Agroecology from A to Z

Adventures in Agroecology and Food Systems

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They’re here–they’re ready! Cholla buds’ grand opening!

Looking forward to trying some cholla buds this season…

Savor the Southwest:

staghorn cholla flower just opening (N.Stahler photo) staghorn cholla flower just opening (N.Stahler photo)

Tia Marta here with important news—something I was planning to share with you next month but wow here it is—our staghorn cholla cacti flowered yesterday.  That is a herald-horn in the desert for sure—it is cholla bud harvesting time again!

Ever since I was first led into the desert to learn cholla harvesting decades ago now by my Tohono O’odham mentor and teacher, Juanita, I’ve looked forward to this signal and to our ritual, with hope for the return of desert-food-season, and with gladness —not to mention with a little trepidation for the hazards of the business.  But in all the years of practicing our ritual harvest I’ve never seen the buds come on so early.   This is fully a month sooner than the “old normal.”  All through the 1970s,’80s, into the ‘90s, we could predict the cholla harvest to be cranking up…

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Vermicompost image contest for LinkedIn discussion group

Here are the finalists for the new icon associated with the Vermicompost Network within the Compost and Organic Innovation Development Network on LinkedIn.

We’ll host voting within the discussion group. The winner will be the new icon and runners up will be featured in the rotating header images. Thanks to everyone who submitted photos!

1 From Alfred Grand of  VERMIGRAND Naturprodukte GmbH

VERMIGRAND (13 von 17)

2 From Sophia van Ruth at Urban Edibles


3 From Bintoro Gunadi of Burnaby’s Red Wigglers

Burnaby's Red Wrigglers

4. From Tom Herlihy of Worm Power


Update: The winner was #3 with #4 as a runner up. Thanks everyone for submitting and voting!


Biological soil disinfestation, Deliflor Chrysanten, Maasdijk, The Netherlands

At the 2013 GroSci conference this summer, full name: The International Symposium on Growing Media and Soilless Cultivation, I had a chance to tour the growing operations of some of the major players in the international floriculture world.  The Dutch are definitely not messing around when it comes to floriculture, in fact The Netherlands is the world’s largest exporter of ornamental plants and cut flowers.

At Deliflor Chrysanten, the world’s largest Chrysanthemum breeder, we learned about some of the challenges of growing in field soil under glass. Many greenhouses have cement floors and use soilless media to produce plants in pots, but some leave the soil exposed and use it for cultivation. With continuous cultivation of the same or similar crop on a single patch of soil comes a build up of pathogens, especially fungal pathogens that specialize in infecting that particular crop. Many of these fungal pathogens like Verticillium spp. can form resting structures in the soil that persist for long periods of time. What are your options as a grower in this type of production system?

1) Move the greenhouse to a different patch of soil (OK, not really an option because of the heavy up front investment in the greenhouse and land. High tunnels are designed to be moved…greenhouses, get out of town!)

2) Spray/ fumigate the soils with synthetic chemical fungicides (Effective, but carries an environmental burden)

3) Steam sterilize the soils in situ (Current method of choice, less toxic than fungicides, but carries a high fossil fuel cost and therefore a different kind of environmental burden)

4) Biological soil disinfestation

What is biological soil disinfestation? It is a technique developed separately in Japan and The Netherlands as a biologically based crop disease management strategy. The basic principle is that a carbon based substrate is added to the soil, then the soil is covered with an impermeable layer. Oxygen levels rapidly decrease in the soil as soil microbes consume the feast provided by the added organic matter. Anaerobic microorganisms become active in the soil in the absence of oxygen and contribute to the build up of compounds in the soil that are toxic to the resting structures of fungal plant pathogens (most likely organic acids). The tarp is removed and the soil is allowed to stabilize for a few days before planting while aerobic microbes become active again and the toxic compounds are degraded.

We heard from Henk Meints of Thatchtec who has been carrying out research and development for specialized blends of organic matter for use in soil resetting.


Deliflor Chrysanten greenhouse facilities in Maasdijk, NL
Satellite image from Google Maps

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Chrysanthemum transplants in soil
Photo credit: Paula van Ommen

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Soil covered for soil steaming process, an alternative to fungicide use
Photo credit: Paula van Ommen

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Chrysanthemum breeding plots
Photo credit: Paul van Ommen

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Blooming chrysanthemums
Photo credit: Paula van Ommen

A special thanks to Paula van Ommen for allowing me to use her beautiful photos of these farm tours.

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Native Seeds/SEARCH, Patagonia, AZ

As part of the 2012 Border Food Summit, I had the opportunity to visit the Native Seeds/SEARCH conservation farm in Patagonia, AZ. Fun fact, Native Seeds/SEARCH was co-founded by Prescott College alum and prominent food systems scholar and advocate, Gary Nabhan, now at the Southwest Center  (University of Arizona).

