Consolidating Lessons Learned at Ecology Action

By Laura Navarro

Navaro mug shotI can’t believe how quickly my internship is coming to an end! This is already the sixth week and I only have three more weeks of the internship to look forward to. This is a bittersweet thought, I have made great friends here and have fallen in love with Mendocino County; I could see myself living here after I complete my degree. At the same time, I look forward to getting back to Stockton and starting new projects in the Robb Garden at the University of the Pacific. I hope to implement the 8 biointensive principles in the UOP garden, and I would love to have a few beds of my own as well.

The weather has been very good to us these past few weeks, around 90 degrees at the high, which permitted us to get a lot of work done in the garden. The summer cover crop has been removed, the grains have been harvested, and the winter plants are starting to get flatted! One day we spent so much time harvesting grain that my socks and shoes were covered in the prickly grain hairs. The grains were so mature that they were shattering (the grain was falling out of the grain heads very easily), which made bundling difficult because we wanted to save all the loose grains. We harvested potatoes in a bed and were surprised to find pretty good yields! These potatoes were put in the ground a little too early, and Rachel had been expecting very low yields, so we were pleasantly surprised to find a nice amount of potatoes.

We are coming to an end to our internship so I am starting to make a list of all the things I want to do before I leave the Golden Rule Garden. I want to make some flats to bring home, collect as many seeds as possible, learn how to make pesto and a few Kenyan dishes, and make a list of all the literature people have suggested to me. I want to make sure that I leave with all my questions answered and long-lasting relationships with the amazing people I have met while being here. This has been a great experience so far and I wish I could stay even longer but I am excited to share what I have learned with people back at home.

Tiger Quickness in the Garden at Ecology Action

By Pauline Montemayor

Montemayor mug shotI discovered something about myself since being here. It’s that I could, indeed, sweat like an NBA player. Right when I was getting into the swing of things, like waking up much earlier than I would on summer vacation, we were hit with a heat wave. We don’t have the luxury of air conditioning anywhere on the farm. Therefore, our workdays were to begin much earlier in order to beat the heat, but our duties remained the same. That same weekend, though, I was in for a treat. I rode a horse bareback with very little guidance from the horse’s owner, Ellen. The experience definitely blew any trail riding experiences out of the water, especially since I had the opportunity to control the horse as I pleased.

But besides that, my adjustment to life on the farm has been easy. As far as the work goes, I have been able to grasp new techniques quickly and become a U-bar master. According to the garden manager and mentor, Rachel, the speed of completing tasks by past interns had been “notoriously slow.” However, Laura and I had surprised her. In one morning, specifically within two hours, we were able to clear, shape, and amend a little more than 100 square feet (not an easy feat because of the amount of manual labor involved.) Soon, it became the norm for Laura and I to ask what needed to be done next instead of Rachel nudging us along. As for classes, it’s been a challenge for me to find the motivation to sit and pay attention. This is especially true when these classes take place outside in the blistering heat.

Another intern has come along to join us. He’s a sixteen-year-old, who once lived in the Golden Rule community five years ago. Although he’s familiar with the area, he’s still new to some of the practices in the garden. So to make it a bit easier on Rachel (who already works her tail off), Laura and I have been teaching him the ropes. Outside of work, though, it’s a bit of a comedy seeing this teenager interact with my other housemates. For me, especially, it’s a bit surreal because of the fact that I’m ten years older than him and do not understand some of his pop culture references. I’m sure he feels the same way, considering he had to ask what a VHS tape was.

All in all, my experience thus far has gone unchanged. Everything is still very exciting and I anticipate more learning opportunities in and out of the garden.

July Heat in the Ecology Action Garden

By Laura Navarro

Navaro mug shotThe past two weeks have flown by! The week of July 18th was extremely hot with temperatures rising to 111 degrees, and apparently we have already beat last year’s record high. Although I worked in the garden at the University of the Pacific, I am not used to working in such hot weather. I’d find myself taking a lot of breaks and was easily irritable during this week of hot weather. But I got through it and was rewarded with cooler weather the following week! I keep asking locals what they expect the rest of the summer’s weather will be to like and they all talk about heat waves to be expected in July.  I am hoping the weather stays below 100 degrees so that I can work comfortably. I want to be able to give my full attention to the plants and learn as much as I can, but this won’t be easy if I’m frying in the sun.

Despite it being hot, we have been getting a lot of work done in the garden. The garden has been going through some amazing transformations and already looks very different from when we started. The grains are being harvested and baby plants are getting transplanted into the beds. I wish I was doing the six month internship so that I could be here when the baby plants are being harvested. I’d like to be able to witness the full life cycle of the plants that I started from seed. Maybe I will come back up and visit when it is time to harvest the plants that I started.

