you want to try this next year, plan for it now. In fact, as you clean up your beds and plant cover crops, put the trellises in now so they’ll be ready. I hope you have as much fun with this as I did!Homeplace Earth

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