January 30, 2012

Water needed for farming

January 29, 2012

Can't get enough sprouting plants!

Spinach cotyledons. 

Trays and trays of sprouts from January 24th.

January 27, 2012

What the world eats

Did you know Bill Gates write an annual letter?  I didn't until yesterday when this year's letter was published.  The first section of it discusses agriculture, particularly in poorer countries.  The fact the average American household only spends 6% of its annual expenditures on food compared to 30% and higher in poorer countries has stuck with me.  

So I did a bit of research and found pictures from the book Hungry Planet: What the world eats.  They are pretty amazing

United States: The Revis family of North Carolina
Food expenditure for one week: $341.98

Do these food look familier to your fridge/pantry?

Bhutan: The Namgay family of Shingkhey Village
Food expenditure for one week: 224.93 ngultrum or $5.03
Look at that huge sack of rice (?) just for one week! I don't know what a lot of the vegetables are, but think it's interesting that this family of 13 has only two bananas and a pile of ginger.  Had you heard of a ngultrum before?

Chad: The Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp
Food expenditure for one week: 685 CFA Francs or $1.23
The favorite food of this family is soup with fresh sheep meat, which sounds pretty tasty to me. I'm awfully curious what are in all the small sacks.  I guess I need to read the actual book.  Notice all the water jugs behind the family.  Imagine lugging those around and running water seems like such a blessing.

Ecuador: The Ayme family of Tingo
Food expenditure for one week: $31.55

I love this family because of all the smiles!  I wonder what the tan circle thing is on the left and what the grain is with the carrots.  The three pots on over an open fire makes the gadgetry we have in our kitchen seem fussy.

I didn't include and pictures from European countries because it was what you might expect: lots of delicious looking bread from Italy and buiscuts from Britain. 

Tomorrow is food shopping day for us so I am going to start documenting what we eat from Saturday to Friday and see how it compares to these families. 

January 25, 2012

Seeds are sprouting!

Last week I did a second planting of lettuce, spinach and mizuna.  I spread the work over three days, so it was far more relaxed than the first planting.

Now, 12 days after being planted, lots of seeds are sprouting.  For each tray-full of seeds I record the day each seed sprouted in a table like this:

Like before the green cells are lettuce seeds, the orange are spinach and the blue are mizuna.  So far the seeds are sprouting in the order we thought they would - first mizuna, then lettuce and finally spinach.

January 23, 2012

Field to fork: food losses

January 17, 2012

Restaurants Offer Local Farmers a Growing Market

There is welcome news for those of us entering the field of farming–a new study by the National Restaurant Association shows that local and sustainably-grown ingredients will be some of the most popular food served in restaurants this year.  Locally-raised meats and seafood ranked number one on the list of the hottest menu trends, followed by locally-grown produce.  Hyper-local items and sustainable foods were ranked fourth and fifth respectively. “Local sourcing of everything–from meat and fish, to produce, to alcoholic beverages–is [a] big trend for 2012,” said Joy Dubost, Ph.D, R.D., director of Nutrition & Healthy Living for the National Restaurant Association. “Local farms and food producers have become an important source of ingredients for chefs and restaurateurs wishing to support the members of their business community and highlight seasonal ingredients on menus.”
Also, when chefs were asked if the restaurant where they work has an on-site garden, nearly one-third responded that it did, one-fifth answered that they did not have space for a garden on site, and about a half said that they did not have a garden at the restaurant and relied on suppliers for all their produce.
When the chefs were asked for the best way to follow the USDA’s newest guidelines, which recommend increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables in people’s diets, a majority of 55 percent suggested offering a wider variety of fruit and vegetable side dishes on menus, followed nearly 20 percent saying they would use more produce in their recipes.
In an interview, Annika Stensson of the National Restaurant Association shared her thoughts on the study and what it means for local, sustainable food.  She mentioned that the trend towards buying local and sustainable food has strengthened over the last several years, suggesting this to be a sub-trend of increased consumer concern with what’s on the plate and where it comes from.  Stensson said that many restaurants have increased the amount of local food they serve, and continue to do so, but that challenges can arise in selecting ingredients depending on season and geographic location.  “Independent, chef-driven restaurants typically have more flexibility with menus and can adjust accordingly depending on what’s available, while multi-units most often have standard recipes that require certain ingredients that may not be available at all times,” said Stensson.  “Working with suppliers is key to striking a good balance of cost, quality and availability.”
According to Stensson, there are several reasons that customers choose local, sustainable food.  One primary reason is to support local businesses and economies.  Another is a desire to eat fresh food and to reduce the distance that food travels before it gets to customers’ plates.  Also, “going green” has been a trend in American society for several years.  Both people and businesses are becoming more environmentally conscious and are making more sustainable choices, especially when it comes to food.
Stensson also talked about some of the advantages and challenges of restaurants growing their own produce at a garden on site.  The advantages include fresh ingredients and the option of growing specific items that might be hard to find through the regular supply chain.  A few challenges associated with on-site gardens are the time it takes to take care of a garden, the weather, and the space that the gardens take up.
photo by StuRap on Flickr
Restaurants have varying levels of relationships with farmers, said Stensson, ranging from “…very close relationships with restaurants using farm-branded ingredients, to no relationship at all.”  She said that restaurants don’t always buy directly from farmers, but instead make purchases through suppliers.  Some do buy directly from farms, but Stensson said this is not likely the norm.  But because restaurants aim to serve great food to people, they try to develop relationships with local farmers as partners in providing high-quality food to their customers.  Stensson’s insights show much potential for sustainable farmers to foster relationships with restaurants as a way of strengthening local economies.

