Carol and I drove out to Worcester today for the winter conference of the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association (NOFA). Carol was on the NOFA/Massachusetts board fifteen years ago, and wanted to go to some presentations on permaculture; I went along for the ride.
Sections in this post:
- “Organic growing 101
- Phytoremediation through urban gardens
- Lunch conversations
- “Husbandry was once a sacred art
“Organic Growing 101”
We started out with “Organic Growing 101,” presented by Frank Albani, who works two and a half acres at the Soule Homestead in Middleboro. I was particularly interested in what he had to say, because he started with a 30′ by 50′ garden, and in addition to his two and a half acres he still works a 50′ by 100′ garden. Market growing on that size plot (about an eighth of an acre) would be adaptable to urban settings. Albani works the 50′ by 100′ plot by hand, having built up the soil to the point where he no longer needs to use a power tiller. He grows much of his lettuce on this smaller plot, but because the plot is in full sun he has to partially shade it (which implies that partial shading on an urban plot could be used to advantage).
Albani went into many specific techniquess of market growing. He makes extensive use of row cover material like Remay: row cover will keep marauding insects of crops like cukes and squash; it keeps deer at bay; it will keep crops warmer in cool weather. Albani advocated drip irrigation if the grower has access to filtered water but unfiltered water will clog the drippers; he pumps unfiltered water from a nearby stream using a Honda 5 hp pump (he advises, don’t skimp on pumps but get a good one), and says it takes a good eight hours a week to irrigate his land if there’s no rain. His seeding is done with an Earthway seeder, which he finds greatly improves efficiency with such tiny seeds as carrots. Most important, Albani said: “Organic growing is all about feeding the soil” and about “promoting soil health”; good food is simply a byproduct of doing sustainable agriculture.
Phytoremediation in an urban setting
The second workshop we attended was the one I was most interested in. A small non-profit called Worcester Roots Project did a presentation on using plants to remove toxic substances from soils, a process known as “phytoremediation.” They are mostly interested in lead (from lead-based paints) in soils around urban housing. One of the dominant pathways that lead gets into children is by playing outdoors and ingesting lead. Worcester Roots Project has experimented with a couple of soil remediation techniques that are low-tech, inexpensive, and that can be implemented by ordinary citizens.
First, and most obvious, is to grow a good groundcover over affected soils. But before planting the groundcover, they discovered that research shows that adding a one inch layer of compost reduces the bioavailability of soil lead (“bioavailability” refers to the ease with which ingested lead can enter the blood). A study in Baltimore showed that tilling the soil, covering with 6 to 8 inches of biosolids (e.g., compost), and seeding with a turfgrass groundcover led to a 57% reduction in soil lead after one year. Apparently, compost application reduces plant uptake of lead, as well as supporting healthy groundcover growth; additionally, a phophate soil ammendment reduces bioavilability by putting the lead into a different chemical form. Worcester Roots Project has also had success planting scented geranuims in soil with high lead levels; the geraniums take up about 2-% of the soil lead per year, storing the lead it their leaves and shoots. They dispose of the geraniums in a lined landfill.
In true NOFA style, lunch was a potluck affair, and with thee hundred people bringing potluck we had lots of good food to choose from. We wound up sitting at a table with Josh from D-Acres in Dorchester, New Hampshire, and Jonno, a biologist and permaculture teacher from Leverett, Mass. Once they learned that Carol had co-authored The Composting Toilet Systems Handbook, Josh, and Jonno immediately engaged her in technical conversations about waste water treatment. A young woman named Anne also sat at our table, but she and I didn’t get a chance to say much; I mostly asked a few questions and sat back and listened with interest.
Josh found out that Carol had written Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants. He looked impressed, and said all his interns loved the book. It’s always fun to see that in certain (very small) circles, Carol is well-known.
“Husbandry was once a sacred art…”
The keynote speaker, Brian Donohue, started off his talk by quoting Henry Thoreau: “…husbandry was once a sacred art.” Donohue, the author of The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord is an organic-farmer-turned-professor who has become interested in the cultural roots of a land ethic. “Where do we look for inspiration” for a sustainable way of life?
“The story we tell ourselves today in the environmental movement,” said Donohue, “is that the best thing we can do with Nature is to leave it alone.” He said for New Englanders, that attitude is based on the story we tell ourselves about how New England was settled. “The story goes like this,” he said: first were the Native peoples living in harmony with the land; then the English settlers arrived, displaced the Natives, and deformed the landscape; then around a hundred years ago the farmer went away, moving out to the Midwest, leaving us with a reforested and “re-wilded” landscape. Therefore, the landscape we have today should be left alone as much as possible.
But in Donohue’s view, that story is not quite right. The story we tell ourselves now says that there are only two options: pristine wilderness, and Native harmony with the landscape. Donohue wants to add a third environmentally acceptable option: a pastoral landscape where humans interact sustainably with the land through husbandry (as opposed to agri-business).
So Donohue likes to tell a new story of how New England was settled. He starts with Native harmony with the landscape. But his research shows that when the English settlers arrived, they managed to live sustainably in the New England landscape by adapting the European tradition of mixed husbandry (i.e., farms that combine tilled soil, pasture lands, orchards, wetland meadows for hay). This sustainable lifestyle ended at the end of the 18th C., as farmers increasingly grew for the marketplace and a cash economy. That meant land wasn’t seen as something to husband, but just something to exploit for cash. Then in the early 20th C., most farming died out in New England, leaving a forested landscape — a landscape which is now being eaten up by suburban sprawl. Donohue suggest that we go back to the husbandry attitudes of the 17th and 18th C., and “resist letting the market decide how we relate to the land.”
Working with others at Harvard Forestry, Donohue has come up with a specific proposal for Massachusetts. He says we should set a goal that 50% of the state be protected as forested land. Of that land, 90% would be managed sustainably as woodlands, and the other 10% would be protected as wildlands. His current work is to include farmlands in that proposal.
In short, Donohue wants to change the economic model so that an engaged citizenry supports sustainable farming and farmers. This, he said, would return to making husbandry a “sacred art” once more — instead of just setting land aside untouched.
For the last workshop, I went to a presentation on bees and beekeeping. I’ve been thinking about urban beekeeping as a possibility. But the presentation was really about the kinds of plants bees prefer, and I sort of dozed off. The samples of honey were good, though.