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Compost! Mmm that nice pile of “waste” decomposing in a pile/hole/compost drum in some corner of your garden. Some people have their compost down to a serious art, or science, depending on who you talk to while others just chuck that waste into a pile that occasionally gets stirred. However its done with whichever special recipe, everyone agrees that compost is a hugely important part of growing healthy soil and thus healthy food. Some such as Abishay (pictured with beard below) refer to this mix of stuff as black gold. However you look at it, there’s something beautiful about turning our waste and scraps into rich, fertile soil that feeds the crops we nourish ourselves with.

Making black gold

At the farm we usually make a “lasagna” out of:

  • Greenwaste: nitrogen and carbon from kitchen scraps, cut grass and alfalfa, garden weeds
  • Brown material: mainly carbon from dried grass, corn stalks, quinoa stalks, etc.
  • Dirt: fertile bed soil, adding a mix of microorganisms from around the farm
  • You can also add: manure (nitrogen rich and really great addition!), urine (for urea), ash, calcium, etc.

This last Thursday we hosted a compost workshop with our friend Abishay, a composting genius. We made a large pile of compost. We do use manure for boacshi, a rapid acting compost but not in our regular speed compost. This pile was perfectly stacked and with well packed edges that will be turned once a month for a total of 3 times before it is ready for use!

 

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Key things worth sharing:

  • Larger piles break down faster (at the minimum a 3x3ft. pile will do, even bigger if at altitude).
  • Start your pile on an even plain, flat surface cleared of grass. Piles should kill any weeds below it but it helps to clear the space first. We did a half fresh manure, half chala (corn stalk) base to see which controls the grass beneath better.
  • Fresh manure at the base will kill grass, while broken down manure will help it grow
  • Height  of the pile is more important the width
  • Water between each layer as you build
  • Water the ground for several days (dripping) before turning the first time. This will bring out the worms!
  • Manure makes your compost richer. Manure from smaller animals such as cuy (guinea pig), chickens, etc. is richer than from larger animals such as cows and sheep.
  • Urine is a cheap substitute for urea (dehydrated salt-like substance) that is rich material for any compost pile.

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If you’re in the Sacred Valley, come check out our pile! If not then these photos will just have to suffice. Best part of the day? Asking everyone to bring their own bucket of manure, urine, or food scraps…nothing like a nice warm gift of someone else’s urine! ~Kat

Recently I met an inspiring individual, Liz Birnbaum, in the midst of the ecological farming movement. Liz began as a guerilla gardener, establishing a small organic farm at at her alma mater. In her current position as the Program Coordinator for the Ecological Farming Association (EcoFarm) Liz connects constantly with big movers and shakers in the ecological farming movement. Naturally, I wanted to know what makes Liz passionate about her work – what does ecological agriculture mean to her? Below is a mini interview Liz undertook to give us insight into their inspirations. Enjoy!

Broken Banjo Photography http://www.brokenbanjo.net/

Broken Banjo Photography
http://www.brokenbanjo.net/

What does ecological agriculture mean to you?

Ecology is the study of relationships. To me, ecological agriculture is based on a point of confluence: it joins nature’s ecology and human’s agriculture. It evokes the concepts of farming with nature, harmony, and biodiversity rather than slash-and-burn monocultures. Ecological agriculture is not about just using something up or making it work for one person/being, it is about a give and take. It is about a balance.

Ecological agriculture also invokes a concept of place-based learning—the kind of experiential knowledge one can only get from walking the land and paying keen attention to the forces at work. Ecological agriculture is much more than just concept. It is a practice. It includes a community-based model of learning that promotes ethics, principles, and methods for farming in harmony with nature.

At the Ecological Farming Association, where I am currently employed, a primary aspect of our mission is to educate farmers about ecological agriculture. For 33 years we have been hosting the Ecological Farming Conference, better known as EcoFarm, which last year had 75 workshops and discussion group sessions where farmers, ranchers, food handlers, distributors, and others came together to learn about the cutting edge topics in ecological agriculture.

Ecological agriculture is an umbrella term for permaculture, biodynamics, agroecology, integrated pest management, organics, and more. Looking at EcoFarm’s workshop content is a good way to get a sense of how diverse the term ecological agriculture really is. We had workshops on seed saving, attracting pollinators to the farm, on-farm water stewardship, pastured poultry, food hubs, draft animals, farm finance, growing local grains, and much more at the 2013 EcoFarm Conference.

