Stacking Functions Garden


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Milkapalooza!

Yes, there is an event called Milkapalooza, and yes of course we went to it this weekend. It was a blast. Anneke, it turns out, is a natural at milking cows:

The event featured tours of the Minars’ farm, and I eagerly soaked up every minute. This was our opportunity to see where our milk comes from! And considering how much yogurt, butter, and ice cream we make with their milk/cream, a fair amount of our family’s daily calories come from this patch of grass and cows near New Prague, Minnesota. Here are some of the highlights from the tour:

Here’s the winter hoop house (not sure if that’s the right term) — it’s a simple structure where the cows go in cold weather. There is no barn for them to sleep in — this is it.  The bedding at the bottom is turned frequently, and as it decomposes, it heats up (this is all part of the process, as those of you who compost know). The heat is plenty for the cows, even in Minnesota winters.

The milk parlor was a little dark, so sorry for the low quality.  I’ve only seen a handful of milk parlors, including my Grandpa Rensenbrink’s very low-tech one, so this was very impressive. They can milk 32 cows at once!  Looking at the picture, basically cows would be facing you. The person goes down a set of stairs into a galley where they have easy access to all the udders to hook up the machines. It was pretty neat and efficient, and very clean.

The family raises pigs and chickens too, but not for commerce necessarily (that I know of anyway). Those were some darn happy pigs. Anneke naturally thought they were completely adorable and said that one in particular looked exactly like Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web.

Finally, the cows themselves. My, what beautiful girls. The milking herd is about 150 cows, which seemed like a small number to me (not really sure on that though). They have several different breeds including brown jerseys like this one. So, Cedar Summit Farms is different from conventional and even some organic dairies in several key ways:

1. The cows eat grass, and stored hay in winter. Quite a bit of acreage is required to grow that much “pasture salad,” as the tour guide called it.  Apparently when they switched from grains to grass, milk production went down.  But so did costs, so things balanced out in the long term.

2. Calves get to stay with their mother for 4-6 weeks after birth. Apparently you get much healthier calves this way.

3. The cows live a bit longer than they would if they lived on concrete, inside, their whole lives.

4. The cows still become hamburger, after 5-6 pregnancy and lactation cycles.  Sorry, but it’s true.

I know very little about dairy farming. But I liked everything I saw and heard at the farm this weekend. There were so many things to think about — and I’ve already gone on and on about how much healthier grass-based dairy products are.

This is going to sound a bit melodramatic, but I looked at this farm and saw a way to save the rural America I grew up in and love.  By making farming a bit less efficient, you instantly need many, many more farmers than we currently have.  Farms get smaller again.  Families can be supported by a smallish farm.  Rural communities have an economy again.  Everyone wins.  You can set aside the health, environmental, and animal welfare implications of “agribusiness” as we know it, and the bare economic facts point to smaller, greener farms being much better for people and communities.

Now the challenge: how to talk people into making the switch to milk that costs twice as much. And, how to get the government to subsidize farm programs that actually benefit real farmers instead of corporations — because conventional dairy farming, like so much else in our society is partially a product of subsidies both to corn and oil. It’s not sustainable. Things have got to change.

[ Blushes, thanks you very kindly for reading this far, and steps off soap box ]


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DIY potato tower

Last fall I came across this idea for a way to grow lots of potatoes in a very small space.  This year I’m trying it in my yard.  I made a couple of improvements on Stefan’s design, after eavesdropping (so to speak) on a conversation on his Facebook page.  Without further ado, here’s how I did it:

1. Bend some steel fencing into a 36-inch diameter circle and fasten. Ours is nearly 5 ft. tall, but it does NOT need to be… 3-4 feet tall would be plenty.

2. Make a nest of straw in the bottom, and fill it with a 50-50 mixture of compost and old leaves.  Nestle 5-7 seed potatoes, with eyes pointing to the outside, all the way around the circle.

3. Get a soaker hose in there, too.  Continue layering up: straw, compost/leaves, seed potatoes, soaker hose, repeat until you run out of seed potatoes.  Put a final topping of compost and straw on top, and you’re done.  Here’s another view:

Here’s the completed potato tower:

It needs to be in a sunny location. Stefan of Growing Lots claims that people have gotten upwards of 25 lbs of potatoes from 5 lbs of seed potatoes in towers like these.  The two main changes that we made from his design are putting in the layers of straw, adding the dry leaves, and the soaker hose.  He pointed out that it’s really difficult to water the lowest layers, without it.

And here’s what it looked like about 3 weeks later (about a week ago). The plants are even bigger now.  There aren’t quite as many sticking out of the bottom as I would have thought, but it seems like the majority of the seed potatoes sprouted.  Now we wait!

See the post from Fall 2011 when we harvested our potatoes.


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A complete takedown of the USDA guidelines

Interested in nutrition, and the new USDA dietary guidelines?  This is a must-read, study-by-study breakdown of the new eating rules the USDA has decided are good for us.  Here’s a quote that spoke to me:

A recent Dutch study showed that full-fat fermented dairy was inversely associated with death from all causes and death from stroke. A large study of Australians, published in 2010, showed that full-fat dairy appears protective against cardiovascular death. Yet another study, this one from 2005, showed a significant inverse association between full-fat dairy consumption and colorectal cancer. Another study still linked vitamin K2 from full-fat cheeses to reduced risk of death from all causes, as well as a reduction in aortic calcification. And a review from 2009, examining 10 different dairy studies, noted that some types of saturated dairy fat have a neutral effect on LDL, and full-fat cheese—compared to other dairy products—seems to have the strongest inverse relationship with heart disease.

And that’s just the section on whether fat-free/lowfat dairy products are your best choice.  Read the whole thing; it’s spectacular. (via Michael Pollan)


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The Grocery Budget, 2010

(Final harvest, October 2010)

I’ve just completed my yearly review of our grocery budget.  Despite my big goal of reducing our grocery expenses in 2010, we actually increased how much we spent.  #sadtrombone

To review:
Total grocery expenditure, 2008: $7,661
Total grocery expenditure, 2009: $7,609
Average for both years: around $640 a month

Now for 2010:
Total grocery expenditure, including CSA: $8,273
Monthly average: around $665

Yikes, that’s $25 more per month!  How did this happen?  A few reasons off the top of my head:

  • We switched to butter from grass-based cows. Sometimes I make it myself, sometimes I buy PastureLand butter.  Either way, it’s both expensive and tasty. And packed with vitamins of course.
  • We bought our meat mostly in the form of meat bundles from the co-op.  You get nicer cuts of meat, like steaks, roasts, etc., for a lower per-pound price.  When we buy meat off the shelf we tend to just get the cheapest cut we can find.  Nobody needs that many drummies.
  • Started buying more non-food items, like soap and toothpaste, at the co-op.  This is partly to avoid going to Target, and also partly to try and support local merchants.  So, I should really run our Target numbers because we probably reduced our monthly Target bill by at least $25.  There.  I feel better already.

SO instead of being unrealistic about 2011, how about this: I will just try to hold the line and not increase again this year.  The only major difference coming up this year is that we are discontinuing our CSA.  I was disappointed in the amount of produce we received in our weekly box.  I also have plans for some major garden expansion this year, so we might be able to grow enough of our own to have plenty to eat and still put some by for next winter.

Here are my grocery budget posts from last year: Part 1 | Part 2


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BPA and canned tomatoes

Sorry for the light posting schedule lately; as it turns out, having two full-time working adults in a family really cuts into blogging time.  ANYWAY.

I posted in August about our crazy weekend of canning tomatoes.  Because we buy organic tomatoes, and because our CSA delivers them right to our door, we save very little money canning our own tomatoes vs. buying canned tomatoes at the store. So why go through the effort?  One reason: BPA.

Bisphenol-A, which many different plastic products contain, has been shown to have some worrisome side effects, especially on fetuses and children, because it mimics the hormone estrogen.  Canada was recently the first country to declare it toxic.  (Has Canada ever considering annexing Minnesota?  I’d be all for it.)

The United States’ own FDA is also concerned, but I am skeptical that they will ever do anything beyond encouraging industries to try and find a replacement.  (They prefer to merely ask them, really, really nicely.)

The big brouhaha a couple years back with BPA was its use in infant bottles and linings of infant formula cans — many of those brands now offer BPA-free alternatives.  But what many people didn’t realize was just how prevalent this stuff is — nearly any can of food that you buy in the grocery store is lined with BPA.  Even store receipts are printed on BPA-coated paper!

