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February 2006: Agricultural Notes

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This is part of a much longer article, "Summer Hoophouses" by Steve and Carol Moore, that originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Growing for Market:

Some people use hoophouses just for winter greens. "There are many additional uses for these structures that can help to offset the economic and environmental costs of building them. For those who are only using them for winter greens … some of the benefits of summer use are:

  • Higher yield of tropical crops (tomato, eggplant, pepper, etc.)
  • Enhanced seed production (used for climate control and isolation)
  • Spread labor load on rain days
  • Spread capital cost (economic and environmental) over a longer productive period
  • Maintain or improve soil for winter production
  • Moderate climate irregularities (hail, wind, rain)
  • Disease and insect control
  • Cure winter squashes, pumpkins and sweet potatoes

Here in Southeast Pennsylvania (zone 6) we have had rain and cold during the past two summers. This has made it almost impossible to field-grow nice-colored bell peppers and tomatoes, with all the blights and assorted diseases that accompany these weather conditions. Hoophouses can change all that and we can get a two-month head start in our unheated houses. … We see an even greater advantage with the hoophouses, for crops seem to accelerate at a much faster rate. Additionally, we have experienced wide swings in weather, with our latest frost ever (on May 26—actually it was a freeze) coming after weeks of great growing weather and good ground conditions. Many folks put plants ‘out’ and got burnt, wasting time and precious transplants. Another benefit of hoophouses is easier pest control."

In the rest of the article, the Moores give details of their hoophouse and discuss growing techniques, watering, producing different types of crops, insect and disease control and seed production.

In October we received a very interesting letter from Karuna Muthiah, a person from India who had taken a class from John Jeavons a few weeks before. He enclosed a newspaper article and photos about work that was being done by the Tamil Nadu Organic Farmers Movement (TOFARM) in the state of Tamil Nadu to alleviate some of the damage inflicted on agricultural land by the tsunami. This report was written in July 2005, a little over 6 months after the tsunami:

"In the Nagapattinam district, about 80 villages and over 10,000 hectares of agricultural land have been affected. TOFARM started working in South Poigainallur about 6 months ago. … In this village about 500 acres of good cultivable land was affected by the tsunami. Standing crops were destroyed, about two feet of sand was deposited on the land, the land had become highly saline and all the ponds in the village were filled with sea water. Agricultural government officials who saw the land said that it will take a number of years to make the land productive again. However, Shri Nammalvar, their senior advisor, had prior experience working in such saline areas and he believed the land could be reclaimed sooner than that and they decided to act.

"After removing the accumulated sand using earth-moving machines, they deep-ploughed the land to a depth of 2 feet using disc ploughs. They then built trenches on the sides of each field and filled them with coarse organic matter, which will absorb the salt leached from the land. Daincha (Sesbania acculeata) seeds (a green manure crop which fixes nitrogen in the soil and has the ability to grow under a variety of extreme conditions, including highly saline land) was sowed. I was amazed to see daincha plants which had grown to a height of 3 feet in the land which was ravaged by the tsunami 6 months ago. These plants will be harvested and ploughed in to the field as manure before the farmers start to cultivate paddy once the monsoon sets in.

"They also reclaimed the ponds [through draining] and taught the villagers vermi-composting."

This information comes from "Are supermarkets cheaper than farmers’ markets?" by Emily Oakley and Mike Appel in the September 2005 issue of Growing for Market:

The authors sell their produce at farmers markets and get remarks from some of their customers who believe the prices are too expensive compared to supermarkets. Finally they decided to check it out.

They chose three area supermarkets: an organic health food chain, the most widespread grocery store in town and Wal-Mart. They visited all three stores twice, once in May and once in July of 2005, going to each store on the same afternoon. They "made a list of the items on our farmers market table that week and noted the grocery store’s price."

In May at Wal-Mart, romaine lettuce was $1.38 a head compared to the $2.50 they were charging. However, when weighed, the Wal-Mart head weighed less than a third of theirs, making it actually $4.49 for a comparable weight. Of the spring crops, 11 of 22 items were cheaper at their market table, making their produce overall the cheapest of the other stores. For the summer crops, they again came in first place with eight items being cheapest. They made charts of their findings for both spring and summer crops, which are included in the article.

"The results reveal that perceptions rather than facts influence the false assumptions that grocery store food is always cheapest. … But the point of this article is not to convince the public that local food is cheap too. Your local farmer is NOT the place to look for a bargain. If anything, we should be getting a premium for providing the invaluable service of food truly picked fresh."

The August 2005 issue of Agroforestry News compares the food value of annual and perennial vegetables and finds that generally perennials have more vitamins, minerals and protein. The plants tested were bamboo shoots, cardoon, chervil, chickweed, chives, coltsfoot, daisy, dandelion, dead nettle, fat hen, garden orach, garlic mustard, good king henry, greater burnet, ground elder, ground ivy, hogweed, lemon balm, lesser celandine, red clover, ribwort plantain, rosebay willowherb, silverweed, sorrel, stinging nettle and wood mallow. “With potassium, the perennials contain on average nearly twice the amount than conventional annuals. Note though that the highest levels come from chickweed and fat hen, two annual weeds. With magnesium, calcium, iron, vitamin C and protein levels, the difference is even more pronounced, with perennials containing on average 2-3 times the amounts that conventional annuals contain. With phosphorus and vitamin A the differences are less pronounced, though the perennials still contain significantly more.” The article has a graph for each of the selected vegetables, showing vitamin, mineral and protein content.



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