TransFarming: A Sustainable Path to Food Self-Sufficiency Reply

DSC_0043-b_edited-1Our times are changing rapidly. This is occurring on many fronts, but few more rapidly than with our food supply.

Examples include the increasing number of national outbreaks of e-coli bacteria in our meat and vegetables, the growing trend towards genetically modified foods (GMO’s), ever present undercurrent of our food being sprayed with chemicals ranging from pesticides and insecticides to herbicides and fungicides, and the nutrient depletion due to modern farming methods.

Along with this are the precarious transportation issues that come with shipping produce from hundreds and thousands of miles from other states and countries. To do this often involves harvesting produce while still unripe and gassing them with bromides to accelerate ripening while still at the processing plant. After the long trip from the farm to the dinner table, much of the nutritional value of the food is depleted.

This all brings us to a personal cross-road. Do we simply continue on this path, or do we take our personal food production and thus supply, into our own hands? The growing trend points to the latter. Non-conventional food sources are cropping up all over the country. A few examples include small “mom and pop” micro-farms, CSA’s (community supported agriculture), food cooperatives, and backyard farms.

By far the most popular of all these endeavors are the backyard farms. These are ordinary backyards that have been transformed into personal farms, sometimes called TransFarms.

TransFarming incorporates the rapidly vanishing wisdom of our recent ancestors, while incorporating modern components and techniques that work in harmony with each other to support the entire growing cycle. Given a deliberate, calculated integration of these specific components and supports, a much higher “rate of return” is realized beyond each component by itself, while providing sustainability.

Backup and Redundancy

The pioneers must have done something right, after all we are here. They figured something out. They understood the importance of backup and redundancy. They used these two approaches to ensure they would have sufficient food in case of unexpected catastrophe. But how would this work in a modern “backyard” setting?

Over the past year, an organization called The Texas Aquaponic and TransFarming Group has embarked on a mission to figure this out. As a result, they have helped develop many different methods of producing clean, healthy food in a backyard setting, while focusing on backup and redundancy.

A possible backyard scenario may include plant cuttings (waste) from an organic garden being used to feed a rabbit. The rabbit’s slightly acidic and enriched litter goes to the berry bushes and gardens as highly fertilized mulch. What the bunny doesn’t eat goes to the egg laying chickens. They do their business on the hay which produces “highly-fertilized hay” which is used for ground cover in the garden. What neither of them eats is destined for the composter where mulch is made for the fruit trees. Nothing is wasted on a Transfarmed yard!

And then there is the Aquaponic system, a great addition to any food growing program. An Aquaponic system can create an unlimited supply of fertilized water for the gardens, an abundant year round produce crop, and great tasting clean fish to harvest. The occasional deceased fish fertilizes the garden also, just like the pilgrims did.

Additional supports for food growing such as worms that grow naturally in the gardens also feed the gardens, chickens, and fish, and are beneficial to an Aquaponic system itself.

Even a domesticated protection pet is part of the equation. A little dog will instinctively patrol the perimeter and keeps out squirrels, cats, possums, other vermin, especially those pesky chicken loving raccoons. Any dog will do, as long as they are smart enough not to dig up your gardens and attack the chickens.

The end of the waste chain for each system is the beginning of the food chain for the others, and ultimately ours!

In a TransFarmed setting, there can be any number of time proven approaches to food production which are integrated with “modern” techniques that take into consideration our times. Some primary components may include Wicking beds, Aquaponics, HugelKultures, Tank gardens, Keyhole gardens, as well as conventional raised bed gardens. Other ancillary supporting components may include composting, water capture, vermiculture (worms), chickens, and rabbits. These all support the primary components. Several of these components are described in further detail below.

There is one factor that is paramount to all this…water.

Water, Water, Water.

At the core of all food production is water. Without it, nothing prospers. TransFarming is about “re-thinking” traditional gardening methods to address regional and environmental challenges such as droughts, water restrictions and disruptions,while keeping in mind techniques for prosperous food production. TransFarming involves growing food in ways that conserve water.

Weather wise, not much has changed from the days of our ancestors, but they used vastly different approaches to dealing with the climate than we do today. They did not worry about watering their lawns. Should we?

TransFarming techniques utilize two approaches to minimize water use – water conservation and water retention.  Water conservation includes housing large amounts of water in a way that uses the minimal amount required to grow food. These may include Wicking beds and Aquaponic systems. Another approach is using the properties of decomposition to conserve water. Decaying organic matter such as logs and branches absorb water and release it, along with nutrients, during dry conditions. This approach may include a HugelKulture, Tank gardens, and Keyhole gardens. At times it may make sense to shade your gardens in the summer to minimize evaporation, or winter to help keep things warm. An inexpensive Monkey hut may be used.

Following are brief descriptions of some TransFarming components often used to minimize water use while growing food in the backyard.

WATER CONSERVATION

DWicking Beds

Wicking beds have proven to be a viable solution to the Texas heat and water conservation. These simple structures, based on a raised bed garden, incorporate a reservoir underneath the bed to store water. The garden is watered through an exposed pipe which then wicks water upward through the soil to the roots where water is needed the most. There is minimal evaporation. Done correctly, watering is needed about once every three weeks, rather than twice times a day. Wicking beds are relevant in any location.

