Thursday, December 11, 2008

Auburn Festival of Lights Parade

Last weekend was the Auburn's annual holiday parade, the Festival of Lights. Often called the Electric Light Parade of Auburn, this is a well-attended event every year, often drawing visitors from far away locations. People pack the streets to watch the over 100 float entries in the parade.

Auburn Knit Night and Courthouse Coffee joined forces to be in the parade for the first time this year. The knitters used glow sticks to knit in the back of Courthouse Coffee's '69 Ford pick-up. People cheered our glow sticks, the knitting, and the owner of the coffee shop. We cheereed and waved back, feeling on par with our favorite knitting celebrities Stephanie Pearl-McPhee aka The Yarn Harlot and the authors Kay and Ann from Mason-Dixon Knitting. (Psst, Santa: I still really want the new Mason-Dixon Kntting book.)

The group able to be in the parade left to right is Debbie, Gail, Earin, Luci and Sharon.
For more parade pics, check out this link.

Auburn Knit Night is open to knitters, crocheters, and other hand crafts. We meet Tuesday evenings at Courthouse Coffee in Auburn from 6-9pm.

And to plug Courthouse Coffee, let me just say that it offers so much more than coffee. There's an exciting variety of Fair Trade drinks and high quality salads, soups, sandwiches, pie and other goodies. Also, wi-fi internet access, space for local groups to gather, and is convieniently located adjacent to the year-round, Saturday morning farmers' market. And did I mention the wine and beer?

Nevada County Cookie Exchange

Here's a yummie local event to tempt you out on Sunday.

The new local Slow Food Chapter of Nevada County is presenting a Holiday Cookie and Recipe Exchange Sunday December 14 from 1:00-4:00pm at Linden Lea Ranch.

Bring your family and friends and 3 dozen of your favorite homemade cookes and copies of the recipe to share. $5/person or $10/family. Come enjoy cookie decorating, Polar Express story-telling, decadent hot chocolate, apple cider, and holiday music.

From Grass Valley: Take Main Strees west for 7 miles (it becomes Rough & Ready Hwy). Turn right on Bitney Springs Rd and follow for 5 miles. Turn right at the Linden Lea Ranch.

RSVP or questions 478-1541 or

Gifts that keep on giving

This was printed in the Grass Valley Union Friday, November 25, 2005, and I wanted to share this great idea with everyone. Many people I know are cutting back on frivolous gifts and donations this year, but here is a gift idea that keeps on giving, long after the holidays are over. Of course, considering the joy my own flock has brought me, I may be slightly biased about wanting more people to experience chickens...

A Gift That Nourishes
A few years ago I received one of the best Christmas gifts of my life. My mother had bought in my name, from Heifer International, a flock of chickens for a family from a third world country. 20.00 had helped an entire impoverished family become more self-reliant by providing income-producing chickens along with a training program.

My own chickens do so much for my family. They lay eggs, fertilize, eat the bugs--including earwigs, scare the rattlesnakes away, go to bed by themselves and wake us up.
So this year, I gave 200.00 to Heifer International which purchased ten flocks of chickens for ten families somewhere in the world and I gave a flock, on paper, to each of my close friends and family members.

Heifer International is a nonprofit organization that works to end hunger and poverty by enabling people to start their own businesses. You have the choice of goats, llamas, pigs, water buffalo, cows, beehives, sheep, camels, chickens and more. Not only do these gifts provide better nutrition for children around the world, but then the families "pass on the gift" by giving one or more of their animal's offspring to another family in need.

"Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a life time." You too can give the gift that keeps on giving. Call Heifer International at (800) 422-0755 or go to

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Working Landscapes

I'm often amazed by the number of free programs that are offered that nobody seems to know about. Take for instance Nevada County Resource Conservation District ( This is a government funded agency which promotes responsible resource management by educating and assisting landowner and land managers through education, leadership, technical and financial assistance, and project facilitation. And it's almost all free!

Today I attended a free brown bag lunch workshop entitled "Working Landscapes: The Environmental Benefits of Grazing" presented by NCRCD. What are working landscapes? Here's a quote from one of the handouts. "Working landscapes consist of farms, ranches and actively managed forestlands. California' working landscapes provide jobs, local tax base, a variety of environmental services, scenic open space, and much of the food and fiber Americans consume."

Today I'll summarize the first of the three speakers, Sheila Barry, UC Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor for the Bay Area. Her focus was on UC research documenting the many benefits of managed grazing, especially fire fuel management, watershed protection, wildlife habitat, increased biodiversity, maintenance of critical endangered species' habitat, recreation, and providing on going, consistent stewardship.

Unfortunately, there are many negative perceptions around ranchers and grazing, including leftover cow pies, overgrazing, and how to manage a changed landscape. Perhaps the most important part of these perceptions is that the successful stories are not connected in the minds of the public. However, there are only a few bad apples among ranchers and farmers. Most ranchers share environmental concerns; in fact, their livelihoods depend preserving clean water, biodiversity and healthy soils, and prove to be excellent stewards of the lands they own or manage.

Friday, October 24, 2008

New Website and Knitting Classes

Just a quick note to announce the launch of my website,! It will eventually encompass most of my interests, including pages on eating locally, gardening, and knitting. Included are all of my favorite resources, projects, experiences, and of course, the blog.

Also up is my knitting class schedule: Two beginning level sock classes will be held at Courthouse Coffee: Saturday November 1st will be socks from the top down and Saturaday November 15th, socks from the toe up. See the website for details and reservations.

Please be sure to forward this to anyone who might be interested in my ramblings or knitting classes.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sierra Nevada Small Farm Progress Days

Sierra Nevada Small Farm Progress Day is an annual event that promotes small-scale farming and forestry in the Sierra Nevada region through education, networking and the demonstration of appropriate equipment and production methods. Today marked their 3rd Annual event with a trade show, farmer fair, demonstrations and more.

The Sierra Nevada foothills have historically been an area that has had a large ag industry. However, many of the common tools used today in agriculture only reflect the needs of the home gardener, or the large corporation farm. Lack of appropriate equipment, especially to use on slopes, and the purchasing power of larger groups are the primary setbacks to our small farming community.

Lynn Miller, editor of the Small Farm Journal, was the keynote speaker. I was running the front desk and missed it, but heard several people having interesting discussions after his talk. Drooling Dog from Colfax was on hand for those lucky souls who did not bring a lunch. If you're up in Colfax, be sure to check their awesome Raspberry
BBQ sauce!

