What’s The Deal With Heirlooms?

Posted on Leave a comment


Over the last couple of decades, a nostalgic nerve has been triggered by the rising popularity of “heirloom” fruits and vegetables and “heritage” meats in the gourmet food world. If you stroll through a local farmer’s market or peruse a fancy restaurant menu in any of the nation’s urban centers these days, you will likely find these foodie buzzwords posted prominently to woo discerning customers.

My fear is that the idea of an “heirloom” tomato or “heritage” pig conjures a fictitious pastoral image of life as it somehow used to be. The obsession with heirloom foods is concerning to me as it shows how easily we can fall prey to nostalgic narratives such as the pernicious one that currently threatens to split our nation apart: that somehow we can “make America great again” if we just magically go back in time.

Current politics aside, it’s time to look forward, not back. The integrity of our global food system depends on our ability to preserve genetic diversity – and heirlooms plant varieties and heritage animal breeds are part of that gene bank. More important than preserving specific plant and animal varieties, however, is allowing our crops and animals to adapt and evolve over time, mutating within each new generation, and this can only occur through a mixing of genes, not isolating them or somehow trying to keep them “pure.”

So why am I so fixated on the words “heirloom” and “heritage” as qualifiers for our foods? First of all, both happen to have fuzzy, unscientific definitions. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an heirloom crop as “a variety of plant that has originated under cultivation and that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals.” Heritage breeds are the animal equivalents of heirloom plants – the Livestock Conservancy defines heritage breeds as “traditional breeds that were raised by our forefathers.”

I believe that if we sincerely intend to be “food-literate” – to know what we are eating and how it impacts our health and the world around us – we must begin to be more scientific and less nostalgic when referring to our food. Specifically, we must clarify that whether something is an heirloom or not matters less than whether or not the seed saving and breeding programs are actually maximizing the number of genetically unique offspring within a population.

The best example of a genetically diverse domesticated plant type is an open-pollinated crop variety. These are crops for which the exchange of pollen between individuals within a particular species is not controlled or limited. Open-pollination leads to a maximum number of genetically unique offspring. According to Seed Savers Exchange, “This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year.” Technically, all heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated crops are heirlooms.

The heirloom/heritage craze has also completely overshadowed the value of hybrid crop varieties in our food system. Hybrids, genetic “crosses” between two distinct species, or two varieties within a species, are extremely valuable for growers and ranchers because they are often more vigorous, productive and pest or disease-resistant than the heirlooms and heritage varieties are. The vigor regularly observed in hybrids is a result of their mixed genetic makeup.

Two notable hybrid tomatoes are the “Sun Gold” cherry and “Early Girl” slicing tomatoes. Both are “F1,” or “first filial generation,” hybrid tomato varieties, which are often marketed as heirlooms, but actually are not! They just happen to be two colorful, delicious (and profitable!) tomato varieties that farmers often sell alongside their heirlooms.

A lesser-known hybrid crop, Kernza is a perennial grain that is currently being developed by the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas through a rapidly-sequenced breeding program (not to be construed with genetic engineering). Kernza and other perennial seed crops are being bred at the Land Institute with the intent of restoring the historic prairie environment while providing food for humans and animals. Land Institute founder, Wes Jackson, calls this “ecologically intensified polyculture.” These seed crops are quite possibly the most revolutionary of hybrid crops being developed, as they hold the potential to completely upend the nutrient extractive, water polluting, soil degrading paradigm of current seed crop production (think corn, soy, wheat, rice, sunflower, canola, etc.).

Yes, we need our hybrids too.

Selective breeding (also referred to as artificial selection) is the method humans have employed since the dawn of agriculture in order to create plants and animals that serve our needs more effectively. Selective breeding involves humans intentionally breeding plants or animals with similar characteristics and selecting the offspring with preferred traits for breeding future generations. One major drawback of selective breeding, is it that it actually can drain the “gene pool” – while providing us with a plant or animal whose characteristics we like, the population as a whole might become more vulnerable to a particular intervening variable, such as a blight or virus because of its lack of genetic diversity. This is how our heirloom crops and heritage breeds were initially bred by our “forefathers,” which helps to explain their tendency to not be as vigorous as hybrid varieties.

