TALKING SHOP: Washington Tilth Producers Conf., Nov 7-9 Bellingham, WA
Part 2 of 3: Smart tools for small farms … and other gleanings from the Washington Tilth conference
Correspondent Don Lotter brings back tips on flame weeders, mustard cover crops, seed production and restaurant sales from four different workshops at the conference.

By Don Lotter

S p o n s o r B o x
Meet the Washington Tilth Producers

Mission/members: Tilth Producers, a Chapter of Washington Tilth Association, is the organic and sustainable farm organization of Washington State. A membership organization of over 400 Washington growers, Tilth Producers fosters and promotes ecologically sound, sustainable agriculture in the interest of environmental preservation, human health and social equity.

Founded: In 1974 off the back of a letter and vision of Wendell Berry, the group has suffered through highs and lows. Today it is regrouped and refocused on its mission: unite the community of people concerned with food, agriculture and the environment. For the complete history>

Mail: P.O. Box 85056, Seatle, WA 98145

Contact info: www.tilthproducers.org

Nancy Allen,
Administrative Director
(206) 442-7620
Fax: (206) 524-7702
nancy@tilthproducers.org

Want more Washington Tilth?

Part 1
Microbes: THE hot topic at the Washington Tilth Producers’ annual conference
Our researcher and reporter, Don Lotter, wandered the halls and seminar rooms of the conference, gathering details on everything from a really inexpensive compost tea brewer to the growing of fungi that first attract, then later kill insect pests.

Part 3
Coming Next
A Washington State organic program rep reviews the rules on mating disruption pheromones, compost, compost tea, livestock feed and international compliance.

Workshop 1: Small Acreage Tools

Michaele Blakely of Growing Things in Carnation, Washington presented a half dozen tools for small scale growers.

The collinear hoe was developed by the well-known market garden expert, Elliot Coleman. It has a straight 5”-7” wide blade, and is designed so that weeding can be done standing straight up, without having to stoop. The soil is stirred just under the surface for weeding, thinning, and cultivating.

Blacksmith-toolmaker-farmer Bob Rayner gave tips on how to attach a new or separated wooden handle to a metal tool such as a hoe. “Heat up the cone of the metal tool (which the wooden handle fits into) in a fire, and get it good and red hot. It will expand. Then take it out of the fire and jam the wooden handle into the cone and it will contract down snugly around the handle.”

Blakely next demonstrated a seed planter for plastic mulch-covered beds. The implement, which is about three feet long and can be carried in one hand, punches a hole in the plastic mulch and the soil. Seed can then be dropped down the tube and released by trigger. Blakely bought hers used and is not sure where to get one.

The wheel hoe is an adaptable tool that some in the room said was the most used tool on their farm. Formerly known as the Planet Junior, the wheel hoe is now made by Glaser. The wheel hoe has a stirrup-type blade for which there are different widths, up to 14”. The width should be about 1” less than the space between the plants. “Weeding with the wheel hoe takes some skill,” says Blakely, “I’m the only one on the farm who can use it, but I won’t do without it.”

At least a dozen implements are available for attaching to the wheel hoe frame. Tines can be attached in back of the weeder blade for dragging weeds to the end of the row and for cultivating. A hiller-furrower is also available, as well as a seeder. The wheel can be offset from the weeder blade for weeding from the row.

The weeder blades (and hoe blades in general) should be sharpened with a flat-bastard file, never when it is wet. Weeding should be done at about the four-leaf stage. If the plants are any bigger the stirrup blade doesn’t work well, any smaller and the plants pull out and can re-root. Peaceful Valley Farm Supply at www.groworganic.com has the Glaser wheel hoe.

A strap-on stool for hand-weeding and harvesting elicited some laughs, but in the end (no pun intended) earned converts. Blakely says she couldn’t get her son, who has knee problems, to work the fields without it. The stool, traditionally used for milking on dairy farms, straps on to one’s rear-end and frees up the hands when one moves from one spot to another down the row. Research shows that the stool substantially reduces time spent in “unacceptable positions”. Click here for a full article on the tool. The stool is available at dairy supply stores.

The flame weeder sparked the most discussion of all the tools at the workshop. This farm-made (or local metal shop-made) implement is basically a propane tank carried on the back, a standard gas regulator and tubing, and a wheel-mounted manifold and flame dispenser pipe. Holes drilled in the pipe dispense the flames. A shield protects the flame pipe. Too much shield coverage can deny oxygen. Some said they did fine without the shield. The hole size, where the flame emerges, must be the right size for the gas flow rate.

Glen Johnson of Mother Flight Farm in Mount Vernon, WA, who helped with the presentation, says he uses his flame weeders (he has different sizes) all year. “I use my flamers about an hour an acre. One is tractor-mounted. I have another that is hand-wheeled (as in the photo), with the propane tank mounted in front of the flamer. The backpack version froze my back because as the propane flows from the tank, it freezes.”

Flame weeders are most useful for post-planting pre-crop-emergence weed control. Red Dragon products at www.flameengineering.com has most of the parts that need to be ordered, like regulators. Local metal shops can do the rest, according to Blakely and others. Michaele Blakely’s email is mjb@premier1.net.

Workshop 2: Producing Organic Seed

Matthew Dillon of Abundant Life Seed Foundation (www.abundantlifeseed.org) outlined the essentials of organic seed production in a workshop.

Seed production gives a farm an alternative cash crop as well as seed for on-farm use. Usually the seed crop is harvested and processed late in the year, after most of the food crop season is done, and so can fit well into a small farm’s annual work cycle.