Vendors came from as far away as Oregon, maybe further. I'm not sure about a couple of the vendors. There was horse drawn equipment, people drawn equipment, and demonstrations of most of the equipment. A unique farmer show and tell allowed farmers to gather together, exchanging ideas, techniques, and discussing the merits and faults of their options.

And of course there was the Farmer Olympics. There were four events: the pumpkin/wheelbarrow challenge, electric fence setup, a persimmon toss relay, and finally, a cross-cut saw speed challenge. As with other sporting events, there were accusations made about professionals playing as amateurs, questionable judging practices, clever interpretations of the rules, drug use (does ibuprofan count?) and lots of fun had by all.

There was also this sign, "What is this item? Guess correctly and win a t-shirt":

Since the event is over I can share with you that it is a horse-drawn celery tiller. It mounds up the soil onto the celery plant, which would be very tedious to by hand. There were deemed to be three correct answers. Other answers included furrower, potato planter, and ditcher.

There are still two remaining Small Farm Progress Field Days this year: Forestry Field Day on Sunday, October 26th, and Orchard Field Day on Saturday, November 8th. For more information and locations, check out

Saturday, October 11, 2008

First Frost!

Thursday night was our first night of frost, followed by our second night on Friday. It was enough frost to burn the tender foliage of the nightshade and squash families. I want to put frost fabric over the tomatoes to extend the season for as long as possible, although I'll probably pull out the eggplants and squash plants. The peas and brassicas, celery and parsley look quite happy. The upper garden doesn't seem to be as frost damaged, but I'll still need to spend some time winterizing everything.

What do I mean by winterizing? I want to divide and move some plants around, wrap up fall weeding and pruning, pull out annuals, cover the ground with rice straw, which serves as erosion control and organic mulch. Why rice straw? All straw has some seed in it, so if you use a grass straw like oat or wheat, you'll end up with more grasses to weed later. Rice seed will not germinate in normal garden conditions, so it's preferred for use as mulch material. I've also planted a legume mix cover crop in the beds I'm not using over winter, which will fix nitrogen, increase organic matter and keep the soil from being bare.

The weather has been tricky to manage with the chicks. They are not quite feathered enough to stay out all night, especially not with frost in the air. We have winterized the chicken coop to keep it dry and protected from wind, and the coop is placed behind the house where it tends to be calm and protected anyway, but still not warm enough for our 6-week old chicks. They go out each morning and are collected each evening and brought inside.
We arranged the chicken yard with chick havens where the big, bad rooster (Kazoo) can't get them.

I spent the afternoon getting my booth ready for the Placer Farm & Barn Tour tomorrow. I think I'm ready. All of the wristwarmers are tagged, the big stuff is in the car and the small stuff is all packed and ready to be carried out in the morning. If you come out, be sure to stop by Thompson Ranch and say hi!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Placer Farm & Barn Tour

Have you ever been to a farm to pick out a pumpkin, drink hot cider and take a wagon ride? How about festivals featuring local produce? Or visited a winery located in the heart of the vineyard where the grapes are grown? If the answer is yes, then you have participated in the increasing trend of agritourism.

Agritourism is one of the hottest trends linking people to their local agriculture. Many local farms, ranches, orchards and vineyards have open days for visiting their establishment, where you have a chance to meet and greet with the owners, get the inside scoop on the local products and enjoy the open space.

More fun is looking for special event days, when vendors, artists and entertainers gather together for a fun-filled day. The upcoming Placer County Farm & Barn Tour, is such an event, featuring ten stops at local ranches, orchards, farms and wineries right here in our county. Each stop has a line up of artists and entertainment, and is a great time to start on your holiday shopping. For example, I'll be at a working sheep ranch in Auburn, Thompson Ranch, selling knitted items of my own design and running an on-going knitting demonstration area.

When: October 12th, 10am-4pm (Sunday)
Where: Placer County
Cost: $10, kids free

For more information, ticket sales, listing of tour sites and anything else you might want to find out, check out the Farm & Barn website. I hope to see you there.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


This weekend has been long, with lots of ups, and unfortunately, some downs. When I got home Friday, this huge, beautiful single rose was waiting for me. "Just because," said DH (darling husband).

Saturday started with a trip to the farmers market, where I scored some great tomatoes and cucumbers for food preserving. I mentioned to the farmer, Lisa of Lisa's Petals and Produce, that I wanted some paste-type tomatoes for making tomato soup, and she offered up a great variety of which she had several pounds that were a little soft and were perfect for my purposes. And when I said I also wanted to make pickles, out came the tray of "too small" cucumbers that were, again, perfect. More on that in a bit.

A stop by the nursery to pick up some broccoli starts. I will start kale and peas from seed, but it seems like I always start my fall broccoli too late and never get good production, so I'll just get a jump with the transplants. They are going in a
bed that had bush beans which are now done producing, so they'll have plenty of time to get established before the weather turns cold.

Saturday night was th
e Nevada County Land Trust's annual fund-raising concert. It was at a new venue this year, Pilot Peak Winery, which turned out to be beautiful. By the time the second performer finished, it was after 11pm, the stars were out and the waning moon was just popping up over the horizon...

Let's just assume that after two glasses of wine at the concert (it was a winery, afterall) and getting home just after midnight, all I really wanted to do was sleep. So when I was wakened by chicken
squawking at 3am, I was pretty grumpy. Went out to investigate, and the chicken coop was still secure, though the perch had fallen down. Since I hadn't installed the hinges on it yet, it was possible that it just fell under the weight of the chickens shifting on the perches. It wasn't until 6:45 that my husband spotted the gray fox just down the hill from the coop. We thought everything was ok, until we noticed that Nina, our sole remaining hen from the original group, was bleeding around her beak. Her face had been scratched and the bottom of her beak half torn off. The fox had been able to stick a paw through the mesh and managed to get at her on the perch. We tried to clean up the blood to assess the damage, but you could tell she was in a lot of pain. We kept her under close observation, and forced her to drink, but she couldn't eat or drink with her beak damaged. So once again, my courageous husband took care of things. And then we attached fine wire mesh to the more open mesh of the large door. I don't think anything short of a bear could get to our chickens inside the coop now. And I attached the perch to the wall, the last, finishing touch.

Numbed, like my poor rooster, I focused on preserving the extra produce I purchased on Saturday. We put up four pints of garlic dill pickles, six cups of an Indian influenced relish and three and a half quarts of tomato soup. I want to put up some extra jars each week so that we can enjoy the fresh flavors deep in winter, when the produce is just a memory.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Harvest Day!

We have an egg! And a green egg at that! This means that one of the new chickens is part Ameracauna! There isn't any nutritional difference between colored and white eggs, but I like the range of colors. It just screams non-conformist, big-ag egg production and pays homage to home breed poultry diversity.

Now, there is a huge nutritional difference between pasture and true free-range animals. The yolks are vibrant, almost neon yellow-orange. But the difference goes far beyond just looks. Pastured animals are healthier and their eggs show it; less cholesterol, higher omega-3's, overall greater nutritional value.

Think your store-purchased "free-range" labeled eggs are really free-range? Most commercially produced eggs which are labeled free-range in fact have very little outside time on pasture. The birds are kept in a large barn for their first six weeks. After that, a door is opened to the outside, but most birds never actually go outside. If they do, they usually find an empty dirt lot to roam... Not exactly a pastoral process.

What to do? Check farmer's markets to find a local egg source. 4-H kids often raise chickens and have either eggs or extra chickens available for sale. If you have a neighbor with chickens, you can see if they have extra eggs they would be willing to sell.

Besides our first egg, we harvested our fingerling potatoes and the first of our tomatoes. If you look closely, you'll see that the tomatoes have extra protusions on the bottom of the tomatoes. Not sure what it's all about, but very cool and unique. The long, green pepper looking thing is a San Marzano tomoto. It fell off when DH poked at it. Even though it's green it tasted pretty good - you can see where we dared each other to nibble on the bottom end.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The chickens are back in town! Or so we hope. We have been busy bees, building a coop where the chickens will be secure at night from all possible predators. The coop could be prettier, but we used almost all recycled lumber we found on our property. Right now the coop is set up for summer. As we move into autumn the coop will have a top and back added to keep out the rain and wind. For now they need to open ventilation the hardware cloth provides.

Inside we have provided all the amenities that a busy chicken could desire. Egg laying boxes provide dark, quiet places to lay eggs. Notice the front and sloped roof to keep the chickens from messing up the egg boxes.

The spacious roost can accommodate at least ten c
hickens, fifteen at maximum. It also hinges out of the way for easy cleaning under the roost. A chicken door with ramp allows easy access, and the latch is raccoon proof, while a human door allows for egg collecting and cleaning of the cage. I'll get a bin to place under the coop for collecting their litter, which will then be composted and used the garden. Chicken poop is very hot (high in nitrogen) and can burn plants when applied right away. It must be allowed to compost and cool, and then it makes wonderful fertilizer, which will reduce the amount of fertilizer I'll have to purchase in the future.

Our two chickens have names now - Kazoo and Nina. Our little rooster is not so little anymore, and has begun to crow. At first this sounded like a strangled croak, but has now progressed to a respectable sound, but sounds reminiscent of a child with a kazoo... And I kept calling the remaining hen "my little girl", so Nina it is.

After the attack, we br
ought Nina and Kazoo inside our house every night for security, except for the last couple of nights when they have been in the new coop. However, we got some new chickens last night and everyone is not getting along. A friend's daughter has been raising chickens for 4-H, and had too many chickens, so I was able to purchase a few 2-year old laying hens from her. They aren't any particular breed, but they are full grown. We thought that they would defer to our chickens as the new birds are the proverbial new kids in town. However, our birds are about 2/3 the size of the others, and even roosting last night, they were being pecked by the new birds. I had planned to have them separated during the day for several days, but had to separate them immediately last night, bringing our two birds back inside.

Today the new girls are in the chicken tractor, where they can begin to gain a sense of their new home and not run off. Nina and Kazoo have free range and can see the new girls through the wire. I may set up the chicken tractor to be secure and just keep the new girls in there rather than trying to take them in and out of the coop, which is very stressful for the birds.

It's also worth mentioning that these new chickens are not only strangers to us, they have not been handled as much as our birds, and so being moved from their home last night, and again today out of the roost into the tractor were all very stressful situations. Hopefully we will have eggs in a day or two, if we can keep the stress levels low enough. They are being fed the same layer pellets, which includes calcium from oyster shells to support egg production, as they had previously.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hen Update

First off, let me say thank you to the outpouring of encouragement, love and hugs from everyone. I didn't think I'd loose it over some chickens, but they are my babies and it mattered.

The remaining hen seems to be holding her own. We were worried that she wasn't eating or drinking enough, but then she let loose all over DH and it was the right consistency and amount, so that's a good sign. I put them in a box inside last night until we can get a better coop outside to protect the remaining birds.

It just breaks my heart though to see the remaining two birds so listless and nervous. It's akin to seeing a child lose it's innocence. The rooster is very protective of his remaining hen, and they are just aimlessly moving around in thier normal paths, none of their normal madcap intensity.

When DH went to move the chicken tractor that they normally live in, he found that something had dug under the edge of the cage. Perhaps one of the small foxes that lives near the river?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

And then there were two?

So, something got three of our hens, and tore up the fourth hen, leaving me only the wounded hen and a rooster... I'm kinda upset this morning... Nothing to do at the moment though. Go to school, go to work, go to knit night. If DH warrants that the fourth hen isn't going to recover from her mauling then he will put her down this afternoon. Whoever remains will return to the back where the predators are less likely to come.

I'm, of course, questioning my wisdom in trying to do anything as it seems that everything keeps ending futilely. I haven't had much garden produce over the last three years due to various herbivores, and I'm desperately afraid something will happen this year too, despite the fencing. And my decision to go to grad school - maybe I'm not up for it and am making a foolish mistake. Maybe I'll feel better later. I wonder if it's too early for chocolate?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Garden Babies

An inspection of the garden reveals the fruits which will be ours, in some cases in a matter of days. We have baby tomatoes on most of the vines, baby watermelon, baby beans. There are the first of the female flowers on the acorn squash plants. Yipee!

In the meantime, look at these beautiful beefsteak tomatoes from Lisa's Petals and Produce, round zucchini from Blossom Hill, and cherry tomatoes from Natural Trading Company. Scrumptious! And then there's the locally produced, hormone-free bacon and sausage from Coffee Pot Ranch. DH is making a vegetable and sausage soup for dinner. It's summer dining at it's best.

And here is my fledgling rooster presenting one of my favorite comfort foods, chicken pot pie! We have been letting the chicks run around in the back before they begin their tour of the property in their chicken tractor. They have become confident enough to explore the front area of the house. One morning I came out and couldn't see or hear the chicks. As I'm listening more closely, Cassie, one of our cats, comes tearing around the corner from the front of the house, followed closely by the chickens! The cat took refuge behind my legs, while the chickens skidded to a stop in front me. When questioned, no one had anything to say, not a meow, nor a peep!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Guerrilla Gardening

No, I'm not about to tell the joke about winter squash plants being the equivalent of large primates sitting wherever they want in the garden. (Although that is exactly my acorn squash are doing at the moment - more pictures later.)

The basis of guerrilla gardening is the improvement of land at a community, grass-roots level. Or in t
his case, hardy perennials, even fruit trees and corn! The term was coined in the 1970's in New York to describe the clandestine gardening activities involving empty lots. The basics are simple: find an ignored, empty bit of orphaned land (like a median strip), recruit help in the neighborhood via community boards or join an existing "cell", set a work date and clean up the area. Of course, it's also recommended to leave the area clean, post some signs at the site or nearby about the rejuvenated space and be prepared to water the plants. Why does this strike my fancy? Being a rebel while doing one of my favorite activities and leaving the world just a little bit more beautiful are excellent reasons to be a guerrilla gardener.

Now, if I can just get these Aussies to raid the weeds in my garden, my life just might be complete until the next round of weeding! Perhaps this isn't the best example of clandestine activities, but it's certainly eye-catching.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Chicken Update - It's a boy!

Many of you have expressed your sympathy regarding our sick chick (thank you) and have asked for the next update about the rest of the "flock". The chicks are growing well and seem to be happy and content. They're really doing a number on the weeds. They have already cleared the area in front of our studio and beg my husband to be moved in the afternoons when he checks on them after work. They also have an endearing habit of running up to greet me when I squee at them.

Also, we have determined that one of our Wyandotte females is actually a male. No, he's not a gender challenged young chick, but obviously determining the sex of baby chicks is not a precise process and we got the result! Can you pick him out in the group photo? He's the one with the burgeoning red comb.

By the way, green legs on the Americaunas indicates green eggs from them in our future. Now to find green ham... Sources anyone?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Farm Bill and Food Safety

The recent $307 billion Farm Bill was passed into legislation, despite a veto from the president, which was overridden. This farm bill had the potential to overhaul our agriculture priorities and do away with subsidies which only pay for certain crops like corn and soybeans to mega-farms, but fell short of most advocates hopes.

On the upside, the farm bill is recognizing the need for access to healthy foods in many urban environments where convenience store junk food is the norm. The bill introduces a Healthy Urban Food Enterprise Development Center to increase access to fresh and healthy food options. Of course, they're also spending money to study the effects of "food deserts", as though there haven't been enough studies already conducted in this area...

In previous years, subsidies were only provided to farmers growing certain cash crops, like corn and soybeans. New subsidies will go to farmers of "specialty crops", what you and I would call fruits and vegetables, in an attempt to divert some subsidy money away from imitation calories like high fructose corn syrup. In the same vein, $1 billion will expand healthy snacks for kids programs in farm to school programs.

Increased support for farmers markets, support for socially disadvantaged farmers and farm-workers and support to use food stamps at farmers markets are more steps in the right direction.

This may sound far away from you, but let me remind you that we all need to eat everyday. In light of the recent tomato-salmonella contamination, it becomes apparent just how opaque and fragile our current model of food production truly is. As of today, the CDC still doesn't know the source of the contamination, and the first reported cases occurred over two months ago!

What to do? Buy local. Join a CSA (community supported agriculture). Shop at a farmers market. Ask your grocer where the produce comes from. Eat foods that are in season locally - you'll be amazed at the taste of a non-refrigerated tomato! As each of our dollars become more precious, use them wisely to purchase the healthiest and tastiest food that dollar will buy.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

On a Happier Note

Condo living - chicken style!

The chicks have been enjoying their new accomodations outside since Sunday. Each day their portable coop, also called a chicken tractor, is moved to fresh ground. They love to scratch for bugs and seeds in addition to their chick feed. We have them in an area that has been a milk thistle patch for the last couple of years despite efforts to get past it - I'm hoping that the chickens will take care of the seed load in the soil.

The coop is heavy enough to keep out most predators like bobcats, raccoons and foxes. They have fresh water daily, a place to perch and a safe area in the back half. For the moment the coop is very close to our studio so that we'll be able to hear any problems, and is also under the shade of the oak trees. We'll wait to move the coop into the open until they're older and bigger, at which time half of the coop will be covered in shade fabric.

Sad News

I suppose it's inevitable to expect casualties amongst your livestock, but heartbreaking nonetheless.

We awoke this morning to find one of our Buttercup chicks collapsed in the coop. She was chilled, couldn't stand or move her feet and legs. We brought her inside, cocooned her in toweling and on top of a heating mat on my lap to bring up her temperature, while we tried to figure out what was wrong.

We believe she had Marek's disease, a virus specific to chickens. There a few different forms of the disease, and she was presenting with classic Marek's, with leg paralysis. We kept her separated from the others, and tried to get her to eat, or at least drink. However, when the afternoon rolled around with no change and she still wasn't drinking water, even when we dipped her beak into it, we came to the hard decision to put her down. Huge thanks to my husband who wanted to spare me the agony of that process, and took care of everything.

There's no cure for Marek's. The terrible thing is that they can be vaccinated at birth against the disease, but the chicks I purchased from a feed store in Grass Valley were not vaccinated, so it's possible that the other three chicks from that location may also sicken, and have to be killed in turn. I'm waiting on information to see if I can still vaccinate the others, though if they are already incubating the disease vaccination will be pointless.

On the upside, my two Wyandotte chicks were purchased at a feed store in Auburn, where they request all of the chicks to be vaccinated as a matter of course. Also, a friend with poultry stated that he's rarely had more than one bird die at a time from Marek's or other diseases, so it's possible that the others will be ok.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Creative Potting

I garden on a hillside with very little topsoil, so everything is in raised beds, terraces and containers. As large pots increase exponentially in price according to size, most of my containers are unconventional to say the least.

I've used old-fashioned metal dryer drums, which have natural drainage holes for larger items like my blueberry bushes and pomegranate tree/shrub. Did I mention they're usually cast-iron steel? Those things last forever, and are great large planters that you never have to worry about rotting like half oak barrels.

Next was the BBQ pit planter made from a metal 55-gal drum. It was cut in half from top to bottom, and then welded to bent rebar legs. We discovered this gem hidden in the vinca on the hillside under our studio. You'd never have seen it from above, but I noticed it poking through the foliage while walking up from the river one afternoon. It was very rusted,
which made it easy to snap off the welds on the legs, and let it rest on the ground, where it now houses orangemint and catmint to keep them under control and out of mischief!

The old, rusted wheelbarrow has had the handles and wheel removed, and snugged into the dirt. The goblin flowers, a type of blanket flower, don't mind the varying depth of the planter and have filled in beautifully.