Aquaponics-b Aquaponics

Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (soil-less plant production). In a backyard Aquaponic system, the nutrient-rich water that results from raising fish in any sized tank provides a source of natural fertilizer for the growing plants. Water is pumped from the fish tank into the plant trough. As the plants consume the nutrients in the water, they help to purify the water which is returned to the fish tank to be re-fertilized. A naturally occurring microbial process keeps both the fish and plants healthy, and helps sustain an environment where everything thrives. Both the plants and fish can be harvested year-round. Aquaponics is relevant in any location.

WATER RETENTION

DHugelKulture

A HugelKulture is a type of 3-dimentional raised bed garden that utilizes dead organic materials (logs and branches) that are too big to go in the compost. Decomposing wood absorbs water. While the HugelKulture can be planted immediately, over time, that is 3- 5 years, the materials in the bed decompose, and provide a slow release of nutrients for garden plants while creating an incredible mulch. Every year, it just gets better.

Because of its shape, a HugelKulture garden combines the multiple functions of rainwater harvesting, and irrigation using no cistern, pumps, or pvc pipes. Done properly, there may be no need to water all summer!

DTank Gardens

These wonderful structures are perfect for small yards and, like a Hugelkultures and Keyhole gardens, use compost as its method for retaining water while growing great food. The perimeter is simply rolled metal and available at any home improvement store. Since the border is made of metal, it will last for many years, only getting better each year due to the decomposition process.

DKeyhole Gardens

A keyhole garden uses the same principle as a HugelKulture and Tank garden in that decomposing matter is used to absorb and retain water in the soil. Large amounts of “rotting” wood and kitchen scraps are used under the soil which is stacked within layers of cardboard and paper. After completion and planting, composting matter such as kitchen scraps are added to the bed via a foot-wide chute which nourishes the entire system. A wedge is created in the circular rock bed wall to provide easy access the chute, which makes the garden look like a keyhole when viewed from above.

DHoop House/Monkey Huts

One of the major concerns with growing food (and fish) in the winter and summer is the temperature. The wind does not help much either. Greenhouses are expensive, and any constructed structures tend to be somewhat permanent.

Enter the simple Monkey Hut. These structures are by their very nature flexible, and designed to withstand strong wind and rain (dust too). Built correctly, they are easily dis-assembled in the spring, or used to support a shade cloth in the summer.

Raised-Bed-GardeningTraditional Raised Bed Gardening

Traditional raised bed gardening involves selecting the correct structure and materials for a specific outcome base on environmental factors such as shading, sun path, wind direction and desired crop. Additionally, soil composition will play a very large part in crop success.

A simple small hoop house may be desirable to protect from direct sun and winter cold. Simply hammer a metal rod into the ground at the four corners leaving about three inches above ground. Take PVC pipe and place it over the metal rods and bend it over the bed to create a frame. Then cover with plastic. Raised beds are not very water efficient.

Vermiculture

Worm composting is an excellent way to create organic matter for gardens and Aquaponic systems. They can be added directly to gardens and Aquaponic media beds, and also used to feed fish and chickens. Worms are important in the garden because they aerate the soil which helps lock in moisture.

The Bottom Line

As mentioned above, of key importance in any sustainable food growing effort is backup and redundancy. It is highly desirable to have as many different components available in your food growing system in case of stressful conditions or a failure in any one component. These components comprise a food growing “system” which is much more stable and reliable than a simple in the ground garden.

More information on each of these components and how to construct them is available at CleanFoodSolutions.org.