In summary, we know that diversity ensures resilience, in living systems. And we’re living in  times of accelerated ecological upheaval of global consequence – quite likely, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert has asserted, the beginning of the sixth “great extinction” in the history of planet Earth. The rapid loss of genetic diversity in the world around us should be concerning to us all. And no, genetic engineering technology is not going to allow us to “hack” our way out of this dilemma. Nor is a fixation on “heirloom” and “heritage” breeds merely because they are genetically more “pure” and originated a long time ago. Instead, as farmers, gardeners and consumers, we must clearly focus our efforts on driving the demand for genetically diverse fruits, seeds, vegetables, and animals products. The resilience of our food system will depend on it.


Adapting “Good Agricultural Practices” to Garden to Cafeteria Programs

Posted on Leave a comment

At Grow Your Lunch, we care about food systems change. We envision food systems in which people buy from local food producers, and on-site edible gardens supply supplemental produce to cafes, cafeterias, restaurants and home kitchens.

In order for this to work, however, those of us charged with making sure these gardens are successful have to learn an awful lot, specifically regarding food safety and Good Agricultural Practices (“GAPs”). In order to provide food that is safe, reliable and delicious, our movement needs to professionalize itself. And fortunately this is happening, little by little. In cities around the US, from Ventura to Chicago, Detroit to Denver, Atlanta to Mountain View, educational gardens are taking the necessary steps to becoming approved food sources.

So what are GAPs?

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, GAPs are:

“practices that address environmental, economic and social sustainability for on-farm processes, and result in safe and quality food and nonfood agricultural products”

And why do GAPs matter in garden to cafeteria programs?

First and foremost, using GAPs minimizes the risk of food borne illness. Following GAPs can also increase the likelihood of administrative “buy-in” for piloting garden to cafeteria programs.  Following GAPs can help minimize potential for liability issues for third party organizations operating gardens on private and public property. Following GAPs also increases the overall professionalism of your garden program and makes it more educational as an example of industry standards.

GAPs: Six Primary Areas of Consideration

There are six primary categories of consideration for GAPs in school gardens: Water, Soils, Land Use and Animal Access, Tools Equipment and Storage, Employee and Volunteer Training, and Record Keeping.

I. Water

First of all you need to know where your water is coming from. Is it stored or coming directly from the source? If you’re using municipal water, the city government is responsible for testing water but it is always recommended to conduct a water test “in-house” for potential contaminants once a year. Always record and date your water test results. Stored rainwater should generally not be used to irrigate vegetable crops unless special steps are being taken to ensure it is not contaminated. Any water that comes into contact with food post-harvest must be 100% potable.


II. Soils

You must test your soil at least once a year. If you’re growing in the ground, test for chemical and/or heavy metal contamination (always remember to date and record results). Use Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)–certified materials for building and filling raised beds. If you plan to use manure, first check to see if it’s OK to use manure in your county. If it is, observe 90-120 days to harvest rule for application on fruit crops and vegetables, respectively, in accordance with USDA organic standards. If you plan to use compost made on site, first check to see if it’s OK to use compost made on site in your city and county. If it is allowed, make sure your compost meets USDA organic standards for heating and aeration. If using your own compost is not allowed, use an OMRI-certified compost product. Vermicompost is normally OK, but it’s always worth checking local regulations. If you use other amendments and sprays, always use as recommended on the package label and in accordance with soil test data. If using a sprayer, be sure it is cleaned and dried thoroughly before storage. A “Soil Amendment Application” log should be kept for all soils and soil amendment applications, documenting the following: date of application, product name, bed/block applied to, amount applied/area, etc.