 How and why did you get involved in the ecological agriculture movement? 

I first got involved because I saw a need in my community to have critical conversations about sustainability. Since everyone eats and food is the great equalizer, I felt that food was the best place to start talking about the environment so that the discussion would include everyone. So, I became a farmer. I had next-to no experience in growing at the time, but I promoted the idea of a campus farm and the college community from student government to the board of trustees gave me tremendous support to start the farm. It was an incredible first season, from getting the fence up to laying out the beds to staking my first tomatoes. When I tasted the bounty of that first season and I saw how it brought the community together, I was hooked.

I worked to get the food we grew into the campus cafeteria to make sure the whole community could access it. I also set up a way to financially sustain the project by having many events and classes in the garden, including weekly on-site “harvests” where faculty and staff could come to buy fresh fruits and vegetables from the four awesome student interns and myself. I managed the farm for two seasons.

Food became an intellectual obsession, to put it mildly. I began to realize how much food was connected to everything I cared about—art, communities, social justice, health, the environment, etc. I felt like I could explore it forever. So I helped create and co-teach some courses: Biodiversity and Agriculture, Botanical Imperialism, and Chicago: The Food City. All of these had food and farming as a central theme. And that is how I got involved in this whole movement!

How has your commitment to ecological agriculture changed your life or your lifestyle?

Well, I have moved to California! I am from Chicago and now I am living in Santa Cruz which is nestled in an agricultural area.

I have gotten so many awesome freebies through the wonderful community of food producers out here, so I am eating well. I also think so much more about what I eat and how to prepare it. I have also gotten really into food crafts like preserving and foraging and blogging about it all .

If you were on a bus trying to convince someone to see the value in ecological agriculture, what are the 3 most important points you would want to express? 

Earth—Look 7 generations ahead at the earth. How can you leave it better than you found it. I think that farming ecologically is a part of the answer.

Economy—Support a “know your food, know your farmer” system, not a faceless system.

Respect—Respect all life, don’t have a “winner takes all” attitude with the rest of the plants, animals, and fungi on this earth.

All that said, I am not the kind of person who will be judgmental of someone who eats McDonalds or eats from an anonomous food producer. I am the kind of person who wants to make a change so that those options either do not exist as they do (the cheapest and most plentiful things around for so many people), or they are made more sustainable somehow. I think everyone comes from different places with this and socioeconomics dictates so much.

If you could only eat one vegetable for 6 months, what would it be and why?

Probably onions. Is that a weird response? It might sound funny, but I eat onions in just about any dish for any meal of the day. The only hesitation I would have about this choice would be the lack of vitamins, which might have made me move to a brassica, but since I am from Chicago (named after the wild onion), I just had to go with onions. They are just so versatile and tasty! And they store so well. Yay for onions!

-Liz Birnbaum of Ecological Farming Association

 

Growing Soil Fertility

Oftentimes at the farm we say we’re growing soil fertility first and vegetables second. Why’s that? Because without fertile soil you can only cultivate crops for so long before yields decline and external inputs are no longer sufficient to feed the needs of healthy crops. The soil is a substrate for growing. It is a living, thriving world full of microorganisms and nutrients necessary for healthy plant growth. The agroindustrial model looks at the soil as this dry, dark matter that must be pumped full of chemically constructed nutrients and additives. The soil in such a model is dead, dry, and just a substrate for placing roots of plants into. When we recognize that the soil is really a complex and very alive system, we begin to think about how to nurture this system so that there is a symbiosis with plants. The cylce of a growing plant and growing soil quality thus go hand in hand. At the farm we practice this in various ways, a few being:

  • Crop Rotation: Crops take and give different nutrients. We balance this through carefully planned rotation so as to increase, not deplete, soil fertility.
  • Association of plants: Certain plants complement each other and the soil.
  • Soil Fertility: composting, vermiculture, local soil fertility methods such as biol and bocashi (explained in future posts!)

What is Biol?