Some applications of BPA are probably worse than others.  Canned tomatoes are very acidic.  Canned garbanzo beans, not so much.  Yet, right now none of the organic canned tomatoes for sale at my co-op are in BPA-free cans.  The only glass-jarred tomato products are the strained tomatoes and tomato paste from Bionaturae.  (And those travel all the way from Italy, good grief.)

Here’s another thing to consider: even home-canning is not perfect, because the lids of canning jars are also coated with BPA.  But I’m taking a “less harm” approach here — the tomatoes, as they sit on my shelf for the next few months, are not in contact with the lid at all.  So it’s not perfect, but still better.  Right?  I hope so, because that was a lot of work.

Update, Nov. 8, 2010: Here’s yet another article that I came across this morning.  Basically, a consumer group found unacceptable BPA levels in a bunch of different foods.  Two things to note: this article is one year old.  The U.S. is still only requiring “voluntary” efforts from the food industry.

Update II, Nov. 30, 2010: Now a new study looks at BPA’s effect on adult immune systems. The study also looked at triclosan’s correlation with allergies in children.  Triclosan is another common chemical found in all sorts of things (such as anti-microbial soaps).

Update III, April 4, 2011: Yet another study. This one measured BPA in people’s urine; after only three days of switching to a diet of freshly-prepared organic food, they dropped 66% on average!

The cooks were instructed to avoid contact with plastic utensils, and nonstick cookware and foods had to be stored in glass containers with BPA-free plastic lids. Researchers even told food preparers not to overfill the containers so the food wouldn’t touch the plastic lid.

Microwaving in plastic was out; so was using coffee makers with plastic parts. Coffee drinkers got their morning coffee from French presses or ceramic drip models.

I switched to French Press quite some time ago, but didn’t even think about the plastic implications. I did it for the taste, naturally.  Anyway, check out this study, the most convincing one yet, in my opinion.


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Growing woody fruit plants in the midwest

Being a Hennepin County Master Gardener is great.  Among other reasons, we have monthly meetings with an education component, and the speakers are usually pretty great.

I recently saw a presentation by Rebecca Koetter, who manages demonstration plots at the Urban Forestry & Horticulture Research Institute at the U of M.  She was kind enough to post her presentation (a powerpoint file) to her blog for anyone to download.  So have at it!  There were a couple slides that I found particularly helpful:

Slide 6: a breakdown of commitment levels and fruits to match.  Basically, she breaks fruits down into three levels of commitment:

Relatively low time commitment: elderberry, currant, gooseberry, juneberry, apricot
Medium time commitment: pear, plum, tart cherry, blueberry, kiwifruit
High commitment: apple, grape

Raspberry isn’t on this list but I’d put it somewhere between low and medium.  Standard strawberries are also low-medium, while alpine (wild) strawberries are low.

Slide 19: another great slide that shows the oxygen radical absorbance capacity (aka antioxidant power) of various berries.  The two highest berries (by far) just happen to be ones that we can grow right here in USDA hardiness zone 4: choke berries (aronia berries) and elderberries.  Sadly I have NEITHER of these in my yard.  This will have to be remedied.

Slide 45: a while back I saw a whole bunch of beautiful pictures of apple trees growing up the sides of walls; apparently training an apple (or other fruit) tree to do this is referred to as the art of espalier.  Traditionally it was done to achieve certain aesthetic goals; today it is very useful for growing fruit trees in really small spaces.  I am intrigued and a little intimidated by the concept.  Now that I know the name of what I’m looking for, I will search the library for a book on it.

Anyway, those were the slides I enjoyed most, but if you’re thinking about fruits you could try in your yard, there are a lot of options in the presentation.  Enjoy!  And if you have any questions about the content, feel free to ask in the comments and I can check my notes.


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The Coming Famine

Here’s another book to add to my list: The Coming Famine, by Julian Cribb.  Mark Bittman reviewed it for the NY Times today.  Basically, Cribb contends that we’ve reached peak food production (along with peak oil), and warns that our food system could collapse without major changes.  From the review (emphasis mine):

He proposes subsidizing small farms for their stewardship of the earth, and paying them fairer prices for production; taxing food to reflect its true costs to the environment; regulating practices that counter sustainability and rewarding those that promote it; and educating the public about the true costs of food. “An entire year of primary schooling” should be devoted to the importance of growing and eating food, he suggests.

An entire year of home ec.  Yes.  Read the whole review here.  My library doesn’t have this book in their catalog yet, but I’ll be watching for it.

Update, 8/26/2010: Apparently this topic is really gaining steam.  Here’s a review of another book about essentially the same thingEmpires of Food by Evan D.G. Fraser looks at the food systems of empires that failed, such as the Roman empire, and draws parallels with today.  So much reading to do…

Update, 8/27/2010: Gaining steam, speeding up:  The Atlantic Monthly’s round-up of stories related to this topic.


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Natura Farms

Our CSA share includes two “farm day” events where we can visit one of the farms that we get our produce from, have a potluck picnic and take a tour of the farm (including picking some produce for ourselves).  Saturday’s event was at Natura Farms in Scandia, Minnesota.  I have never been so excited to be on a farm.  It’s small: only 57 acres.  This is TINY by today’s standards.  Even my Grandpa Rensenbrink’s dairy farm in the 1950s was over 100 acres.  But to see organic vegetable production at this scale totally blew me away, and humbled me (click pictures to enlarge).

All the kids in the group got really excited about picking and eating black and red currants — they have A LOT of currant bushes.

Look at all the kohlrabi!

And here’s some kale that could use a bit of weeding.  I was a little surprised at how weedy some of the rows were, but honestly, weeds are a fact of organic agriculture — when you’re weeding by hand, and you have this much to do, you’re just not going to hit up every row every day.  And weeds can often grow a foot in 2 days.

Onions.  Some of their crops have plastic mulches for weed control.  Paul, the farm manager, explained how some high-quality plastic mulches can be re-used for several years.  Makes sense.  My personal methods for weed control, including organic mulches like woodchips and straw, are really a lot harder at a large scale.

Lots and lots of pepper plants (more than 15 varieties), with apple orchard behind.

They have several windbreaks such as this one.  These are one way of preventing erosion and protecting plants from wind damage.  From the Natura website:

We’ve doubled the organic matter in the soil and more than doubled the depth of our topsoil. Earthworms love our rich soil – you can literary smell the life in it instead of petrochemical toxins. We’ve practically eliminated soil erosion by wind or water. Elevated organic matter, a multitude of windbreaks and grass middles between rows of berries, grapes and apple trees all help us achieve healthy soil.

My favorite part was when Paul mentioned that one of his favorite fertilizers is diluted molasses.  He mixes molasses, fish emulsion, and other minerals into water to feed his plants.  I don’t use liquid fertilizer in my garden, but once again on this scale I can see where it’s necessary.  Sounds good to me.  I loved this place.


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Growing lots of potatoes in a small space

Well, isn’t this a clever idea?!  Fill a wire frame with layers of dirt, straw, and seed potatoes, water thoroughly, and a “potato medusa” is born.  Come harvest time, simply tip it over and dig them out.  This blogger says you can grow upwards of 25 lbs of tomatoes in one of these clever towers.

Just found this blog today, from an urban farming pioneer right here in Minneapolis.  He’s starting a CSA program on his urban farm, and the whole project looks very promising.  I am definitely trying a potato tower next year.  Here are the instructions.

Update, June 14 2011: the tower experiment has officially begun!


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Community Gardening

This year, as part of the University of Minnesota Hennepin County Master Gardener Program (say that 10 times fast), I’ve been caring for a community garden plot at Sabathani community center here in south Minneapolis.  Here’s what our plot looks like (click to enlarge):

The Sabathani community garden is absolutely huge.  I think it might be one entire square block.  We planted our little section of it in May for a demo class on gardening, and now I’ve been maintaining it and donating the produce to the food shelf at Sabathani.

We consulted with the food shelf when we came up with the design for the garden back in April — we are trying to grow mostly vegetables that are in high demand there.  One cool thing is I get to learn how to grow some vegetables that I’ve never tried before, including collard greens, lacinato kale, and okra.  Collard greens and kale are neat because you can keep picking leaves off them and the plant just keeps coming back bigger and bushier than before.  A “continuous harvest” sort of plant is always nice when space is limited.

This is the weediest garden spot I’ve ever had, so we put down landscape fabric extensively to try and keep a handle on it.  It’s working quite well, I must say.