Speaking of seeds, I have found a new passion in seed saving. I have been told that since 1903, 93% of the known fruit and vegetable varieties have gone extinct! This means that there is only about 9% of the corn varieties left in the world, 8% of the tomato varieties left, 7% of carrot varieties left…and much more has been lost! We often talk about animal extinctions and our efforts to preserve the endangered animals species, but there’s not much talk about plant extinction. These plant extinctions are just as important as the animals; in fact, I would argue that they are even more important because plants feed the world. With the changing climate and our demand for food increasing, preserving plant varieties is becoming more important. This has sparked a new interest in seed saving for me. I’d like to save seed from every crop I grow from now on, especially heirloom and rare varieties that are at risk of becoming extinct. There is a great documentary that I recommend watching called Seed: The Untold Story. This documentary sheds light on the challenges farmers have been facing and the importance of saving seed.

With every passing day I think of this internship less as a one-time experience, and more as the first step to a path of agriculture and sustainability. I am grateful to have this opportunity and I plan to continue on my path after the internship is over!

Gophers and Snakes and Barn Cats – First Impressions of Ecology Action

By Pauline Montemayor

Montemayor mug shotThey weren’t kidding when they said the site would be rustic. Upon my arrival to Ecology Action’s site called ‘The Golden Rule’ at Ridgewood Ranch I noticed two things: it was quiet and it had a story to tell. There were several pieces of infrastructure that were built around the early 20th century, one of them being the home of Seabiscuit’s (y’know, the racehorse?) owner, Charles Howard. Although some have been restored and are currently used as a tourism site, there are still some buildings that have yet to receive that treatment. But my affinity for architecture and construction projects isn’t the point of this blog. Rather, it is my experience of the first two weeks at Ecology Action.

My first week on the farm, of course, was introductory and I mostly shadowed the garden manager to get a feel for the methods they use in the garden. One of these methods was double digging, or ‘U-barring’ as they call it. The point of this form of plowing is to extend the nutrient-rich layer of soil. Typically this layer is about six inches thick, but with double digging the layer may extend from eighteen to twenty-four inches. Quickly I became well-versed in the art of ‘U-barring’, mostly because I enjoyed it (and still do). It’s just a great distraction from the heat since I have to lift a thirty to forty pound steel contraption. Although u-barring has become one of my favorite activities, there were more adventures waiting.

On the first day when I didn’t have to shadow one of the garden managers, I got myself into one hell of a predicament.

I had to catch a snake in the bathroom.

It’s a bit of a long story, but all that really matters is the fact that said snake was not venomous (it was later identified as a gopher snake) and the poor girl who tried to use the bathroom was rescued by yours truly. Within the week I also saw a California King Snake, had staring contests with a few hares on several occasions, saw another gopher snake, held a baby gopher (which was promptly taken to be relocated to a spot that wasn’t going to be plowed), and made friends with the barn cats.

Apart from the labor-intensive activities that were done I also attended class at the Jeavons Center at a different location – The Mountain. Although the course was meant to enrich our learning experience, a lot of it wasn’t new to me. This was mostly because I’m the type to learn better outside of a classroom and actually put the learning objectives to use. In the first two classes, we’d gone over methods that I had already been using (like the double-digging). I’m not too sure as to what else we will be learning, but I’m more excited to use them rather than reading about them.

Although this has just been the first couple weeks, I am still approaching some of the methods with some skepticism.

Holy Guacamole! The Life of an Ecology Action Intern

By Laura Navarro

Navaro mug shotI want to share with you my experience with Ecology Action so far. I have been with Ecology Action for two weeks now and holy guacamole it has been such a treat! I have been placed at The Golden Rule site in Willits, California. The property of The Golden Rule is five thousand acres! Five thousand acres of beautiful land that I get to call home for the next two months, complete with a redwood forest, a lake, a cattle ranch, a poultry farm, horse stables, beehives, and a beautiful garden. There is so much to do and see on the property, it is impossible to ever be bored at The Golden Rule. Plus, the community is very friendly, I feel like I have joined a huge family of unique and talented people who can’t wait to share their knowledge with me. This is the perfect place for someone like me who is trying to learn as much as possible everyday.

Each day I learn more and more about sustainability and the Biointensive method. Grow Biointensive is all about sustainability; the goal is to grow as much food as possible on as little land as possible without adding in any inputs. It takes 2 acres of farmable land to grow a complete diet for a typical U.S. family, but with the biointensive method it takes an eighth of the area to grow the same amount of food! This is done using eight Biointensive principles: deep soil preparation (double digging), the use of compost, close plant spacing, compatible crop combinations (plants that enhance each other’s growth when planted together), carbon-efficient crops (60% of the growing area is dedicated to carbonaceous crops that will be used for compost), calorie-efficient crops (30% of the growing area is dedicated to root crops that produce large amounts of calories per unit of area), and the use of open-pollinated seeds (preserving genetic diversity).

It is important to use all eight of the principles in order to be sustainable, otherwise the gardener can have negative effects on the land – which is not the goal of Grow Biointensive. Some of the advantages of the Biointensive method include: at least 50% less purchased fertilizer, soil building 60 times faster than nature (this is very important because the amount of farmable soil in the world is depleting quickly), ⅛ of the area needed, 200%-400% increase in caloric production, 94%-99% less energy, and 67%-88% less water. Grow Biointensive is a spectacular method of agriculture, I believe that the world is in need of this method, especially with resources (such as farmable soil, water, and open pollinated seeds) depleting so rapidly.