My latest pots were unearthed in the vinca by my husband - two white ceramic toilet tanks! I had run out of places to put the zinnias acquired while I was in Fresno for Mother's Day and these provided the perfect solution. Nice depth, nice ceramic finish, drain holes - what more could a girl ask for?

Oh, I should mention my worm bin. Many people have those nice, layered, stacking affairs. Not my worms though. My worm bin is the body of an old refrigerator, sans door. We added drainage holes to keep the worms from drowning in winter. The beauty of the fridge is the sheer volume - with that much cubic footage, the worms have plenty of room to self-regulate according to the seasons.

If you are willing to be flexible with your potting options, you'll find there are many containers waiting to be found or repurposed.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Corn and Beans

As part of my effort to eat fresh produce as well as preserve food for the rest of the year I'm planting a modest patch of corn and lots of beans. Given my husband's love of fresh corn, I doubt there will be much left over to save.

The beans on the other hand are much more exciting. I'm planting several kinds of bush beans and pole beans for fresh eating, drying and freezing. I love legumes for their versatility. Fresh, dried, canned, frozen - the opportunities are infinite. I dream of bean purée dips, chilled beans with pesto, fresh beans with mint and lemon...

My first introduction to Musica pole beans, a type of Romano bean, was through a coworker who brought in several pounds to work. At 8" long, these beans were perfectly tender and fresh, with an amazing flavor. I casually snacked on the beans for several hours, until just before closing, at which point I began to moan, "I don't feel good. My belly hurts!" Yes - there is such as too much of a good thing!

Like most things I plant, most of these are heirlooms, tried and true favorites for generations. Here's this year's lineup:
Bush Black Turtle (dry soup bean), Blue Lake (fresh or dry), mung (dry and sprouts), edamame (aka soybeans, fresh or frozen), Tendergreen (fresh or dry) and Black Kabouli Garbanzo (fresh, dry, hummus).

Pole Kentucky Wonder (fresh, frozen or dried), Musica (aka Meralda, fresh or frozen), and Painted Lady Runner Bean (fresh, frozen or dried).

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Easy Cleaning

I've run out of my favorite disinfecting soap, but rather than going to the store to get more, I'll simply step into my pantry to whip it together. It smells great, and best of all, it's easy on my skin and the environment. And did I mention that it cuts through grease, dirt, dust and hard water deposits? The following recipe comes from Clean Naturally by Sandy Maine. If you are interested in soap making and/or natural cleaning products, this is a book to check out.
Eucalyptus-Mint All-Purpose Disinfecting Soft Soap for Kitchen and Bath
5 cups grated castile soap1/2 cup baking soda1 tsp borax6 cups hot peppermint tea1 tsp eucalyptus essential oil
Put grated soap into a 3-qt stainless steel saucepan and add hot mint tea. Simmer for 15 minutes on low heat. Add baking soda, borax and eucalyptus oil. Store in a labeled plastic jug or squirt jug. Shake before using.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I've got my eye on you!

My chick babies are getting to an age where personalities begin to emerge. Just look at my Ameracauna - no names yet, but she's already emerging as the ring leader of the flock and is rapidly becoming my favorite. You can see in the picture that she's frequently keeping an eye on me. The other Ameracauna is almost as canny but is definitely playing second fiddle. The Wyandotte babies are a week younger than the others and still have a distinct pinball quality as they run around and under their cell mates.

The cold weather has prevented any field trips to the great garden outside. The cold is also slowing down bean seed germination. I may put up some floating row cover to warm up the soil, and maybe put the chickies in there too. The chicks need to remain between 85° and 95°F to stay healthy. You can see their feathers are growing in, but it's a slow process. In the meantime they must be protected from drafts and kept warm. There is a heating pad under one corner of their cage and a heat lamp, which allows the birds to self-regulate inside the cage.

Monday, May 26, 2008


Our artichokes are still producing, and our three year-old speciman is rather spectacular. Artichokes were a bit problematic in our garden microclimate. We're in the Bear River canyon, which tends to be 4-5° cooler than our neighbors due to the accumulation of cool air. This means that even though we are at a relatively low foothill elevation, we accumulate frost amounts similar to gardens in Nevada City, at double our elevation.

The extra frost we get in winter has previously set back the plants, so that about the time they have resprouted in spring, they do not have enough cool weather to produce flowers. This year I covered them with floating rowcovers, and they kept their foliage though the winter. This spring we have been rewarded with several weeks of artichokes. It looks like we'll have at least one more harvest, maybe two if the weather cooperates!

Sunday, May 25, 2008


My potatoes were planted about a month ago and are growing strongly. I'm using the bin method of growing them. The green tops can grow through the holes, and hay is added periodically to encourage the growth of potatoes, which is not a root, but a specialized plant stem. Traditionally, potatoes are "hilled up" to stimulate the growth of tubers. Growing in a bin means growing above ground, and means no digging for the potatoes at harvest time. Just open the bin and the potatoes spill out onto the ground!
You can see that it's time to add another layer of straw. I'm using rice straw which minimizes resulting grass weeds that could be introduced when using another type of straw such as oat or rye.

Oh - what kind of potatoes am I growing? Russian banana fingerlings, a particularly tasty variety with an amazing, creamy texture.

Tomato Time!

I was worried about not getting my heat loving plants in the ground the week of Mother's Day, and then it was too hot to plant. My tomatoes, squash and peppers would have been hard pressed to know if summer was coming or going the past two weeks, culminating in yesterday's rain showers. However, the soil temp is holding steady in the 80's, a great temperature for planting corn, beans, and other items from seed, and is also sufficiently warm for everything else to go in the ground.

So I've been trying to plant something everyday over the last week. Asters, eggplants, bush beans, and today, finally the tomatoes. A friend of mine grows a combination of new (to us) varieties mixed with old faves. Here's the rollcall for this year: Azoycha, Glacier, Siletz, Black Prince, Aunt Ruby's German, Mortgage Lifter, San Marzano Redorta, Sun Gold, and Pink Ping Pong. Most of these, new to us or not, are heirloom varieties, and represent a range of colors, sizes, purposes and maturation times.

Unless you shop farmer's markets or drool over seed catalogs you are probably unfamiliar with these varieties, as they are not grown in conventional, corporate fields. Most of the tastiest varieties do not hold up well during conventional harvesting, packing and transportation processes, and are therefore never known to supermarket shelves. What you get instead are those sawdust grocery store, second rate imitations pretending to be tomatoes.

San Marzano Redorta is an amazing paste tomato which will become canned and frozen sauce. Black Prince, Mortgage Lifter, Glacier and Siletz will probably be dried or canned in addition to fresh eating. Sun Gold and Pink Ping Pong will be lucky to make it into the house as they are some of my favorite fresh eating tomatoes.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Of Flowers and Compost

Spring has been unpredictable here in the foothills. In the last three weeks we have ranged from severe freezes to 100°, which has been tramautic for newly planted vegetable crops as well as developing fruits such as blueberries and apples.

However, the return of cool weather has prolonged these peonies and bellflowers. My friend assures me this is the lushest this flower bed has ever appeared. While the weather has played its role, we believe it to be the result of yearly compost and organic fertilizer applications. The low-dose pelleted manure not only feeds the plants slowly, the compost feeds and loosens the soil.

The compost we used this year our gardens came from Fulcrum Farm, a local biodynamic farm. In addition to their amazing compost, they have a grain CSA (community supported agriculture), raise heritage turkeys and host field trips to their farm.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I'm a chicken mommy!

One of our first steps to becoming locavores is to start our very own egg-production facility. The equipment is pretty simple - get some chicks, raise 'em up right, and in exchange for a home, protection and a yard to roam, they produce eggs! I love it!

These little gals are just a couple of days old in this photo - they've already been at home for a week now. The two in the front are Ameraucanas, which will produce blue/green eggs and the two in the back are Sicilian Buttercups, which produce white eggs. Not in the picture are the two new Wyandottes, which are great egg-layers. Right now they are cute little fuzzballs whizzing around the cage!

The cats are not sure about our new acquisitions. Jilly has been in my lap despite 100° heat, and until yesterday Cassie wouldn't come in further than the food dish. She managed to make it to the bed last night without first hissing at the chicks. Meanwhile, Jilly goes en garde when we take the babies into the garden, making her an excellent chicken nanny.

Our laying flock will begin to produce eggs in the fall. Due to our temperate region, chickens tend to continue with egg-laying through most of the winter, though at a reduced rate. We're now contemplating a second flock of broilers for meat production, though we're not sure about the economics of it, or who will actually kill the chickens. I'm ok with butchering and eating, being quite secure in my place on the foodchain as an omnivore, but the killing part... We'll have to figure that one out. I might personally have to become very hungry before I get comfortable with that step.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sustainable Agriculture Blog

What is sustainability? Is it important? Why? Give some examples of sustainable practices that could (some may already be) be implemented to improve the sustainability of agriculture? And, what are some ways that the consumer can contribute to the sustainability of agriculture?

Wow! Again - go look at some of my previous posts! Just kidding. I'll summarize my favorite ideas:

Reduce your carbon footprint - plant a garden! Never mind the fuel you save, using natural compost and green manure cover crops actually acts as a way to sequester carbon. Even a small patio container garden saves on overall emission contributions.

Buy locally. You can argue that it doesn't save money to buy from a local farmer. However it's proven that locally spent dollars generate more money, income, jobs, etc, within the community. Besides, I'd rather have a fresh juicy tomato or peach picked that morning than one stuck in a refrigerated box car for transportation. Also, farmers tend to have more interesting and flavorful heirloom varieties, which preserves our genetic seed diversity.

Did you know that THE big incentive for transporting food long distances is the ability of corporations to deduct the transportation costs on their taxes? So basically, our tax payer dollars are subsidizing the transportation of foods long distances, so that we get second rate foods at a "bargain" price...

Let your representatives know you support sustainable ag. The pending Farm Bill has the potential to turn our nation's ag production around, but not without your voice and support. Several recent university studies have proven that organically produced crops are equal or nearly equivalent in productivity and cost as their conventional counterparts. However, most large-scale farmers continue with their existing practices because of the financial incentives provided by the government to do it that way.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Food & the Environment

How do you predict that global warming will impact global food production in the future?

In California, we have a diverse climate that has traditionally allowed for the production of a wide range of foods. In fact, California is responsible for producing 95% of most of the nations's fresh produce. Production of warm season items such as tomatoes can continue most of the winter in the Imperial Valley near the Mexican border, while cool-weather strawberries are produced year-round on the foggy central coastline.

Much of the agriculture in our state relies on our predominately Mediterranean climate of cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Reservoirs store winter rain and snow, allowing for irrigation during the 6-7 dry months of the year. Climate predictions suggest a change in both the amount and type of precipitation - decreased amounts of precipitation, with less snow accumulation as a result of warmer average winter temperatures.

Other impacts of warmer temperatures are huge for agriculture. All fruits, including olives, need a certain amount of chill exposure in winter to initiate fruit production the next season. Fruit varieties tend to be selected by the number of chill hours appropriate for a region. Warmer winter temperatures of even a few degrees could result in too few chill hours, resulting in huge economic losses for entire regions as they are forced to replant with varieties which require fewer chill hours.

Warmer temperatures have many other impacts as well. Most insects respond to warmth accumulation, or degree days to initiate their life cycles for the season, while plants respond to either day length cues or warmth, or a combination of the two, and most birds respond strictly to day length cues. As temperatures climb, trees come into flower early, insects are productive longer, and their avian predators are out of sync, leaving harmful insect pests unchecked. Insect pollinators are also increasingly out of sync, leaving flowers unpollinated.

Some of the apparent boons of a warming climate in California mean a longer growing season, increased weed stimulation, increased insect pests and elevated CO2 levels. However, this all translates into increased water usage, at a time when we have less water to use.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


The information posted this week points out some of the negative impacts of the globalization of agriculture. What are some positive aspects of globalization? How does globalization impact your life? In your blog feel free to reflect on the negatives as well, many of which were pointed out in the readings for the week.

This touches on many of the issues I hold near and dear, namely, how can something which was manufactured or produced thousands of miles away really be good for me, the environment, or the global economy? Sure, it's nice to get raspberries for New Year's Eve champagne, or mangoes year round. And chocolate? I still give in to the impulse buy for a Hershy with almonds at checkout, even though it is not fair trade and probably produced using child labor and DDT. None of these things would be possible without the globalization of our economy.

I think the most important and overlooked commodity related to agriculture is not the seeds and fertilizers, but the knowledge needed to produce crops. Growing food is a knowledge-intensive endeavor, as anyone who has attempted a first time garden will understand. Annuals, perennials, dry or irrigated farming are just the tip of the iceberg. Most growers I talk to always confirm this idea that farming and gardening provide a constant schoolroom for learning. Cheaper and faster (almost instantaneous) communication has meant the translation of growing systems to far-flung regions, and the sharing of ideas and traditional systems has lead to new research focusing on not just the Green and Gene Revolutions, but especially the development of sustainable ag techniques.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Food Safety

Reflect and react to the following question: Whose responsibility is food safety? Give reasons for your answer.