January 16, 2012

What resources does global agriculture use?

January 15, 2012

Germination trials: planting

From the comfy, warm brightness at my desk planting the first set of seeds for the germination trials seems like a distant nightmare.  If it had been just cold or just dark or only the left side of my head was hurting I would have been fine.  As it was all three nearly caused me to give and I did not take any pictures.  t picture dark soil in a dark pot at night?

If you remember the three species we are using for the germination trials are spinach, lettuce and mizuna because they are representative slow, middle and fast germinators.  Each treatment (low tunnel or heat mat) had six sets of 48 seeds for each species.  Confused?  I made a diagram: 

Pretend each of these color filled rectangles is a 72 celled flat.  They are pretty standard plug trays for starting seeds.  Each tray is divided into three sections:  green for lettuce, orange for spinach and blue for mizuna.  In theory we put two seeds per cell, so 48 per species per tray.  In actually I doubt that really happened.  If you have ever seed lettuce seeds you will know just how small they are and how they tend to stick together.  Trying to dig them back out of soil after you drop them always is fruitless.  In a week or so we will see how many seeds were really planted.

January 14, 2012

January 13, 2012

Germination trials: measuring light

How much light is actually reaching the inside of the greenhouse?
How much light gets through the low tunnel coverings?

To answer these questions we use watch dog weather trackers.  They measure:
    ~ average daily temperature
    ~ daily high and low temperature and the time at which they     
    ~ amount light in moles/day

Pretty useful little things.  

January 12, 2012

Germination trials: measuring temperature

The big fancy data logger from onset.com
One of the major components to this first experiment looking at germination rate is measuring the temperature in each of the treatments.  Happily there are data loggers that continually do this for you.  We are using two models from Onset: a big fancy looking one and a plain box one.  The fancy one is more expensive and is water proof so if I spray it with a hose by accident it will be ok.  The smaller one isn't water proof so I installed it way up high where only the hose shouldn't reach.
The small not-so-fancy looking data logger from onset.com
Both data loggers support four temperature sensors.  For the germination trials we need two sensors per treatment for a total of 24 sensors on 6 data loggers.  The data loggers can be programmed to take a temperature reading at any interval you would like.  We are going to set them to measure the temperature every hour on the hour.  In one week there will be over 4,000 temperature readings!  All this data is downloaded into a software program from Hoboware.

The picture above shows how the data is displayed with Hoboware software.  Each line, or dotted line, shows a temperature probe over a five day period.  Hourly temperature readings can be scrolled through or exported to excel.  

January 9, 2012

Germination trials: low tunnel coverings

Once the PVC pipes were set up on the greenhouse benches it was time to cover them, creating mini-greenhouses.  This led to an introduction into the world of plasticulture.  Tons and tons of plastic is used to grow our food.  So much, that the word plasticulture is used to describe all the greenhouse coverings, drip irrigation, mulches, wind breaks, post harvest handling, marketing, and fertilization tools used to grow food crops.

There are a lot of different kinds, colors and weights of plastic to use when making a greenhouse, high tunnel or low tunnel.  Here are the four kinds of plastic we picked and one non-plastic treatment:

1. Sun Master 70% Opacity overwintering film

From it's name you can tell that not much light gets through this white polyethylene plastic.  It's the kind of plastic that is put over greenhouses or tunnels that house woody plants in the winter to keep temperatures within from fluctuating too much.  So, it should be "warm" inside which will promote seed germination, but it will not be good place for leafy plants to actually grow.

2. Sun Master Greenhouse Film 

This is the clear plastic that you would expect a greenhouse to be made out of.  It is 6mm thick polyethylene and allows a whopping 92% light transmission through.  So, this one should keep it "warm" inside as well as let plants grow because they will have some light.  (I say some light because all the layers of plastic add up.  If there are two layers of plastic on the greenhouse itself and one on the low tunnel only 78% of the available light can be transmitted through.  On a dark winter day that isn't much light.)

3. Agribon+ AG19 Row Cover

This is a agricultural fabric but it made from plastic as well.  Polyester and polypropylene strands are bonded together in a swirly random fashion resulting in the term "spunbonded".  This makes a cloth like covering that allows water through, but doesn't actually absorb water as a true cloth would.  Spunbonded fabric comes in a range of weights.  The one we're using allows an 85% light transmission and weighs 0.55 oz/yd.

4.  Clear plastic with holes in it

I haven't sourced this plastic so I don't know much about it yet.  It is far thinner than the other plastics we chose so presumably more light will be transmitted through.  It is also covered in holes which allows better air flow.

5. KEN-BAR agritape heat mats

These obviously are not a covering, but they are the final treatment in this experiment.  They still alter the plant's environment by keeping the soil and roots warm.  Heat mats come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  This brand often is used by people who keep terrariums filled with snakes and other cold blooded animals that I wouldn't want to have for a pet.  Right now we have the heat mats set to be 40 degrees Fahrenheit at night.

6. Control

Every experiment needs a control.   I forgot to take a picture, so you'll just have to take my word for it that there is a bench with a bottom layer of plastic and nothing else.

January 3, 2012

Germination trials: building tunnels

If you remember step one of Experiment Number One is finish building the low tunnels.  These hoop-shaped structures on top of the greenhouse's benches will hopefully help raise the internal temperature by a few degrees to speed up seed germination (and maybe growth?).  What coverings we are testing will be the topic of a future post, this is all about construction of the low tunnels.

Simplicity and affordability were the constraints in building the tunnels.  We designed them to mimic low tunnel construction used outside: bended hoops covered with a layer of plastic.  Indoor construction on benches involves a few more parts, but they are commonly found things and are cheap. We used only these seven parts:

1/2" PVC pipe
1/2" metal brackets
snap clamps
binder clips
bike hooks

The greenhouse benches are made of aluminum and are 10' x 4'.  So, the first step was screwing the brackets on using the tech-screws.  To ensure the pvc wouldn't wiggle it had to be placed in the bracket as it was being screw on.  

Each bench used three pieces of pvc: one for each end and a middle piece to keep the covering from sagging.  The coverings were attached to the pvc using 1/2" snap clamps from Johnny's.  These are the best and made building the tunnels really easy.  They come in four inch pieces because they are designed for outdoor use.  Since these low tunnels are not outside and blustery winter weather won't be an issue we cut each one into four smaller pieces.  From 40 snap clamps we ended with a big box of 160!

Each low tunnel was covered with three pieces of material.  Each end-piece was attached to the pvc with clamps and to the bench with binder clips.  (Since starting this project I now have binder clips in all of my pockets.)    The largest piece of material is pulled tight over the low tunnel and secured to the bench on only one side.  The other side is attached to a piece of pvc with more snap-clamps.  The weight of the pipe holds this side of the tunnel down and allows it to be easily rolled up.

To get the rolled up side to stay up I duct taped a bike hook to a snap clamp and put it on the central piece of pvc in the tunnel.  So far these have worked really well, although I am careful to unroll the tunnel side and not just let it drop in case the hook could puncture the covering.

Next up: low tunnel coverings!