Growing Your Own Food: Seeds and Seed Banks Reply

There are many benefits to growing your own food. We all know about the chemicals applied to our produce (both before and after harvesting), and anyone who grocery shops on a regular basis is acutely aware of the constant rise in food costs. Just this morning I saw an article stating that corn is now trading at record prices. And for varying reasons, the nutritional value of supermarket produce is significantly lower than it was decades ago. So health, nutrition and economics are all compelling reasons to start a vegetable garden. Today, however, it’s the fear of an economic downturn or societal disruption that has led to a firestorm of activity among concerned Americans. More and more people are coming to the realization that self-sufficiency may be the only sure route to self-preservation in a time of crisis. And for those who are serious about getting off the grid, backyard food production ranks right up at the top of the list. Whoa, did I say “backyard?” Absolutely! It is not necessary to own an acre of land to grow enough produce to feed your family. Indeed, you can grow 2,000 pounds of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs on a typical subdivision lot each year – if you know what you’re doing and use proper, efficient gardening techniques. As long as you have sufficient sunlight and water, you can turn your back yard into a veritable food factory! However, in order to be truly self-sustaining, you must be able to grow not only your own food, but also the seeds you’ll use to plant next year’s garden. That won’t happen with the seeds you find at a Home Depot, Walmart, or even a local nursery. The reason for this is simple:  most store-bought seeds (usually from Burpee or Ferry-Morse) are GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) seeds. Seeds which produce genetically modified fruits and vegetable are now commonplace.  Approved by the U.S. government as a result of influence or pressure from large food-related corporations, these seeds produce higher-yield crops that are also disease resistant.  This sounds great, right?  Yes, but there is a downside. These genetically engineered (GMO) seeds can produce fruits and vegetables with altered nutrition.  This can be an unfortunate byproduct, and one that is invisible to consumers. Even careful shoppers who are intent on buying organically grown produce are often oblivious to the health concerns of fruits and vegetables grown from GMO seeds — and these concerns can involve much more than nutritional concerns.  Unfortunately, just as with most of the regular produce sold in grocery stores and farmer’s markets, organic foods are also often grown using GMO seeds. If you plant your garden using GMO seeds you will encounter these same effects.  You can grow great looking vegetables, but you may not be producing the healthy food you desire, and you won’t be able to save the seeds from those fruits and vegetables to replant the following season. Hybrid and GMO seeds and plants are usually a one-shot deal, meaning you have to re-buy your seed each year. If you want to replant each year using seeds you have grown yourself, you’ll need to buy seeds that are known as “open-pollinated” or heirloom seeds.”  Heirloom seeds are varieties that have been around for generations and are proven to reproduce “true-to-type” vegetables and fruit. These are the only types of seeds worthy of your hard-earned dollars (if self-sufficiency or improved nutrition is your goal). Most “seed banks” on the market today include only open-pollinated varieties, so you’ll probably be OK on that count regardless of which kit you buy. So if we put that issue aside, what other factors do you need to consider before making your purchase? Let’s take a look at just a few important considerations. 1.  Location, Location, Location Will the varieties included in the bank actually grow in your area? This is a very critical question. Most seed banks are generic; in other words, the bank of seeds sent to the fellow in Nebraska will not be any different from the one shipped to a customer in Florida. (To attain satisfactory production, it is imperative that you purchase seeds which are selected to thrive in your part of the country). 2.  Variety is the Spice of Life! Most banks on the market offer 15-25 varieties. For someone wishing to simply supplement their diet with home-grown produce, this is fine. But if you plan to rely on your bank to provide your family’s full nutritional produce requirements on an annual basis, 25 varieties simply isn’t going to cut it! First of all, you need enough varieties to fully utilize your entire growing season. You want to have a spring garden, a summer garden, a fall garden and even a winter garden if your growing zone will allow it! Second, you need a wide selection of varieties within each vegetable group simply to maintain an  interesting and nutritious diet. You want to thrive, not merely survive! And thirdly, should a particular variety not make it this year – for whatever reason – you need to have other (similar) varieties to fall back on. Even experienced gardeners will tell you that not every crop will be successful every year. There are simply too many variables which are outside your control. 3.  Self Preservation and Seed Preservation They go together like two peas in a pod! If your seed reserve is wiped out by rodents, flood, fungus or infestation, your family is going to be in a world of hurt. Your seeds are your life, and they need to be kept fully protected from light, moisture, humidity, heat and vermin.  Therefore, the storage container and manner in which your seeds are maintained is of absolute importance to the well-being of your family’s future food supply. Speaking of seed preservation, I would be negligent if I didn’t mention another critical point. Some companies – either through ignorance or a lack of integrity – will tell you that their seeds are good for 20 or 30 years – we’ve even seen a 50-year seed bank! I don’t have room to go into this in detail, but don’t buy it (literally and figuratively). Yes, it is possible for seeds to germinate, if properly stored, even decades after they are harvested, but the actual length of time is dependent upon the specific variety and numerous other mitigating factors. And germination rate should never be confused with plant viability; those are two entirely different issues. Again, do not risk the health and well-being of your family on seeds that are old! We strongly believe that if your seeds are over five years old, they should be replaced. Honestly, seed banks are very inexpensive when you consider what you are actually buying. And speaking of cheap, never confuse… 4.  Price and Value You really get what you pay for when it comes to seed banks. You need to take into account the number of varieties in the bank, whether or not the seed count for each variety is truly sufficient to meet the needs of your family, how the seeds are packaged and the quality of the training materials available from the vendor. If you are buying a bank for survival purposes, don’t get suckered into a $40 or $60 bank. Those will not, I repeat, will not preserve your family through long-term lean times. How about your water purification device? How about that fancy rifle that you may never have occasion to use? Your seeds are of equal importance to these necessities.  Don’t skimp.  Remember…  The Bitterness of poor quality far outlasts the sweetness of a “Good Deal!” — Kurt Nauck TexasReady.net _______________________ In our opinion, Texas Ready is the premiere seed bank for North America.  They also offer a selection of helpful books, and their blog is full of practical advice. Note:  Storage of your seed bank is another important consideration.  Many methods which are appropriate for long-term food storage, such as the use of oxygen absorbing packets, are not recommended for seed storage.  The use of a military-surplus ammo can with a good rubber seal, and storage at low but not freezing temperatures, is sufficient.  Better yet, start planting you seeds as soon as your growing season allows, and learn how to harvest your own seeds to expand your seed supply.