III. Land Use and Animal Access

First, learn the history of your site: Is there a history of flooding or other potential for contamination at your site? Familiarize yourself with adjacent land use: What’s happening upstream/upwind? Can buffers, setbacks and/or windbreaks minimize impact of adjacent activities? Domestic and wild animals should be kept out of active growing areas at all times: Physical barriers such as fences, raised beds and hoops with screen or row covers can mitigate animal intrusion. Keep a “Rare Occurrence Log” to document incidents of animal intrusion or potential contamination and what was done about it (food safety is all about due diligence and traceability, so the better your records are the safer you and the food you grow will be).


IV. Tools, Equipment and Storage

If  your tools, surfaces and containers come into contact with food postharvest, they must be cleaned/sanitized at an appropriate frequency based on 1.) How dirty each gets, 2.) How frequently it is used, and 3.) The level of food contamination risk associated with the tool/surface or container in question. This is decided at each site. Use separate containers for temporary storage of clean and dirty tools and equipment (while in active use). Post-cleaning, tools and equipment must be stored off the ground and kept away from animals and other contaminants. A “Tool and Equipment Cleaning Log” must be kept, documenting the name of tool/equipment item cleaned, date cleaned, by whom, types of cleaning products and procedures used.


V. Employee and Volunteer Training

The most important training for employees and volunteers is personal hygiene. Any person leading gardening and/or harvesting activities should undergo personal hygiene training, which must include hand-washing procedures and protocols for identifying sickness, allergies, and dealing with emergencies (injury, bleeding), etc. Anyone leading gardening and/or harvesting activities should also undergo GAPs training and should be able to confidently lead groups through approved harvesting and post-harvest handling protocols and logistics associated with your program.


VI. Record Keeping

The following records should be kept for your garden to cafe, cafeteria or restaurant program:

  1. Soil Testing Data
  2. Water Testing Data
  3. Applications/Inputs: All manure, compost, organic amendment, sprays (include date of application, product name, bed/block applied to, amount applied/area, etc.)
  4. Planting: Date, crop, variety, plant or seed source, bed/block name or number, quantity planted, success rate, etc.
  5. Harvesting: Date/time, crop, variety, bed/block harvested from, name of harvest leader, name/signature of receiver. All produce delivered must also be labeled with the harvest date/time, crop, variety, bed/block harvested from, name of harvest leader, name/signature of receiver, quantity of product and the crop/variety of the product. Adding a harvest # or code can help with traceability in large programs.
  6. Rare Occurrence Log: Animal intrusion, suspected contamination of any kind and “corrective action” taken
  7. Tool and Equipment Cleaning Log
  8. Employee and/or Volunteer Training Records
  9. Annual Self-Audit/Traceability Records

Grow Your Lunch is here to help you make your garden to cafeteria program a success. We can facilitate the development of a successful garden to cafe, restaurant or cafeteria program by providing you with the following resources:

    1. A customized Planting and Harvesting Calendar and Crop Plan
    2. A Garden to Cafeteria Protocols Manual, customized to meet the specific public health and food safety regulations of your city and county
    3. Professional Development Workshops for employees and volunteers managing your program
    4. Tools and Strategies for using garden produce without a prep kitchen facility
    5. Program Marketing Strategy to build buy-in and participation in your program

Plant Part Tacos


Grow Your Lunch, LLC has provided this information as completely and accurately as possible, however, we accept no legal responsibility whatsoever for incorrect, insufficient or inadequate food safety risk management, or for any errors or omissions in the information provided herein.

Read this article on the Edible Schoolyard blog.


USDA Food Safety Tips for School Gardens

CDFA Small Farm Food Safety Guidelines

Community Alliance with Family Farmers (“CAFF”), Food Safety and Good Agricultural Practices Resources

Family Farmed “Eat What You Grow” Manual Created with Chicago Public Schools

Local University Cooperative Ag. Extensions

School Garden Summer Success Secrets

Posted on Leave a comment

Summer presents numerous challenges in the school garden. Whenever we meet with school communities, the same question always arises, “What are we supposed to do in the summer time?” Fortunately, there are some simple solutions to common concerns about summer in the school garden.


