urban garden

What’s The Deal With Heirlooms?

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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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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

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Disclaimer:

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.

References:

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


Watering in a Drought

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© Elizabeth Eichorn, 2015

Without water, plants cannot absorb nutrients. To water the garden is to allow the roots of plants to access the nutrients surrounding them in the soil. By watering, we also stimulate the growth of beneficial soil-dwelling microorganisms. It may sound simple, but watering is actually one of the gardening tasks that demands the most precision and experience to get right – especially during a drought or in a desert climate.

Simply watering your garden less deeply is not a useful method for watering during drought. If your irrigation is shallow, most of the water you apply will be lost to evaporation. Instead, a deeper and less frequent watering regimen will allow your garden to thrive and minimize your garden’s water consumption.

Surprisingly, allowing the soil to dry down between waterings actually forces roots to grow better.  This means that established plants will put out root growth in every direction and maximize their potential for finding water.  Once they receive the water they need, they have access to new nutrients in the expanded root zone.

While water-efficient gardening techniques such as mulching and reusing household graywater or rainwater are excellent ways to save water, learning which irrigation method(s) to use in your garden remains key and can be challenging.

In this article we will explore 4 methods of irrigation, including the pros and cons of each, which we hope will assist you in creating an irrigation plan that works for you, your garden, and your ever-changing climate.

First, however, a couple of rules of thumb regarding watering:

  1. When watering recently sown seeds and young transplants, shallow and frequent irrigation is best.
  2. When watering larger, mature plants, a deeper, slower and less frequent watering is best.
  3. Water your garden in the morning so plants’ leaves have time to dry out throughout the day. Wet leaves in the evening may lead to the spread of fungus and disease in your garden.
  4. Water around your plants, trying to avoid watering the base of the plants and the leaves themselves. This minimizes the potential for fungal blight on the leaves and encourages lateral root growth.

Once you have finished watering, dig down into the soil to see how deeply the water has penetrated. You might be surprised by how much water you must apply in order for the water to soak down even just half an inch.

4 Methods of Irrigation

Overhead Irrigation is sprinkling water on your garden using a sprinkler that attaches to the end of a garden hose. Overhead methods provide even coverage over your garden but a lot of water is lost to evaporation. It is also difficult to set the sprinkler so that it doesn’t water pathways and other areas that you’d rather not irrigate.

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Flood Irrigation is used on flat ground where deep irrigation is required, using a system of levees and dams. This method also provides even coverage over the garden or field but can easily lead to a large loss of water (to evaporation and broken levees/dams).

Drip Irrigation is the most water-efficient method but coverage is not always as thorough  as flooding and overhead irrigation. Drip can also have a significant up-front cost compared to other methods. Drip systems can be set with a timer so that you do not have to manually engage it each time you want it to run.

Drip IrrigationCaution: It is very tempting to set a timer on your irrigation system and walk away from daily or even weekly observation of your garden. Leaks and breakages can occur, filters and emitters can get clogged, batteries lose their charge after a while and power outages can cause your timer to default to its original settings. If you decide to use drip, make sure to continue to check on the system on a regular basis by running it while you are in the garden to minimize this margin of error.

Hand Watering is by far the most accurate way to water your garden. You apply water to the plants in the garden that need it using a watering can, a hose and nozzle, or watering wand. Attending personally to each garden plant in this way is precise, though it is easy to forget to water, not water deeply enough, or get carried away and water too much or too frequently.

When we work with beginning gardeners, we often observe a tendency to water too much. Remember, plants are resilient. If their leaves are yellowing, wilting or turning brown and leathery, they are likely being overwatered. As an extra challenge to yourself, see how infrequently you can water your garden. You will likely find that your plants grow better than they ever have before!

For more information on water-efficient irrigation techniques, see:

Edible Gardening handbook – Free PDF, Hard Copy for purchase

University of California Cooperative Extension – Drought Gardening Tips

The Urban Farmer Store – Drip Irrigation Resources

Roots Demystified – Robert Kourik


Garden to Cafeteria: Challenges and Opportunities

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We are thrilled to announce the launch of the Mountain View Whisman School District’s (MVWSD) Farm to Lunch program. With the generous support of the El Camino Healthcare District, our team of Garden to Cafeteria experts has guided the Living Classroom through the legal and logistical barriers to getting food grown in local school gardens into the school lunch program. As a result, the Living Classroom, which “inspires children to learn and value our natural world through garden-based education,” is now also providing produce for cafeteria meals. Read San Jose Mercury News article here.

Crittenden Middle School students harvest kale for use in their schools lunch program (Photo: Jacqueline Lee / Daily News).

According to Cathy Baur, Assistant Superintendent of MVWSD,

“The Farm to Lunch program combines the hands-on experience of growing food with the health benefits of better eating…Students may now be more connected and perhaps more receptive to eating healthy vegetables and fruits.”

At Grow Your Lunch, we believe that garden to cafeteria initiatives are “connection laboratories”— by connecting the garden and cafeteria food systems, we make connections to the seasons, to local farms and farmers, to our diverse cultural ancestries, and to the natural world. Once we are familiar with the foods grown in the garden, we will be more likely to eat them when they appear in a package, on the buffet line or salad bar.

The idea that children (and adults!) just don’t like healthy food is a myth. In fact, we are hard-wired to avoid foods with which we are not familiar. And yet, anyone at any stage in life can learn to enjoy new foods. As renowned food writer Bee Wilson states, “Liking something is a consequence of familiarity.”

Cultivating this familiarity with fresh fruits and vegetables through garden to cafeteria initiatives is what we are all about. Still, including garden-grown produce in institutional food programs faces some common impediments:

1.) Fears of not complying with local, state and federal food safety laws
2.) A lack of technical productive gardening know-how within the community
3.) An unwillingness to challenge the status quo with regard to food procurement

If you’d like to learn more about how we address these common challenges, check out our Garden to Cafeteria page.

Thank you for your contributions to this movement and your dedication to growing a healthier generation.