TALKING SHOP: New Mexico Organic Farming & Gardening Expo, Albuquerque, Feb. 13 - 14, 2004

Lessons learned in the Land of Enchantment
Our reporter gleans wisdom and know-how from workshops on Southwest greenhouse design, equipment for vegetable production, and sound reasons to view your farm as natural habitat.

By Dan Brannen Jr.

S p o n s o r B o x
The Farm Connection & New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission

The New Mexico Organic Farming & Gardening Expo 2004 was organized by Lynda Prim of The Farm Connection and Joanie Quinn of the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission (NMOCC). Major sponsors were Isis Medicine/Eros, La Montañita Food Co-op, Leah Morton and Bruce Gollub, New Mexico Department of Agriculture, Seeds of Change, Southwest Marketing Network, and the Western Center for Risk Management Education.

The Farm Connection provides a forum for New Mexico farmers to exchange information for an environmentally sound, economically workable, and socially just agriculture.

Contact info:
Lynda Prim, who also works as Head Seed Cleaner at Seeds of Change, can be reached at:
505-579-4386
lunalsfc@la-tierra.com

NMOCC provides certification services and marketing assistance for organic producers, processors, and retailers in New Mexico.

Contact info:
Phase One of its website is at: http://nmocc.state.nm.us
More content will be added throughout the year. Joanie Quinn can be reached at:
505-841-9070, ext. 4
joan.quinn@state.nm.us

Posted April 20, 2004: “There are lots of casinos up and down the river,” observed Estevan Arrellanos of the Rio Grande during his heirloom fruit tree workshop at the recent New Mexico Organic Farming & Gardening Expo 2004.

“But I think the biggest gamblers are the farmers. We buy seed, but we don’t know if it is going to rain!”

Rain or shine, it was a safe bet that love of farming and good food would attract 500 people to Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Valentine’s Day weekend for the sixteenth annual Expo. Attendees from the Land of Enchantment and the surrounding region, especially Colorado, Arizona, the Navajo Nation, and Texas, had twenty-two workshops from which to choose.

From building soil to building markets to water conservation in the desert, Expo 2004 had no shortage of learning opportunities. Below we look closely at three: The Farm as Natural Habitat; Organic Sustainable Greenhouse Design and Production; and Choosing Appropriate Equipment for Vegetable Production Systems.

Organic sustainable greenhouse design and production

Greenhouse growers who made the Friday morning session enjoyed a thorough presentation by Paul Cross of Charybda, a certified organic nursery that produces tomatoes, basil, and a full line of bedding plants in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico. Cross frequently tailored his advice for desert Southwest growers, who get more annual sunlight than growers anywhere else in the continental U.S. With this in mind, Cross quipped that Southwestern growers need to pay attention to where their greenhouse experts come from.

“If you follow Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest in New Mexico, you’re gonna end up with fried compost on the floor.”

For example, while most areas of the country use an east-west axis for siting conventional greenhouses, Cross urges a north-south orientation in New Mexico, where there is plenty of solar gain. A north-south axis gives row crops even light on both sides, minimizes the problem of fixed shadows, and minimizes the amount of frozen snow trapped on the north side, where it blocks ambient light instead of melting into water catchment systems.

Another siting objective is to orient one narrow end of the greenhouse to catch the wind and pull it through to minimize stress on the structure. Asked what to do about the axis orientation when prevailing winds are from the west, Cross said stick with a north-south axis and plant windbreak hedgerows to send wind up and over the greenhouse.

“The biggest mistake people in New Mexico make is wondering, how am I going to heat this?” said Cross. “You should be thinking, how am I going to cool this?”

To reduce heat in the summer, Cross says paint everything you can white. Aluminum structures reflect only 60% of sunlight, which means the remaining 40% becomes heat. White paint is 80% reflective. Southwestern greenhouses also should be covered 50-70% with shade cloth—Cross recommends Aluminet—from the time temperatures climb in May until October or November.

Farmers trying to extend growing hours anywhere with supplemental light can use Cross’s advice to turn lights on before dawn, stretching hours in the morning instead of the evening. Turning lights on at sundown does not work well because plants are already going to sleep by then, and shutting lights off at night confuses beneficial insects such as bees, who cannot find their way home in sudden darkness.

Water conservation, another topic of particular concern in the southwest, is a good practice for any sustainable farmer.

“You want your water slightly on the acidic side, about 6.8 pH, and there’s no better water than the rain running off the roof. It’s rich in nitrogen and carbonic acid,” Cross said.