Common concerns about summer include:

1.) There will be no staff, students or teachers on campus to take care of the garden.
2.) Summer crops use more water than spring, fall and winter crops. Why use lots of water to grow food that students will not be around to harvest?
3.) In higher latitudes and altitudes, summer is the main growing season. If we don’t grow in the summer, we won’t have a garden!
4.) Irrigation systems can falter – batteries die, leaks occur, water can get disconnected for construction projects, etc.

Our recommendations:

1.) Set up a calendar for families to rotate taking care of the garden for a week or two at a time. If a family can visit the garden two times per week to water, weed, and check that the irrigation systems are running properly, they get to take home any food that is ready to harvest. Orient families to their responsibilities before school gets out in the late spring.
2.) Create a summer program that links to other summer camps or summer school programs, local youth clubs, etc. in order to get more children into the garden when it is in full production.
3.) If possible, set up a paid internship program for teens to help take care of the garden.
4.) Fallow, mulch over, or cover-crop areas of the garden that do not need to be in production during the summer months. Mustards, buckwheat and cow peas are good summer cover crops for cooler climates, sun hemp (a legume) works well in warmer climates.
5.) Prioritize maximizing crop diversity in the garden over food production in the summer. A broader diversity of crops will help to ensure a more resilient garden ecosystem.
6.) Don’t be afraid to let annual plants get wild and go to seed during summer. Pulling out overgrown plants, saving seeds, building compost piles, and cultivating the soil are perfect gardening tasks for students to become familiar with at the beginning of the school year (video password: Grow2016).
7.) Plant the summer crops as late as possible in order to get a late summer harvest when students are back in school.

Three Sisters Original

Though the challenge of maintaining a school garden during the summer will remain as long as summer vacation exists, there are numerous ways to rethink the garden during summer that can allow for new opportunities and less frustration and lost production. We hope you find these tips useful!

As always, if you would like to connect with us to discuss your school’s garden program, you can schedule a free school garden strategy session here. If your community could benefit from a Garden Site and Program Assessment, you can find details here.

Happy growing!

The Art of Weeding

Posted on Leave a comment
Japanese WeedingTool - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Japanese Weeding Tool – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

The Art of Weeding

Believe it or not, weeding is an art. Timing is everything when it comes to weeding. Pulling weeds before they make seeds and reproduce is crucial to successfully weeding your garden. Spring is the ideal time for major weeding projects as the ground is still soft and the weeds have not yet reproduced.

Many weeds are actually good for the garden and it is never bad to have a diversity of plants around – the more diverse the plant cover in your garden, the more diverse and resilient a living system of soil microorganisms and animals you will encourage.

There are, however, a few primary concerns when it comes to weeds:

1.) Some weeds are invasive and can actually take over the garden if left unchecked.
2.) Weeds might not die when you pull them, so make sure to get the plant out from the root.
3.) The third concern is that some weeds compete for nutrients, water and sunlight with our intended plants in the garden.


1.) Identify the weeding priorities in the garden, from highest to lowest priority.

2.) Focus on pulling out one to three types of weeds at a time.

3.) If you are weeding within a garden bed that is already planted, consider using a small hand-weeding tool or working by hand without any tools at all. A garden hoe can also be useful in a larger bed that is already planted.

4.) If you are working in an area of the garden that is not planted, a digging fork is the best tool for the job as you can use its tines to dig out the roots of the weeds.

This is an excerpt from Edible Gardening: 10 Essential Practices for Growing Your Own Food. Download free PDF or purchase hard copy.

Gardening Gloves - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Gardening Gloves – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Planting with Lunar and Solar Cycles

Posted on Leave a comment

Since the dawn of civilization, farmers and gardeners have been planting their crops in tandem with solar and lunar cycles.

