Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Safe Seed Pledge

We sent off our first lot of a new corn we were excited to offer this year, Oaxacan Green Dent, which has been out of organic production for a while, for GMO testing a couple months ago and were a bit startled to get a positive result back from the lab. Well... a little startled and a little not. I think people are not aware how widespread contamination is and if you are the type that cares about good clean food this is scary stuff. There has been something around for a while called the "safe seed pledge" which basically states that a company does not knowingly sell GMO seeds. We have signed it, as have many of the companies you probably buy seeds from. But, the most important word in that pledge is "knowingly".
We are able to test for GMO contamination easily now. If you just care about a qualitative yes/no contamination, it costs about $200 per sample of 5# of corn and is accurate to 1 in 10,000 seeds. Unless the pledge incorporates some accountability of trying to know it does not really strike us as all that relevant anymore. Good intentions can only go so far. Our contaminated stock seed came from a company that has signed the pledge.
This has been a bit of a rabbit hole for us as we have been forced to deal with the implications of our contaminated lot. As we've begun to ask around it turns out that for most companies, very little testing is happening. The NOP that governs organic standards for certification has a zero tolerance on GMO contaminated seeds but does not require testing, which when you put the two together amounts to pretty much a negative incentive for testing. There are others in the industry who have embraced "acceptable thresholds" of contamination. This has been the preferred route of the Non-GMO project.
Wait, what?
That Non-GMO certified stamp on products at your local co-op doesn't mean... um... no GMO's? Correct. We were surprised too. Turns out "a very little bit" is the new "no".
There has been a concerted effort by the biotech industry to totally overwhelm certain sectors of agriculture with GMO's to the point that they create a perception that we simply can't get away from them. The idea of "acceptable thresholds" strikes us as the greenwashing of an accepted defeat. GMO contamination is not "reality", we create that, no?
My point in writing this is not doom and gloom but just to let you know that this isn't an issue that the seed industry is really taking on or pushing very hard at right now. Don't leave it up to us (collectively). Its going to be consumer driven if a stance is going to happen.
A story...A couple years ago Territorial Seeds was the unfortunate victim of a misled campaign. Someone misconstrued their selling seeds bred and sold by Seminis (a subsidiary of Monsanto) to mean they were owned by Monsanto. Misled, yes. But they took A LOT of flack for this and got A LOT of bad publicity, and due to customer pressure, as of 2012, completely dropped all varieties they had been getting from Seminis. This is a big deal and they deserve a lot of respect for that. Now the moral here is not that you concoct a BS story as a means to achieve your end, but it is that companies listen. While the rumor was entirely false, consumers who maybe had thought seed companies grew all the seeds they sold started to think about the seed industry in a new way, started seeing the supply chain and didn't like what they saw or who they were supporting. They expressed their desire to have a company they trusted not be involved with Monsanto anymore, and the company acted.
Start asking your favorite seed companies about what they are doing to keep GMO contamination out of our seed supply. Ask them if they test corn and beet lots and what happens if the lots test positive. Ask if they've gone the extra step and Knowingly do not sell GMO contaminated seeds.
We need to take this seriously. Pollen travels and the more contaminated lots of seed that are in the marketplace, the fewer places we have to produce clean seeds.
We are working with Seed Savers Exchange to get a clean and tested lot of the Oaxacan corn to start with 'cause its a beauty. Like... dazzlingly beautiful... and just an awesome flour corn for tortillas and posole. We look forward to bringing it to market soon.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spring is the time for (greenhouse) love

Time to resurrect the blog! We will try to begin using this medium again to share ideas about what we do and why we do it. We hope you will check in from time to time. This is not a poetic return to the world of Blog, but hopefully a useful utilitarian one.

Looks like another La Niña spring is upon us. while the farm tries to figure out where to put more water we are beginning to work in the greenhouse. We don't really believe in pushing the season too hard on our farm. We shoot for the first week of March for onions and leeks, peppers and eggplants. About the 15th for tomtoes (though I sowed several varieties today). We've found that those dates get the plants big enough to hit the soil running when its time for the field, but not so big that they are rootbound, leggy, and nutrient stressed when its transplant time.

I thought it would be appropriate to share a recipe for potting mix, as much of our energy is in growing starts for transplant right now. The vast majority of premixed bagged potting soil is incredibly deficient when it comes to nourishing the initial growth of our plants. Unless you are fortifying them, they just don't cut it, in our experience.

We really had our mix dialed in a couple years ago, but it was written on a scrap of paper and ... well... you can imagine where the story goes. So we are honing it back in and this is our current incarnation. I've explained some of our choices of materials afterwards. The recipe fills about 4 standard garbage cans so is obviously more related to farm production, but can be scaled down with the same proportions. Its not as good as our old one yet but getting close.

2.5 bricks coco coir (50 gall.) (Soaking for a several hours makes it way easier to finely break up)

4 bags worm castings (30 gall.) - we use Down to Earth's "Wonder Worm"

1 bag (25 gall.) perlite

10 gall. vermiculite

¾ # lime

2 # powdered cal/phos

5# 10-6-1 Bat guano (we also get this from Down to Earth but this specific N-P-K is not always available. You'll need to do some math to reformulate for varying N-P-K versions of the guano.)

4# Alfalfa meal

.5# kelp

Add water to create a moist but not soggy consistency and mix very thoroughly. Store in a dry place. Add moisture as needed to keep from getting too dry.

We are very sensitive about the raw materials we use on our farm. For the most part we don't eat animal products in our family, so for a couple years we experimented with plant based fertility mixes. The problem is, plant based nitrogen, while great (we use lots of OG alfalfa meal in the field), is generally not that available on the time scale that a growing start needs it. They tend to be mid-slow releasing sources. While we wouldn't rule it out, we really struggled to produce vigorous robust starts in exclusively plant based mixes. Bone meal, blood meal, and feather meal are typical sources of nitrogen for potting mixes but, regardless of how you feel about animal based agriculture, these products are the dregs of industrial, horribly abusive, animal systems. It doesn't seem to make sense to us to be working to create something so fundamentally opposed to those industrial ag systems while being dependent on their waste products.
What we settled on for quick release nitrogen is bat guano. Its mined out of caves, is probably somewhat invasive, but is in some cases a domestic product, and seemed to us the least bad of several unsavory options. We don't love it but have learned to live with it.

We use Coir in place of peat as peat mining is pretty unsustainable and we have been pretty happy with it as an alternative. Coir comes from the pith between the inner and outer shells of coconuts. The one we use comes from Sri Lanka and while that's a long way away, its pretty compact and Id guess the overall footprint is smaller than that of peat in the long run.

So, A note about aging potting mix. There seems to be a sweet spot with using your home mixed potting mix and here's how we think about it. We feel as though there is a window soon after mixing when the materials are just getting to know each other, a little soil mixer, but nobody has hooked up yet and the nitrogen is still available to the growing seedling. If you don't plant in it in the first week or two though, the nitrogen gets all kissy kissy with the carbon of the base material (in our case coir), breaking it down, and is less available to the growing needs of the plant. After about a month or month and a half of aging everybody realizes there is enough love to go 'round and the seedlings can get in on the action and have access to the nutrients again. In a perfect world we'd plan ahead and mix well in advance of the greenhouse season. Our reality more often looks like "Oh S$%@! I thought that trashcan was full! Quick, mix some up today, we have hundreds of tomatoes to pot up to 4"s. So, you do the best you can.

Thanks for reading and I hope you find this useful.