On this tour with NSS staff Chris Schmidt, we learned about Native Seeds/SEARCH’s crop conservation work where they manage and curate a collection of traditional landraces in the Southwest. Corn, panic grass and chia seed are crops covered in the video along with basic seed saving practices. We also enjoyed the music of Aztral Folk and the tasty catering of Muñueca Mexicana.

Later in the fall, I assigned a Robin Kimmerer piece to my Land Stewards students that had a nice profile of Native Seeds/SEARCH and their role in conserving traditional ecological knowledge. The paper is Weaving Traditional Ecological Knowledge into Biological Education: A Call to Action. I had the pleasure of meeting Robin at a talk she gave for the American Indian Program at Cornell a few years back. I highly recommend this paper for all educators who cover traditional ecological knowledge in their courses.


Chris Schmidt gives a tour of the Native Seeds/SEARCH Patagonia farm


Panic grass


Conserving traditional landraces of corn


Erin Lingo (former Prescott College CSA Coordinator – Prescott Farmers’ Market manager), Gary Nabhan (U of A, Native Seeds/SEARCH) and me. Who wears white pants to a farm tour? Lesson learned.

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Regional flour milling, Trumansburg, NY

Back in 2010 when I was living in Ithaca, NY I had the opportunity to tour a local grain mill in Trumansburg, Farmer Ground Flour. The region has a long history of grain milling with an old water powered mill at the top of Lucifer Falls/Enfield Falls in what is now Treman State Park. The water-powered gristmill was built in 1839 by Isaac Rumsey and used to mill wheat and corn until 1917.

Old Mill at Treeman State Park, Source:

Old Mill at Treeman State Park, Source:

And of course the Haudenosaunee (French name: Iroquois) people were grinding corn in the region for many centuries before that, with Jane Mt. Pleasant dating corn’s arrival to North America at 2,000 years ago. There is a regional project to bring back traditional Haudenosaunee white corn in the areas it was historically grown. If you are an agricultural history nut like I am, you will love Jane Mt. Pleasant’s 2011 paper, The paradox of plows and productivity: an agronomic comparison of cereal grain production under Iroquois hoe culture and European plow culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Students in my Land Steward’s course read this paper and it sparked some really fascinating discussions on how traditional ecological knowledge can guide modern sustainable agriculture practices. The corn yields in the traditional no-till system were astounding.

Haudenosaunee women grinding corn, unidentified 1664 engraving

Haudenosaunee women grinding corn, unidentified 1664 engraving

During the tour, you’ll see freelance journalist Sharon Tregaskis scribbling notes as we talk with Greg. Shortly after the tour she published a profile of the milling operation in the Cornell Alumni Magazine. I also love her piece on Black Currant production in the Fingerlakes. The winter 2013 issue of Edible Fingerlakes also has a nice profile of Farmer Ground Flour. So as much as I would like to ramble on about this operation, I’ll let Greg Mol, the miller and the professional writers, Sharon Tregaskis and Amy Halloran, take it away…

A brief note about this tour: These were the early days of design, construction and operation at the Farmer Ground Flour Mill. They have an updated facility now, but I feel this video is still instructive especially to those who are just starting out in a regional food processing business. An incredible amount of ingenuity, tinkering and research are involved in getting a project like this up and running because the infrastructure and equipment to support similar enterprises assumes a much larger scale of operation. Check out how this business re-invented small-scale regional milling:

Updates: Farmer Ground Flour received a USDA grant in 2012 supporting their work to create a sustainable regional food system. You can keep up with their progress on their Facebook site.

Farmer Ground Flour Granted Funds by USDA Rural Development to Expand Market (from the NOFA-NY newsletter)
“Farmer Ground Flour was awarded $75,000 by the USDA Rural Development Fund under the Value-added Producers grant program. These funds will be matched by $50,000 in working capital contributed to the project by Farmer Ground Flour, and a $25,000 personal loan made to the project by local residents Jon Bosak and Bethany Schroeder. Mr. Bosak and Ms. Schroeder are enthusiastic about participating in reviving local grain growing and milling in Tompkins County, and agreed to have the interest on the loan paid to them in flour and grain on a monthly basis. The two-year, $150,000 marketing expansion project will focus on expanding wholesale sales to bakers and institutions, and retail sales at stores and farmers markets.”

