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February 22, 2010 - It was my good fortune to attend the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association Conference this weekend. Held in Granville, Ohio (what a jewel of a town!) at the positively palatial junior high, it was just a treat. Workshop leaders from all over the state converged on Granville, intent upon sharing their expertise. Here is just a sample of some of the workshops I didn’t attend, but know I would have thoroughly enjoyed: Fresh Mozzarella and Ricotta Cheese in Your Own Kitchen, How to be a Successful Farmers’ Market Vendor, Ecological Design in the Garden, Building Green, Living Green; Basic Off-Grid Living, Pruning and Training of Apple Trees, Forest Farming American Ginseng and Goldenseal – you get the idea. The variety and currency of the topics were, in the truest sense of the word, awesome.

I do want to tell you about the sessions I attended. My first workshop was about Small-Scale Intensive Farming Systems. This two hour long class was led by Andy Pressman and Lee Rinehart, and served as an introduction to three production methodologies: SPIN (Small Plot INtensive) Farming, Biointensive Mini-Farming, and Permaculture. Andy and Lee began by emphasizing the importance of removing heavy metals from the soil, particularly if you are an urban farmer. Workshoppers were advised that plants which are members of the Mustard Family will take up lead and other heavy metals very readily. This is, however, an ongoing kind of an approach, one that will take several years. If a more direct approach is desired, the offending soil can, of course, be removed and replaced. This requires digging to a depth that lies beyond the root zone – a big job, make no mistake. The poisoned soil should be regarded as a hazardous material, and a call to your State Hazmat people could well be in order when it comes to disposing of the tainted dirt. It should not simply be transferred and spread around.

As you have no doubt already assumed, these production methods involve close planting. Standard-size beds for a commercial operation are 2 feet wide and 25 feet long. Preparation of the beds is, ideally, accomplished with a walk-behind tractor.
The brand names “DR” and “Troybilt” were mentioned briefly, accompanied by a wrinkling of the nose which indicated that something smelled bad. While the presenters were willing to admit that these rototillers had their place, it was both their opinion that the European-made walk-behind tractors were best suited to the job in hand. I am quite certain that the tractors constitute a significant investment, but over the long term would pay for themselves in improved soil tilth and increased production. Apparently they are all that is used by European small holders. (Questions arise, of course, with regard to the tractor’s inefficient small engine and the resulting pollution.)

Cover cropping is another important element of intensive farming. Cover crops, also known as green manure, are legumes – plants that are capable of fixing nitrogen in the soil. It is stored there until needed by your next, presumably nitrogen-hungry, crop. Cover crops such as oats and field peas die off during the winter, the resulting biomass can either be turned under and planted with spring crops, or simply serve as a vegetative cushion through which the seed is inserted. Rye and vetch can both be planted late in the season, growing primarily in the spring. Spring and summer crops are the beneficiaries. Anytime soil is not in use, it should be growing a cover crop.

Next came soil fertility. In addition to cover cropping, the addition of various amendments to the soil was recommended. Among them were alfalfa pellets, cottonseed meal, blood meal, and bone meal. It should be mentioned that, these days, it is possible that cottonmeal could well contain GMO’s. For those of us not growing for commercial purposes, peat moss, wood chips, wood ash, and compost are all worthy of consideration. Ohio soil is frequently so terrible that interventions are not simply a good idea. They are inevitable. Raised beds are a frequent alternative; essentially they constitute soil replacement.

Here, then, are some biointensive essentials:

- deep soil preparation
digging the first 12 inches, forking the next 12
- composting
- close planting
- synergistic interplanting
locating plants which benefit each other next to each other
- use of carbon-efficient crops
efficient use of carbon is furthered by digging in compost and crop refuse
- planting of calorie-efficient crops
this was not well explained
- planting of heritage plants
the seeds can be saved
- putting beneficial bugs and microbes to work
love those lady bugs!

Along with a healthy dose of permaculture:

- grow vertically where possible
- grow in layers
layer 1: trees
layer 2: bushes
layer 3: other perennials
layer 4: herbs
layer 5: climbers and vines
layer 6: annual crops
layer 7: roots and tubers

Some recommended websites:

Other workshops I attended were about rainwater harvesting, raising backyard chickens, biodynamic farming, and transition initiatives. Allow me a brief word about each of them.

Rainwater Harvesting: Plastic rain barrels cost anywhere from $60.00 to $200.00. Wooden barrels, while aesthetically pleasing, are prohibitively expensive. They should be made of dark-colored, food-grade plastic. Barrels should be emptied before the onset of freezing temperatures, flipped over, and weighted with a rock.

Backyard Chickens: I came away knowing what I had guessed all along - that they would be a distinct problem for someone like me. Angry neighbors, predatory animals (read dogs), and unlovely structures (chicken tractors, chicken houses) are a bad combination anywhere, but especially when you live in a subdivision.

Biodynamic Farming: This was not my introduction to the subject, otherwise I would have been utterly lost. Best to read up about it first.

Transition Initiatives: This was especially interesting, as I discovered that Transition Anderson was the 43rd official Transition Initiative in the United States, and the first in Ohio. Anderson Township is located a few townships south of where I live. The energetic founder, Debbie Webber, attended the workshop, where I signed her membership list and offered to make phone calls and stuff envelopes. Debbie also founded Transition Cincinnati. There are other communities in transition in the Cincinnati area as well: Delhi Township, Price Hill, Green Township, and Northside. It was heartening to know that not everyone in Cincy is asleep at the wheel.


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