In addition to learning about the Biointensive method, I have been becoming more familiar with the grim future ahead for agriculture. Less and less farmable soil is available every year yet the world has more and more people to feed everyday. In countries like the US it takes about 2 acres of land to grow the diet of one person! So with a growing demand for food but depleting land for growing food, the human race will soon face a troubling situation, and that is starvation. The agriculture industries around the world will need to adopt new methods in order to maximize efficiency and sustainability in order to feed the world’s people. Grow Biointensive can help increase crop yields with less resources, so less starvation will happen with Biointensive agriculture!

 

Ecology Action Interns

by Patty A. Gray, Pacific Garden Program Director

Thanks to a generous gift from former University of the Pacific Regent and co-CEO of Whole Foods, Walter Robb, the Pacific Garden Program is able to sponsor two students to take up summer “Grow Biointensive” internships at Ecology Action farms in Northern California. This summer, we have sent up Laura Navarro and Pauline Montemayor, both Environmental Science majors at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. Laura also worked during the past academic year as a Student Garden Coordinator in the Ted & Chris Robb Garden on the Stockton campus.

Laura and Pauline are sending down regular updates on their experiences at Ecology Action, and we will publish their updates on this blog – stay tuned!

GRDN_NAVARRO

Laura Navarro

GRDN_MONTEMAYOR

Pauline Montemayor

Potato Love

My Love Affair With Potatoes
By Patty A. Gray, Pacific Garden Program Director

PotatoesI recently dug out my first harvest of potatoes from the Robb Garden: a little clutch of warm-hued Yukon Golds huddled atop the soil, ranging from ping pong ball-sized to fist-sized, promising a couple of tasty meals at least. As I began to gather them up and toss them into a canvas bag, something in the motion, and the feel of the smooth skins, and the thunking sound of potato against potato in the bag triggered a memory.

Russia, 2001. A potato field in the Republic of Mari El, in the rich and fertile Black Earth region. I’m walking a row alongside members of the family I am staying with, picking up potatoes that their tractor just churned up, dropping them, thunkety-thunk, into a large canvas bag standing at the end of my row. The potato field was this family’s mainstay, supplying their own needs as well as a surplus to sell at market. Eating potatoes day after day, year after year, did not diminish the family’s enthusiasm for these “earth apples”. When it came time for a lunch break, they eagerly started a small campfire right at the edge of the field and roasted a few potatoes by snuggling them in around the coals and setting a metal bucket over them. The anthropologist in me relished observing and participating in this example of social behavior; the hungry human in me relished the taste of freshly-roasted potatoes, and the satisfyingly full feeling in my belly.

I think that was the moment when I became infected with potato-love, and the first chance I got, I started growing my own potatoes. That chance was when I moved into a small house – a glorified cabin, really – in Fairbanks, Alaska. The gardening season is brutally short there – the last spring freeze happens in mid-May, and the first fall freeze can be expected in early September – but the extreme day length makes gardens burst into action almost overnight. I planted a raised bed full of German Butterballs, a mouth-wateringly savory little tuber that is unmatched if you favor waxy, salad-type potatoes (which I do, voraciously). After planting, I had a few seed tubers left over, and I decided to just dump them in some leaf litter along the side of my driveway. Let them take their chances, I thought. The raised bed produced a bumper crop, which I found pleasant enough; but what amazed me was that the potatoes sprouted up even in that leaf litter, and yielded a respectable amount of creamy potato flesh. At that point I became convinced that you could grow potatoes anywhere, and I resolved that I would never be without a potato patch in any garden I tended.

Imagine my amusement some years later when it became clear I would be moving to Ireland, seemingly the ancestral land of the potato (which of course it isn’t: potatoes are a quintessential New World crop, hauled back to the Old World by travellers who knew a good thing when they saw it). I grew a bed full of potatoes each of the eight years I lived in Dublin, and never once had a speck of blight – the Irish are of course potato experts by now, and blight-resistance is built into pretty much every variety of seed potato you can buy. My problem, however, was that I disagreed with the prevailing Irish opinion on which potato varieties are the best to eat. Irish tastes run to those big, floury potatoes, which I find bland, unless you slather them with butter and salt – which is, as it turns out, what any eejit (idiot) should know you are supposed to do. I remember trying to convince one Irishman of the merits of my beloved waxy/creamy varieties, and he actually had a gag reflex right in front of me. Alas.

So of course upon taking up my current position as Garden Program Director at the University of the Pacific, I knew I would grow potatoes in the Robb Garden right here on campus. Potatoes had so far not been among the crops planted in the Robb Garden, and when I shared my plans, some asked incredulously, “Isn’t it too hot?” Ah, but that is the beauty of the California climate: there is a growing season for everything. Planted in early February, during a rare break in the torrential spring rains this year, our two small beds of potatoes are now yielding their golden treasure.

Any potato-love out there? We’ve got tubers to spare!