A brief note in memory of Bethany Schroeder, her work in the sustainability movement in Tompkins County lives on…

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East New York Farms, Brooklyn, NY

When I was living in Ithaca, I was part of a graduate student group called New World Agriculture and Ecology Group (NWAEG). One of NWAEG at Cornell’s members, Megan Gregory, learned about about an innovative urban farming group through her research project in NYC, The Garden Ecology Project. In collaboration with local food justice groups, NWAEG at Cornell (a graduate student group) invited two youth interns and a staff member from East New York (ENY) Farms in Brooklyn to head up state and share the secrets of their success with us in s series of events on urban agriculture and food justice that we called “Urban Harvest”. ENY Farms has recently been profiled in the NY Times and is one great example of what people and communities are rolling up their sleeves and doing while other parts of the food movement are doing a lot of talking according to Erika Nicole Kendall’s recent article in Salon, America’s Food Debates are Just White Men Talking. Also, ENY Farms was also just featured in one of my favorite radio programs, Story Corps, with a series of interviews of urban farmers and food justice advocates in East New York. You can listen to all of the interviews on the ENY Farms YouTube channel.

Central NY’s food justice movement has been growing in recent years through individuals, churches, and non-profits like GreenStar Co-op. The movement has developed partnerships within Cornell University and Cornell Cooperative Extension most notably through the Whole Community Project, Gardens 4 Humanity and Healthy Soils, Healthy Communities. We invited members of these projects to sit on a panel with our visitors from ENY Farms.

The next day, Southside Community Center hosted an all day event, Youth in Urban Agriculture and Community-Led Economic Development, and invited the community to come and hear about ENY Farms’ progress in creating the kind of food system they want to see. Youth interns from ENY Farms and Cornell students and Ithaca community members facilitated a visioning process where the community laid out the desired positive changes in the food system. Fun fact, our neighbor in Ithaca remembered when Eleanore Roosevelt came to town to the opening celebration of the Southside Community Center’s new building in 1938.

Updates: David Vigil is now the Director of ENY Farms, and although the Ithaca community misses her (a lot!) Kirtrina Baxter is doing food system work in Philadelphia.


Kirtrina Baxter, then director of Southside Community Center and Greenstar Community Projects


Cameal, youth intern with ENY Farms facilitating a community visioning session at Ithaca’s Southside Community Center


Musheerah, youth intern at ENY Farms facilitates a community visioning session at Ithaca’s Southside Community Center



Event organizers and guests taking some time to explore Fingerlakes gorges
L to R: Kirtrina, Musheera, David, Cameal, Jahi and Sam.

ENY Farms

It was really fun to host ENY Farms members at our home in Ithaca’s Northside neighborhood. Best potluck ever!

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Using affinity diagramming to learn about the global food system

I first learned about affinity diagramming through my work with the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association which hosts participatory conferences using different types of group facilitation techniques. I later incorporated the technique into some public workshops I helped host through the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group at Cornell. I found it to be a fantastic tool for refining ideas after a huge brainstorming session and very useful in community organizing around food systems issues. But I wasn’t really sure that it would be helpful or even work in a classroom setting. When I first toured the room for my Security, Equality and Ecology of Global Food Production class, I knew I had to try to squeeze it into my curriculum planning. The other faculty members lovingly referred to this classroom as “The Bowling Alley” because it was such a long, narrow room. The Mariposa building at Prescott College is a former carpet warehouse that has been creatively re-purposed as a teaching and public event space. If we had access to enormous empty walls, we were definitely going to put stuff on them!

On the first day of class, I asked my first year students to brainstorm topics that were in their mind part of the global food system. We wrote them on giant notepads in a frenzied and loud brainstorming session. That night I cut out all of the individual items and got some painter’s tape so as not to damage the paint job in my classroom. For the next class I introduced the affinity diagramming concept. When the students arrived all of the individual topics were posted on the left hand wall of the room. The only rule is “no talking” and the whole group was asked to move individual topics from the left hand wall to the right hand wall and cluster them into categories. Again, without talking. And the idea is to eventually reach consensus, although there was definitely some spirited back and forth with individual topics bouncing from one cluster to another. There was also some giggling, but that is to be expected when asking 12 students to do something this silly and new to them without talking.

We kept the clusters on the wall for the entire semester. For every new reading, we decided if new topics that we had learned about belonged on the “Global Food System Wall” and if so, in which cluster? I loved having it as a giant map to guide us as we delved into a wide variety of complex topics from food sovereignty, racism in the food system and the nuts and bolts of commodity markets. I also loved how it shook up the classroom dynamics by giving all students an equal say in the final result. Sometimes students who were not particularly vocal in class discussions felt comfortable physically leading much of the clustering process. I would definitely use this technique in the classroom again.

Students in this course also hosted a public education and outreach event on global food systems, the annual Global Food Dinner.


Results of initial brainstorming session
“What topics are part of the global food system?”