Earth's Moon Phases

Based on solar and lunar calendars for the northern hemisphere in 2016, we’ve determined that the days between the first quarter moon phase (March 16) and full moon (March 23), closest to the equinox (March 20), will provide for the fastest germination and optimal production of our annual herbs, flowers and vegetables.

With this seasonal positioning in mind, we will be planting on Country Flat Farm on March 20.  If you’d like to join us for a propagation workshop that day, please register before March 18.

Planting with Lunar Cycles

Lunar planting theories vary as widely as the farmers and gardeners who ascribe to them.  Some claim that seeds will sprout best if planted during the new moon phase. Others claim that planting near a full moon is best. Though the exact timing of when to plant in the lunar cycle and the actual impact of the moon on crop production is debated, the gravitational pull from the moon on each water molecule on Earth – in the oceans (think tides), rivers, lakes and streams, even the water in our bodies and the water within sprouting seeds – does vary throughout the roughly 29-day lunar cycle. Based on tidal models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), our theory is that if there is an optimal time to plant seeds throughout the lunar month, it is when the moon is approaching it’s full and new phases.

Here’s why:

Between the first quarter and full moon and between the third quarter and new moon phases, each molecule of water on our planet is quite literally “pulled” toward the moon with increasing gravitational tug each day, peaking with spring tides (which occur twice per lunar month when solar and lunar tides are aligned), encouraging each sprouting seed (filled with water) to reach the surface more quickly:

Spring Tides 2Spring Tides 1


After the full or new moon phase, the tidal highs and lows decrease for a few days, reaching lowest levels on the first and third quarter, with the corresponding neap tides (which also occur twice per lunar month), as the sun and moon pull at the Earth’s water at a 90 degree angle:

Neap Tides 2 Neap Tides1


Optimal transplanting times are during the days between the full moon and third quarter and the new moon and first quarter (when tides move from spring to neap), as the gravitational pull of the moon upon each molecule of water on the planet decreases each day until the third quarter or first quarter. The theory goes that as the gravitational pull from the moon decreases, roots grow away from the gravitational pull of the sun and moon (deeper into the ground) more easily.

Planting with Solar Cycles

Planting on or near the spring equinox (late March in the northern hemisphere, late September in the south) is another technique used by traditional farming cultures worldwide. This relevance of this method is also debated, yet it too has some scientific clout: annual plants that sprout on or around the spring equinox will receive an increasing amount of light each day for three months, allowing them to grow large, healthy leaves and deep, prosperous roots. After the summer solstice, or longest day of the year (late June in the northern hemisphere, late December in the south), plants react to decreasing amounts of sunlight and begin to produce flowers, fruits and seeds, which we harvest in the late summer and early fall, near the autumnal equinox (late September in the northern hemisphere, late March in the south).

Though there’s never a guarantee with gardening and farming, we figure it can’t hurt to plant in accordance with these cycles as best we can.


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – National Ocean Service (Tides and Water Levels)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Ocean Service Education (Elliptical Orbit Models)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Ocean Service Education (Lunar Day)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Ocean Service Education (Spring and Neap Tide Models)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration – Earth’s Moon: Galleries


Grow Your Own Heirloom Grains!

Posted on Leave a comment

I have been enchanted by the beauty and diversity of heirloom seeds for many seasons.  The rich history that each variety embodies leads us back to our cultural roots and to the tales of our Middle Eastern, European, African, Asian, Indian and American agricultural forebears.

Many of our heirloom varieties are at risk of being lost entirely as they are less desirable for commercial production due to variation in color, size and shape.   Ironically, many of these varieties thrive in small, diversified gardens and are especially pleasing to the palate!  A crucial aspect of the “mainstreamification” of sustainable agriculture (if you will) lies in educating the masses about the pleasures involved in growing, cooking, eating and saving seeds from special varieties of food crops, including our staple crops such as grains and beans.