This is sort of a toough question. You want to automatically reply, "It's the governments job; it's part of why we pay taxes like good, diligent citizens. Right?" However, since our government has a history of doing the bare minimum and leaving a lot up to "voluntary" reporting on the part of the producers, including recalls of known bad foods. However, the government at the same time has initiated procedures that make it very difficult for the small-scale producer or home grower to produce foods that meet USDA requirements.

Most of these requirements have very little to do with foods that are produced and consumed at a local or personal level. For example, take a look at what most dairy producers must do to sell their products: separate bathroom and washing facilities from the home, daily processing of milk, a separate, paved entrance to the dairy from the main road, and certain voltage lighting located a specified distance from the storage tanks. Not to mention that you can't sell raw milk in most states - it must be at least pasteurized. If traveling long distances then it is usually ultra-pasteurized to stabilize the product, destroying much of the nutritional value.

Another example of our government letting us down is the 1% testing for mad cow disease. When Great Britain had outbreaks of the disease, they took extensive measures to ensure the safety of beef. Most cattle were tested, and regulations were put in place to quarantine infected soils and destroy infected animals. After two years, they were able to continue their beef production. Most countries test a very high rate of animals, and destroy animals who potentially exhibit early signs of the disease. In our country, we barely test and testing and reporting is voluntary on the part of the producers. Who is protecting who? Sounds like the producers are getting it easy, while consumers are getting a questionable, but cheap product...

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Organic Food Production

This week Blog about what the term "organic" means in the U.S. Is it good or bad for the food industry and the consumer that the term was legally defined by the federal government? Are organic foods better for people and the environment than traditionally produced food? What are the drawbacks to organic food production? How do you feel about the "big business" of organic i.e. retailers like Whole Foods??? Make sure you are supporting your claims with valid evidence....Include anything else that interests you...

Holy crap - like I could put everything I think about "organic" food production into one blog topic. I read entire books on this subject, have spent the last three years of my life selling organic farm and garden supplies and am preparing my grad school application to get a PhD in sustainable ag!

Seriously though, I recently posted about a series of independent short films about sustainable/organic food production and its impacts. I really liked one of the points made in Ripe for Change, that for not just organic production, but for sustainable production, you look at other factors than just using non-synthetic inputs, especially socio-economic and ecological factors. For example, most of our world concerns about hunger really are issues of poverty and distribution rather than food production.

Some of the biggest drawbacks to defining organic is the abuses that can then take place when the letter, but not the underlying intent, of the law is followed. For example, many big-ag corporations and farms are simply substituting non-synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for their synthetic forms and are otherwise carrying on as normal. Loop holes for increasing organic herd size were abused by several large scale dairies seeking to produce organic milk. Lack of action by the USDA-NOP in response to complaints about label-violations for large scale organic dairy producers such as Horizon and Aurora (producers of "organic" milk for Safeway, Costco and large markets) has resulted in a class-action lawsuit for misrepresentation and other violations.

It really boils down to the fact that a lot of truly organic production relies on integrity, which is hard to legislate.

Many large scale organic productions still rely heavily on petroleum for fuel and transportation. Is it really organic when it traveled several thousand miles? Can we trust the so-called organic practices of Mexico or China? Is it better to buy locally produced, uncertified produce from a farmers market or certified organic in the supermarket imported out of season from a foreign country? Is the food still as nutritious when not all of the practices are followed? Are the farm laborers being paid a living wage?

Unfortunately, the grass isn't necessarily greener on the other side depending on one's practices. Many of the natural and organic inputs used in organic and/or local farming such as rock powders and natural pesticides and fungicides, such as sulfur and copper, are strip mined and shipped to distributors before ending up in the soil or on plants. Also, natural sulfur and copper are dangerous compounds which must be used with as much care as their synthetic counterparts - breathing masks, gloves, goggles and long-sleeved clothing are recommended to as protective gear for the home user, and required for the commercial grower. People have a mistaken notion that natural equals safe to which I reply, "Arsenic is completely natural and will kill you just as dead."

The lack of good research into organic productivity is finally changing. A recent 13-year study at the University Wisconsin published in the March-April 2008 issue of Agronomy Journal found that organic cropping systems can be as productive, or nearly productive, as conventional systems.

Conventional food producers would have you believe that food is equally tasty and nutritious. However, over 40 studies, summarized by The Organic Center, keep proving that organic produce is more nutritious than it's conventionally produced counterparts.

However, the spirit of the eco-farm movement continues. Permaculture, biodynamic and local and sustainable ag are current hot topics for research. These farming regimes are the answer for improving farming practices in marginal areas around the world where the Green Revolution failed to improve local agriculture, and in some cases increased the rates of soil erosion, desertification and removed local farmers from the land.

Even the United Nations has changed it tune about importance of organic production in their most recent FAO report, Organic Agriculture and Food Security. Here are some highlights from the report:

  • Global food supply is sufficient, but 850 million are undernourished and go hungry
  • Use of chemical agricultural inputs is increasing; yet grain productivity is dwindling to seriously low levels
  • Costs of agricultural inputs are rising, but commodity costs have been in steady decline over the past five decades.Knowledge is increasingly provided through fast information technologies, but nutritionally related diseases are rising
  • Industrialised food systems cause deaths through pesticide poisonings and high numbers of farmer have committed suicides, while millions of jobs have been lost in rural areas.
In contrast, organic agriculture offers an alternative food system that improves agricultural performance to better provide access to food, nutritional adequacy, environmental quality, economic efficiency, and social equity. This is crucial if agricultural production in developing countries is to rise by 56 percent by 2030 to meet nutritional needs, as stated in the Report.

Want to learn more? In addition to the eco-farm links above, check out the following links for more info:

Want to eat local/organic food but don't know where to find it or what to do with it?

Criticisms of conventional ag

What I believe about the future of ag is probably best summed by this statement from ATTRA about organic production practices:
No agriculture can continue to feed a growing population if it depletes or fouls its resource base. The path undertaken by conventional agriculture is ultimately a dead end in this regard, though there is an almost mystical faith that genetic engineering and other complex technologies will always triumph. Agriculture needs to be sustainable. Therefore, those who promote organic agriculture as a true alternative are well advised to do their part in ensuring that certification and regulation does not create a “compliance agriculture” in which sustainability becomes little more than an afterthought.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Bioprospecting or Biopiracy?

While studying our two weeks of biotechnology, in which we have discussed the positive possibilities of genetic modifications, I have been participating showing independent food films at the Briar Patch, which gives another  view than that espoused in our text.