For water catchment, Cross recommends using gutters on the greenhouse and UV-stabilized pond liners on the ground next to the greenhouse with small channels leading to cisterns. The pond liners serve double-duty as weed blockers, eliminating pest habitats the recommended fifteen to thirty feet from the greenhouse.

For water storage, Cross suggested tanks buried partially inside the greenhouse—three feet below ground, two feet above ground. Designed this way, the tanks serve the permaculture principle of stacking by storing water (which ideally should be 65-80° F. for watering), providing thermal gain in the winter, and offering a level surface on which to work with seedling flats.

Growers who want to install a pond might find pond liners expensive, so Cross gave instructions for a poor man’s pond: dig a hole, line it with carpet remnants, cover that with builder’s plastic, lay another remnant upside down, and cover with stone. Southwestern growers just need to remember that ponds can evaporate thirty-three inches annually, while New Mexico gets only twelve. And ponds need to be fenced for safety.

While too much heat is a problem in southwest summers, heat supplementation is necessary for winter germination and growing. If looking at a manufactured heater, Cross said to de-rate the heater 4% for every 1,000 feet of altitude.

With natural gas prices projected to double in the next four years, however, Cross suggested supplementing with alternative heat sources. Barrels of water stacked one foot off the ground can provide thermal mass, preferably on the north side of the greenhouse, and compost piles inside are great heat sources. Cross also suggested using a fan in an intake box to blow warm daytime air through perforated drain pipe snaked beneath greenhouse soils.

After covering greenhouse design, Cross turned to production tips. For nursery production, consumers have come to expect short, stocky plants, which industry growers achieve with chemical growth regulators. As an organic grower, Cross built a giant rolling pin made of a center spindle with a plastic pipe around it. Holding the spindle with a partner, Cross brushes the top of his plant canopies with the pin, simulating the action of wind outside to reduce internodal length on the plants.

For seeding, Cross preferred a manufactured plastic handheld seeder until he lost it and fashioned a replacement out of clay. Unlike the manufactured seeder, Cross’s has a lip that allows him to pour seeds back into storage easily when seeding is done.

Finally, Cross shared his twenty-first century technology for monitoring pests: yellow plastic plates, sprayed with cooking oil and suspended six inches above the plant canopy, one for every 500 square feet of growing space. Beneficial insects tend not to be attracted to the yellow plates; some growers use light blue plates to monitor thrips. Cross checks the plates one a week to see what he has, then washes them in soap and water.

Choosing appropriate equipment for vegetable production systems

“Choosing and using the right farm or garden tools can mean the difference between a happy, healthy, prosperous growing season and one full of stress and disappointment,” says organic grower Michael Alexander. “Or worse yet, the difference between continuing to farm or giving up.”

Alexander reprised his equipment workshop for vegetable and fruit growers at Expo 2004. Attendees received a thorough handout covering everything from tractor types to bat houses to equipment sources and enjoyed a slideshow featuring Alexander’s equipment on his farm.

Inside the greenhouse, Alexander has a number of recommendations for optimum production. For seeding, he uses the Seed E-Z vacuum seeder, which uses a vacuum to hold seeds onto indentions in an aluminum plate that is inverted for dropping the seeds into flats. The vacuum seeder has cut Michael and wife Sharlene Grunerud’s planting time “to a fraction of what it was.”

Their potting mix is 1/4 vermiculite, 1/4 sand, 1/4 of their finest compost, and 1/4 Coco Grow, an environmentally friendly peat moss substitute that reduces harmful dust and is easier to re-wet when dry. For watering seedlings, Alexander has settled on the Red Head water breaker, which “produces a very soft flow with high volume for quick, safe watering.”

To reduce temperature in the greenhouse, Alexander recommends building a “wet wall” on one end. Connected to a thermostat and made of a tube that dribbles water down through stacks of six-inch pads of corrugated cardboard, the wet wall acts like a giant evaporative cooler when fans at the opposite end of the greenhouse pull the moisture through the structure. Place greenhouse thermostatic controls at the center near the plant canopy rather than on an outside wall, as Alexander mistakenly did with his first greenhouse.

For organic growers of nursery plants who are not forcing flowers, Alexander suggests compiling a photographic catalog so customers can see what the flowers will look like.

Taking attendees out to the fields with his slideshow, Alexander shared advice for irrigation, cultivation, and clearing. Southwestern growers using flood irrigation should consider leveling their land using laser technology, says Alexander. Leveling eliminates soaked beds that prevent seedling emergence and dry beds that prevent germination.