In California we grow just about any kind of food crop save the tropical fruits, coffee and cacao.  Within the last 10 years, farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms have quadrupled their markets.  Left largely out of the picture in the local food conversation, however, have been the staple crops, which, according to Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, comprise about 70% of the calories we consume.

Sadly, our precious, locally grown Little Gem lettuces, Chioggia beets and Kishu tangerines are not enough to fill our bellies year-round.  We need seeds, every day, and a lot of them (unless you are on one of the hip, Paleolithic-type, low carb diets!).  Consider for a moment where the flour comes from which supplies your local artisanal baker.  In most cases, even if they sell at the farmer’s market, the grain is from the Midwestern US and we are back to the average food mile total of 1,500 miles per bite!

Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, O’odham Pink beans, Runner Cannellini beans, Hopi Blue Corn, Inca Rainbow Quinoa, and Hopi Red Amaranth are among my favorite heirloom crops.  For many years now, heirloom tomatoes have received more attention than any other crop. I know of farms that are keeping hundreds of varieties of these spectacularly diverse and delicious fruit.  In my opinion, however, it is the staple crops (beans and grains) that deserve more attention.  For this reason and many others, I encourage every client I work with to cultivate a “Three Sisters” patch of corn, beans and squash.  It is highly productive (calorically speaking), all three crops can store through the Winter, and it is an excellent lesson in Native American history and companion planting!

Last Fall, in steady pursuit of small scale, full caloric independence,  I purchased 100 pounds of organic White Sonora wheat from a local farm here on the CA Central Coast and tried it out on my family farm (see: http://countryflatfarm.com/). According to Slow Food USA, White Sonora is one of the oldest wheat varieties in the United States.

(see: http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/programs/ark_product_detail/white_sonora_wheat/)

It is less productive per acre, but yields very fine wheat which is excellent for baking.

So I cultivated after our first big rain and broadcast the seed by hand out into the field.  I always sow extra seed for the birds, as they will take it even if they are not invited!  The seed germinated with the next rain and came up well throughout the Winter and Spring.  In July, I cut it down and bundled it for in preparation for processing.

Having had little experience threshing and winnowing grains, I thought I could manage doing it by hand.  Threshing involves separating the seed from the straw, and winnowing separating the seed from the chaff (seed husk).  I tried a number of different hand-threshing and winnowing methods before I realized that I would be busy for weeks if I were to do it all by hand.  So I gave my friends up at Pie Ranch in Pescadero a call.  I originally purchased the grain from them and I knew they would have some alternative threshing and winnowing technologies.

As it turns out, they have a 1950’s vintage All Crop combine which attaches to a tractor and can process virtually any kind of seed crop.  So I took my wheat up to Pie Ranch and passed it through the combine.  Within 20 minutes the entire load was processed! Ah, the miracles of modern machinery! I had intended to not use any fossil fuels in the process, and was once again reminded of the convenience such energy-rich fuels offer us in agriculture.

I ended up with about 50 pounds of grain.  My friend Jered from Pie Ranch then showed me how to winnow the seed until it was perfectly clean using a household fan:

Once the seed was completely clean, Jered showed me how to use the Austrian stone grinder that they have in their barn.  As flour quickly goes rancid, it is best to mill, or grind, it in small batches.  I ground up a couple of pounds to take home to my mom and my girlfriend for baking:

To be honest, it was a whole lot of work and I ended up with about as much grain as I started with. I lost a lot of seed as I harvested it. Hopefully, much of the seed that was dropped will sprout up again when the rains return this Fall and I won’t have to replant it. It is, however, very affirming to eat breads, cakes, muffins and cookies grown from your own land. I grew about a quarter of an acre and it will be enough flour for my family for the whole year. Even if you only have a small 5×8 foot bed, you will be surprised with how much actual grain you generate. It will certainly be enough to make a few delicious batches of home-grown cookies!