Over time we’ll adress our different methods for building soil fertility. Last week we made Biol. Along with the photos in this post, I’ll explain the process. Biol is a compost tea-like substance made from a mix of  crushed egg shells (calcium), ash (potassium, phosphorus, magnesium), yeast or chicha with sugar (quick break down), alfalfa (nitrogen), guano de corral (sheep/lama/guinea pig droppings), and milk all mixed with water. This can be done anaerobically (without oxygen) or aerobically (with oxygen) and stirred daily for a few weeks. Kind of like making a “potion” in your mom’s basement – one of my favorite childhood pastimes. When ready, we dilute it with water and spray this natural fertilizer on and at the base of our veggies for healthier plants and healthier soil! We learned this neat technique from a local expert here in Peru. It is so applicable for the highland communities we work with because Bocahsi utilizes only resources that the farmers here have at hand making it easy to make, low to no cost, and more likely to be put in practice. Plus it looks so nice (below), huh? Pretty neat! ~ Kat

Wow, hanging water bottles and a stone wall. AASD really hit the nail on the head this week with this beautiful and inspiring photo of the week, huh? Not quite. But what you’re looking at could be called inspiring for its innovative quality. The wall makes up part of a small family greenhouse. The hanging plastic decorations are plastic bottles filled with water. These neat contraptions attract pesky bugs that would otherwise feast on the vulnerable plants just a few feet below. Oh no! Who knew plastic bottles could be such life savers! I’m sharing this with you because it represents another instance of utilizing resources at hand to address challenges in the greenhouses.

Alright, to be honest, I just get really jazzed that the plastic water bottles are being reused, contributing to healthy plant growth while reducing waste!  Yep, I really am super excited about this instance of creative reuse. ~Kat

“Every healthy farm should have bees” – Jerry Freeman (expert bee keeper)

 

These bees, or as Jerry calls them,” his girls,” increase yields, pollinate like crazy, and of course beautify the farm by supporting the bountiful biodiversity it contains. So, we’re learning bit by bit about beekeeping but finding there is so much more you can do with your bee buddies! On Tuesday, Ruben and I learned how to make pure beeswax candles. The wax is straight from the The Sacred Valley Honeybee Sanctuary’s hives located right on AASD’s Demonstration Farm. Visiting expert bee keeper, Freddie Terry from Arizona and our local beekeeping experts Ruben and Jerry were a wealth of information, sharing insights into making natural bee products ranging from candles, propolis extract, and lotions, creams, and more!

Buzzing about experiment #1: Beeswax Candles

 

Above is  a picture of our experimental candles, part way through the process. Yes, I know this round of candles is relatively unappealing to the eye. But hey, we’re just getting the process down. Once the wax dried we peeled off the cups and took off the q-tip holding the wick. Can’t wait to get some wax molds and cool designs going. Vegetable candle molds anyone, ehh?? Plus, the candles burn 10x longer than normal candles and it is a cleaner burn than many other candles. Neat!

The Sacred Valley Honeybee Sanctuary is working closely with the Andean Alliance to launch beekeeping courses. They are experimenting with sustainable, alternative hives and of course creating awesome bee products. They hint at even eventually open a apitherapy clinic. I’m pretty excited to be part of this process, learning, creating, and enjoying the natural products of our farm’s busy buzzing bees!

Thanks to Freddie for giving us some candle making tips – this photo below shows him heating up the wax before we start candle making. ~Kat

 

Water catchment pit linked to a hose for drip irrigation in the greenhouse

Innovation

It’s what happens when you give project participants ownership over their projects. But why would someone ever be stripped of the freedom to innovate with something they own? They aren’t. But creativity can be stifled. Or it can be encouraged!

With the Maucau family greenhouse project we worked hard to get participants excited and deeply involved in the planning process from the frequency of workshops through the prioritization of content and above all the bigger vision of the project. Participants envisioned the potential allowing them to play a leading role in determining the direction of projects. For several months we held bi-weekly workshops, including one bigger demo farm workshop. Prior to our last community workshop, Ruben, Chris, and I visited each family greenhouse. We were slammed in the face by innovation! Many ideas we had talked about among ourselves were being put into practice – from water catchment to innovative space maximization practices, to simply yet clever irrigation systems. Leave a farmer alone and s/he will immediately identify problems and design clever solutions. This post shows some photos of what we saw. Some of these practices were so hard to capture on camera, and those you see are not done justice. But believe me, seeing firsthand what these innovators had done between workshops was quite impressive – it made each and every trip and all the planning worth it.  All I could think was: This crew of family greenhouse owners is awesome! They sure schooled me in how to overcome their growing challenges. ~Kat

 

Both the pit style and the rocks of this compost help keep materials warm and prevent over-drying in the high altitude climate

rain-fed catchment system fed by a rigged up roof gutter.