In some cases farmers have started producing their own seed because their seed supplier stopped producing their preferred variety. Seed production also enhances the biodiversity of the farm, as the flowering stage of the seed crops provide food sources for beneficial insects

Dillon briefly introduced the concepts of vertical vs. horizontal disease resistance in plants. Vertical resistance has been used widely in the seed breeding industry to make major leaps in disease resistance in crop lines, often by finding a single gene for resistance. But vertical disease resistance has been susceptible to being overcome by the targeted pathogens, since those pathogens often need only to have a single gene mutation to overcome the plant’s resistant gene.

Horizontal resistance involves multiple genes and small, incremental disease resistance progress in crop lines. While not as sexy as vertical resistance, horizontal disease resistance has been much more stable in resisting counter virulence in the targeted pathogen. Raul Robinson, in his book Return to Resistance outlines these principles, and provides a conceptual framework for farmers to form breeding clubs.

Seed production is inseparable from varietal improvement and breeding, according to Dillon. “By continual selection, you stay ahead of disease,” says Dillon. Genetic drift inevitably occurs from generation to generation in plants, and selection to counteract it is necessary. Selection is done to weed out off-types and out-crossers and to select for environmental resilience, disease resistance, and yield.

The best way to determine whether the seed crop you want to produce is economically viable and marketable is to get to know the seed companies, Dillon says. Learn their catalogues. Then, in late winter, send a packet of seed with a letter stating why your farm would be good for their seed needs.

Having a laboratory, such as that at Cornell University, do seed quality and disease analysis will increase marketability. Learning to do basic replicated varietal trials is very helpful as well.

Some people do quite well using low tech seed production and processing techniques, such as using tarps and mesh screens. It often depends on the crop. Prices for seed run from $20 to $120 per pound, depending on the crop. Drip irrigation is usually best. Distance from other plantings of the same species is important. For “selfers” (self-pollinated crops), 100 yards is usually sufficient; for out-crossers, one to five miles is needed.

Workshop 3: Mustard as Biofumigant and Cover Crop

Dr. Lindsey du Toit of Washington State University gave an overview of this increasingly popular cover crop.

Since 1999, mustard cover crop acreage has grown more than ten-fold in the state of Washington to nearly 25,000 acres. When I visited the Salinas Valley in October, mustard cover crops seemed to be all over the place, and was being grown by both organic and conventional growers.

Mustards and other Brassica crops like broccoli contain glucosinolates, and when released into the soil these are enzymatically transformed into isothiocyanate – the same substance that is the active ingredient in metam sodium, a common commercial fumigant with the trade name Vapam.

The biofumigant properties work best if the crop is well chopped up and then immediately disked under, as the isothiocyanates are volatile. Du Toit says that they like to immediately follow the chopper with a disker to work the freshly chopped mustard into the soil. Watering also helps to keep the isothiocyanates in the soil. Mustard’s biofumigant properties are highest just prior to flowering.

In Washington mustard has been successful in reducing nematode problems like the root knot nematode and the sugar beet cyst nematode, and disease problems like Verticillium in potato.

One farm was able to reduce its potato rotation to two years by using mustard cover crops to reduce early dying caused by Verticillium dahliae. Comparison trials on potato showed no significant difference between yields of potatoes from fields treated with metam sodium and those from fields that had mustard treatment.

Mustards are also good as just plain cover crops – they have good weed suppression characteristics and are fast-growing. Commercial seed for mustard cover crops are generally a blend of varieties of B. juncea and B. hirta.

Mustards do not sterilize soils as do commercial fumigants. Not a lot is known about exactly how the soil microbial community is effected by mustard treatment. There are reports that beneficial fungi such as Trichoderma and beneficial bacteria such as fluorescent pseudomonads are higher after mustard incorporation. This is often true for any carbon inputs such as cover crops; therefore it is not clear whether mustards actually favor these beneficial microbes more than other cover crops. Dr. du Toit’s email is dutoit@wsu.edu.

Workshop 4: Connecting Chefs and Growers

Karen Jurgensen of the Seattle Chef’s Collaborative (www.chefscollaborative.org) talked about connecting chefs to farmers and farming, and how farmers can connect with chefs and restaurants.

Jurgensen described a program at the Quillisascut Farm School of Domestic Arts in which students from a number of chef schools in the region spent seven days on the Quillisascut farm learning where their food comes from. They started by killing and butchering a lamb. Every chef who serves meat should learn how the animal is produced and slaughtered (not to mention everyone who eats meat). The budding chefs learned about culinarily useful parts of the animal that are not found in the meat section of the supermarket. The students were taken on tours of local organic farms to learn how crops are grown. Issues such as sustainability and food quality were discussed.

Jurgensen outlined eight major points for farmers to consider when establishing and maintaining a relationship with a chef or restaurant:

  1. Commitment. Restaurants need to schedule their purchases, and need deliveries to be consistent and reliable.
  2. Schedule. Work out a delivery schedule that works for both you and the restaurant. Learn the restaurants busy times and try to work around them. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are usually best to talk to the chef, Friday is a common delivery day.
  3. Communicate. Ask the chef the best way to communicate wth him/her, whether by phone, fax, or email. If your product is different from what you ordered, call to inform the chef and ask if they still want it.
  4. Give free samples! Chefs love free samples of new foods or food varieties – so be generous.
  5. Know your customers. Eat in the restaurants you sell to. Lunch is cheaper than dinner.
  6. Establish good accounting. Prepare invoices ahead and make them easy.
  7. Balance specializing and diversifying. Specializing means you can get the volume a restaurant needs; diversity spreads out the delivery season.