Refining the topics by clustering like items (without talking)

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Using game design to learn about land stewardship

For the fall 2012 Land Stewards class at Prescott College I designed an assignment to complement the main library research essay. For the main writing assignment for the class, students were asked to pick a farming system somewhere in the world, or that had existed at some point in time and write a review of the scholarly literature available on this farming system. Students picked their farming systems early in the semester and as they were conducting their library research, I asked them to use what they had learned by mid-semester to design a board game that reflects the consequences of management decisions made by farmers in that system, both in terms of crop yields and environmental impacts. The games were geared towards high school age students and I’m hoping to give some of them a test run in Prescott high schools in the future.

I was introduced to The Farming Game by friends in the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group at Cornell. It’s a Monopoly-style game designed by growers in Washington’s Yakima Valley region. In the game, you inherit some land from an uncle who passes away and the goal is to make the farm profitable enough that you can quit your off-farm job and become a full time farmer. We played the game in class and talked about how games can be used to teach the players about specific farming systems and the management decisions involved. In the future I’d like to incorporate Pit into my teaching, a game designed in 1904 to simulate the decision making of commodities traders in the Chicago Stock Exchange. “Take that, Mom, I’ve cornered the market on Barley!”

Years ago, a friend and colleague Steve Vanek invited me to help test a farming systems game that he had designed specifically for farmers in the Bolivian Andes to learn about how their management decisions can impact nutrient management on their farms for many seasons to come. The game was simple in physical design, just consisting of different types of beans representing N, P and K (plant macronutrients), but extraordinarily complex in the potential scenarios and outcomes through a list of decision matrices; “If you spend money now to build a terrace, you will save X% of soil erosion in the future and have higher yields in the next round”. I was intrigued by how a simple set-up could convey the multi-year impact of seemingly minor management decisions made by growers. While designing the curriculum for Land Stewards, this experience came to mind and I wanted to see what the students would come up with.

I was impressed with the wide variety of very well designed games that came out of this assignment. Each game had to incorporate 20 “nuggets” of information about the farming system that had been gleaned from scholarly sources during the students’ library research. Games went through a round of internal review in a rough design format with other Land Stewards students and a round of external review wit the final versions evaluated by my first year students in Security, Equality and Ecology of Global Food Systems. What follows is just a sampling of games (there were 12 in all) and video of one of the games that didn’t use a card or board game format.


The Front Range Game
Loosely modeled on “Spoons” and models management decisions made by landowners in present day Colorado


Loosely modeled on “Monopoly” and models the management of a small-scale aquaponics facility in downtown Phoenix


Carrots being grown hydroponically over an aquaculture tank containing a single species of fish. Farmers can add crops and fish species as they make a profit selling their products in each cycle around the board.


Dairy Days
Loosely based on “Monopoly” and models multiple types of dairy farming in Oregon’s Willamette Valley


Models ancient Incan agriculture


Land Stewards students evaluating preliminary drafts of farming systems games


Mongolian Nomadic Pastoralism game
Livestock and their human herders need to make it to higher elevations during seasonal migrations to find pasture


Models connections between different aspects of modern Biodynamic farms

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Tierra Y Libertad Organization (TYLO), Tucson, AZ

During the 2012 Border Food Summit, I got to take an urban agriculture tour of Tucson where we visited the Tierra Y Libertad Organization and learned about their urban agriculture center and neighborhood projects. At the time, they were just starting up a tilapia aquaculture project.

From their Facebook page:

“Since 2001 TYLO has focused on building multiple examples of positive social change and community transformation in the barrios where we live. Work of the organization is carried out through a multi-tier model of grassroots community organizing and popular education that consists of four key programs: Barrio Sustainability Project, TYLO Freedom School, MAIZ, and the Migrant Rights Organizing Campaign!”

Recent projects include campaigns against liquor licenses (There are currently 41 permits in a 1 mile radius) and the creation of a Barrio Food Processing Center. I look forward to finding ways that Prescott College students can collaborate with TYLO in the future.


Mural from the alley behind TYLO


Mural from the alley behind TYLO


Mural from the alley behind TYLO


TYLO collaborates on this nearby garden at a church


TYLO collaborates on this nearby garden at a church

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SAEA 2012 Comparative agroecology at a liberal arts college: Assessing sustainability and comparing US & Chinese farming systems

David Hougen-Eitzman of Carlton College gave this talk at the 2012 Sustainable Agriculture Education Association conference in the session: Transformative food systems programs, coursework and curricula. His students have the amazing opportunity to tour, study and evaluate the sustainability of farming practices in China during a winter field course and compare those farms to others in the US. In the talk, David covers how he organizes the course in terms of small group student projects and the course readings and sustainability assessment tools he uses in the curriculum. I’m excited to incorporate similar sustainability assessment tools into my teaching and really enjoyed hearing about this course.

Carleton College

Carleton College students tour a farm in China
Photo from:

Carleton tea farm

Carleton College students tour a tea farm in China
Photo from: