News From the Farm | January 30, 2017

During the rainy season, in those years when there IS rain, there is a constant conversation about soil conditions at Full Belly as the tractor-driving farmers hope for a window, even if only for a day or two, when the soil has dried out enough to plant spring crops. This week, Monday and Tuesday promise to be those days, although the soil is still quite wet if you check a few inches down.  While we may not be able to cultivate out our weeds and lift new beds, we do have lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, kale and fennel transplants that are well-overdue for planting.  We also have beds that are still covered with plastic mulch.  Our plan is to hand-plant into the plastic mulch.  If we are able to get some light machinery into the fields we may try to deal with the weeds and do some additional planting.

Several of us went to the annual Ecological Farming Conference last week, for both education and inspiration — a wonderful gathering of practitioners from many fields.  Co-Owner Paul and a dedicated crew of shepherds stayed home to keep an eye on our herd of mama sheep giving birth to lambs earlier than expected.  As of today we already have 50 baby lambs.  A highlight of the conference for me was a short presentation by Dr. Asa Bradman, about the CHAMACOS research based in the Salinas Valley, also known as the “nation’s salad bowl.” The study (Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas — Chamacos means ‘young child’ in Spanish) has been ongoing since 1998 when it started with a cohort of pregnant women, assessing the health effects of environmental exposures to pesticides and other chemicals. Over 300 children are still participating as they enter adolescence. The research studies the health impacts of pesticides as well as social factors like housing quality and neighborhood conditions. Organophosphate pesticides were found in dust from all of the households in the study.  Breast milk and food were confirmed as additional pathways that resulted in the presence of pesticide metabolites in the children (so make sure to feed your kids their ORGANIC fruits and veggies!)  Negative health and social outcomes were shown to result from the presence of pesticides in the children’s environment.  The study has resulted in almost 150 publications shedding light on environmental chemical exposures and health.

There was also a session on the use of no-till, or reduced till in organic vegetable systems.  Tillage (plowing, rototilling, disking) is ubiquitous in most of agriculture, but it can have negative impacts like dust, erosion, loss of organic matter and impaired soil structure. Many farmers, including Full Belly, have been trying, for years to figure out how to reduce, improve and even eliminate tillage from our farms, something that farmers in other climates and farming systems have been able to achieve more readily. We are ever more committed to these experiments now, as the world recognizes that soil can be used as a huge carbon sink, thus a powerful mitigator of greenhouse gas emissions.

No-till can be a very technical subject, but one of the panelists, Jim Leap of School Road Farm, summed up the panel in a pleasingly non-technical way: “There is a lot of misinformation out there and I think our session helped in that regard… I think there are many systems that can function with lower yields (that may result from no-till) but here on the Central Coast we face the reality of $3,000 per acre/year land rents which make no-till practices in organic systems extremely challenging to say the least. So much of what farmers can do in terms of soil management is dictated by climate, soil type and land rent values. I think moving forward, more accurate data on carbon sequestration from various farming scenarios will be critical. It is so absolutely reassuring to know that the organic community is so committed to ‘doing the right thing’ to enhance the sustainability of our systems.”

Mycologist Paul Stamets (TED talk: 6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World) gave a phenomenal closing plenary, leaving everyone talking about the mycelial ‘world wide web’. (The mycelium is the vegetative underground network of mushrooms.)  Paul covered the benefits that mushroom extracts can have on bees, their ability to cure viral diseases, and their importance in many forest ecosystems.  “The rainforests of the Pacific Northwest may harbor mushroom species with profound medicinal properties.  At the current rates of extinctions, this last refuge of the mushroom genome should be at the top of the list of priorities for mycologists, environmentalists and government. If I can help advance this knowledge, I will have done my part to protect life on this planet.”

— Judith Redmond