In 1930 the United States passed the Plant Patent Act, which provided a 20-year patent restricting asexual production on protected varieties.  It differs from a regular patent in that it does not involve manufacturing or "making" the plant.  This gave limited patent rights to varietal developers and plant breeders, but didn't give them ownership of the lifeforms they developed.

That changed in 1980 when the Supreme Court awarded an appeal to patent an oil-eating microbe in the case Diamond v. Chakrabarty, which allowed the patenting of a life form.  This in turned was the basis for a 1987 decision by the PTO to extend patenting to all altered or engineered animals.  Now "bioprospecting" or as some call it, "biopiracy" is rampant.  

Our recent reading has lead us to believe that using biotech as a form of natural selection does not seem to play out when reviewing new varietals and proposed patents.  Universities, pharmaceutical and big-ag companies are trying to capitalize on all sorts of life forms, not all of it microbial in nature.  Monsanto is one of the worst offenders, and they're doing it hand-in-hand with our government.  Most of Monsanto's board of members are current holders of key government positions.

Want to learn more?  Here's some movies I've watched lately:  Future of Food, Ripe for Change, King Corn, and Fridays at the Farm.  Most of these movies have excellent websites with related links and suggested readings for more information. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Biotechnology II

OK, so last week you chose a agricultural crop that is produced using biotechnology. Take some time to read about the crops others wrote about. Get a general feeling for the types and volumes of crops where biotech is used. What are your thoughts around the use of biotechnology for food production? What are the positives (society, production & environment) as well as the downside? Make sure you do the reading for this week before blogging! :)

A discussion this morning with a local organic veggie producer wound around to the topic of biotech and genetically modified (GM) crops. GM crops are not allowed in organic production, and are generally against the grain of most ecologically minded growers. Most of these growers would probably style themselves as agroecologists, if they know the term, and are against most of the methodology of the Green Revolution.

Agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design, development, and management of sustainable agricultural systems. With this definition, cropland is viewed as an ecosystem first, rather than an economic or industrial model. Crop rotation, selecting appropriate crops/varieties, composting, using little or no pesticides and creating refuges for beneficial insects are all tools for good ecosystem management when producing crops.

Therefore the questions beg to be asked: what happens when you genetically alter the traditional organisms within the ecosystem? What happens when you destroy portions of the system with soil degradation, loss of soil biology, salinization, and further pollute and kill other organisms through the use of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides?

However, with gene mapping, it doesn't seem unreasonable to speed up natural plant breeding techniques to use existing modifications across closely related species. You could theoretically create those crosses through breeding trials (and error), looking for the ideal mutation or cross. My friend even thought that using biotech methods to produce these GM crops is one of the best uses of biotechnology. However, she was very clear that she drew the line at introducing radically different species genes into our food. For example, fish DNA into tomatoes, or Bt into cotton or corn.

In the past weeks we have been discussing the merits and deficits of the Green Revolution (GR), and how does GM fit into the future of food production. In a policy brief published by Food First, they list ten reasons why trying to introduce the GR again in Africa will not produce any better results the second time. Most of the reasons have to do with the issues around the the components that made the GR successful where it was successful. Industrial-style agriculture, expensive technology packages, increased use of fertilizers and pesticides increased and/or exacerbated existing health, environmental and economic consequences in more marginal areas, and did not increase the ability of poor people to grow or buy more food.

At the same time, promoters of organic and sustainable farming practices are producing studies showing that agroecology practices can produce similar amounts of food as conventional, industrial style ag using GM crops. The key difference is the management of the underlying land use. The practices previously mentioned may take more time, but leave the soil in at least a similar, or possibly improved, condition from season to season and can be practiced in most rural and marginal regions. It has marginal production costs, can be accessed by the poor, and has environmental benefits. An evaluation using these principles for rice production is summarized in a Cornell University paper.

Well, I'm slightly off-topic or not, depending on your point of view... To summarize, yes labeling and accountability is important. So is choosing what and how to tinker with the genetic material of other organisms. Is relying on biotech and a Gene Revolution in addition to a Green Revolution the whole answer? No!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


The European corn borer (Ostrinia nubilalis) is a pest of corn, particularly in large corn growing regions of the US Sout, Midwest, and Africa.  In the past, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis ssp kurstaki) have been used as a targeted spray.  Bt sprays traditionally only affect animals with alkaline guts, which are mainly the Lepidoptera order of insects.  The adult moth lays clusters of eggs on corn leaves.  Once hatched, the larva infest the developing ears of corn, where the encasing husks prevent adequate control by sprays, except for the brief time between hatching and entering the ear.  Bt must be ingested by the larva in sufficient quantities to have an killing effect.  Non-target pesticides are also often used, which has a greater impact on non-target species, including beneficial insects.
Bt corn was introduced in 1996.  There are four genetic modifications, or transgenic events used for Bt corn production, developed by different biotech companies and having different results in the corn itself.  Combinations of various promoter genes in combination with different portions of the Bt genome can result in the gene expressing at different times in the crop, and may or may not be expressed in the grain itself, only the foliage.
Advantages to using Bt corn include minimizing timing issues for pesticide application, no special application equipment, no need for personal protective gear during application, is compatible with biological control.  As Bt is an order specific pesticide, it has minimal effects on non-target pests and may control other corn pests of the Lepidoptera order (earworm, fall armyworm, Indianmeal moth, black cutworm, and southwestern corn borer) and reduces the need for pest monitoring.  Also, as most corn varieties become increasingly susceptible to secondary fungal infections after being weakened by the corn borer, Bt presence also mitigates fungal infections.
The disadvantages are primarily the seed cost and variable pest populations, development of Bt resistance by pests, impact on non-target organisms, variation in effectiveness, marketing of Bt grain, cross-pollination of Bt corn and non Bt corn.  In 1999, Cornell University published the results from a poorly designed trial which suggested that Bt contaminated pollen represented a threat to monarch caterpillars.  This was later refuted as pollen contamination rarely reaches lethal levels, there is limited overlap during pollen presence and caterpillar presence and that only a portion of caterpillars will feed on milkweeds adjacent to cornfields.  
Recommendations have been made to plant non Bt corn in fields adjacent to Bt corn to reduce the development of Bt resistance in the corn borer.  As resistance is believed to be a recessive allele, increasing the chances of a Bt resistant moth mating with a non-resistant moth, with a high chance of producing more non-resistant offspring.  However, this planting strategy increases the amount of pollen contamination to non Bt corn nearby.
The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) lists hybrids which have full food and feed approval for the 2008 planting season in the US.  The information includes regulatory information, as well as the trade names, characteristics and genetic events for all of the current GM hybrids currently available.