“Now that we’ve laser leveled,” said Alexander, “we sow squash down the center of a 36-inch bed, water in the furrows, and the seeds germinate.”

Alexander’s handout warns, however, that leveling more than an inch or two is hard on the soil, so be prepared to restore fertility with green manures and amendments.

For cultivation, Alexander’s favorite tractor attachment is the rotary cultivator, or Lilliston Rolling Cultivator. Rotary spikes on the cultivator slice and twist through the soil to uproot small weeds, cut larger ones, and break soil crust. The spikes are followed by a sweep that cuts missed weeds and cleans furrows for irrigation. Supplement with hand cultivation using a stirrup hoe. When kept razor sharp, it glides lightly and quickly under the soil surface to uproot small weed seedlings.

To save back labor when cleaning rocks from furrows, Alexander bent the ends of a garden rake upwards, shaping the rake to fit into the furrows without harming the beds.

Alexander finished his presentation with advice for wildlife enhancement. Bat houses provide a habitat for controlling pests, especially coddling moths in orchards. Bat Conservation International has great information at www.batcon.org, said Alexander.

After noticing that birds disappear from his fields when he removes the tomato stakes, Alexander installed permanent perches to encourage insect control. According to Alexander’s handout, drilling 5/16-inch holes six inches into the ends of 2x4’s or 4x4’s and hanging them around the farm provides habitat for Orchard Mason bees. Finally, when using his rotary mower on the farm, Alexander mows slowly and raises the blade as high as practical to minimize harm to snakes, which are important for rodent control.

The farm as natural habitat

Keynote presenter Dr. Laura Jackson, editor (with mother Dana Jackson) of The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems, held two workshops structured around the theme of her book. (For a review of her book, click here.) An ecologist and Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Northern Iowa, Dr. Jackson led attendees at both workshops through an exercise for mapping natural habitats on their farms and marketing those habitats to customers.

Jackson began by sharing her ecological perspective on the importance of organic farming. First on her list was not the elimination of chemical residues on food (which she said concerns her more as a mother), but a broader issue: the management of ecosystem processes. Examples included biological diversity, tight nutrient cycling, efficient decomposition processes, intact food chains, natural animal health, and water migration.

“Because you rely on ecosystems,” Jackson told the farmers, “you preserve and protect them.”

Jackson also sees organic farming as important because ecologists do not, or at least should not, look at things in isolation.

“While it seems like we are less attentive to landscape processes as a modern industrial society,” said Jackson, “we’re actually just as dependent on the water, soil, and climate for our food as we always have been.”

For example, climate scientists did research in Florida in the aftermath of severe freezes in 1997, which destroyed $300 billion of vegetable and fruit crops. They calculated whether the freezes would have been as bad if Florida’s wetlands had not been drained, which eliminated thermal mass and heat trapping humidity. The scientists found that with intact wetlands, many areas would not have frozen at all, and some would have frozen for shorter periods of time.

The third reason Dr. Jackson cares about organic agriculture is survival of the earth’s organisms.

“I’m a human, I’ve got children, I care about people,” said Dr. Jackson. “But, humans currently appropriate one-half of the plant biomass produced on the terrestrial part of the earth. The rate of species extinction is between 100 to 1000 times faster than it was in pre-colonial times, and U.S. agriculture is a leading cause of plant and animal endangerment, second only to urban expansion.”

To help organic farmers explore and articulate the way in which organic farms preserve natural habitats, Dr. Jackson led workshop attendees through a small-group exercise.

Using graph paper and colored pens, attendees began by mapping the natural features on their farms, those features important to birds, wildlife, wild plants, and people. Then they mapped farm inflows and outflows, including water, soil builders, seeds, feeds, insects, wildlife, pollen, nectar, petroleum, weeds, and knowledge. Finally, the small groups were to explore how to communicate the habitat benefits of organic farming to customers, perhaps convincing them to pay a premium for food that serves ecological systems. (Unfortunately, the workshop ran short of time for this exercise.)

“Here’s the thesis of the book my mother and I edited together,” said Dr. Jackson. “For a large number of environmentalists and consumers, farms are ecological sacrifice areas where we have written off the possibility of nature. Farms are just for production.”

“Farms aren’t natural,” interjected a participant.

“That’s the way a lot of people think,” urged Jackson, “and I think there’s a lot of room in the middle that’s good for society, that’s good for just general quality of life, that’s maybe good for the way the farm works.”