Agroecology from A to Z

Adventures in Agroecology and Food Systems

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Tepary bean harvest at Jenner Farm

It’s impossible not to notice the change of seasons at a farm. Once that first frost happens, there is no turning back the clock. We’ve had a few great work parties out at the farm in the last three weeks. Students are working on green building projects, final harvesting, threshing, winnowing and even some seed saving.

We harvested 25 pounds of tepary beans from a student research plot from the summer agroecology course. The students were investigating the drought tolerance of different heritage tepary bean varieties from Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson. We got to them a little late in the season, so there were at least 10 pounds on the ground and Rabbit Run Farm had harvested 10 pounds earlier in the season. I wonder if 45 pounds of dry beans is a good yield for the plot size? I left students to their own devices on figuring out the threshing and winnowing. They really got an efficient system going. A few students harvested the bean plants, a few more stomped on the plants on a tarp to release the seeds and a few more used the wind to separate the chaff from the beans. It was so much fun I almost hate to buy a small combine for the tractor! I’m aiming to add this piece of equipment so that students can expand our tepary bean production and potentially provide dry beans for the campus food system.

I told the students that I was impressed that they developed a workable threshing and winnowing system so quickly. I said “it’s almost like you’re all intuitive threshers and winnowers.” Then a student answered, “After 10,000 years of agriculture, shouldn’t we all be intuitive threshers and winnowers?” Well said!

Winnowing tepary beans with the wind (and foot stomping threshing on a tarp in the background)

17 varieties of tepary bean Phaseolus acutifolius (mixed with some common beans Phaseolus vulgaris) ready for phase II winnowing

Earlier in the season during the agroecology summer course, Dr. Jean Stutz from ASU visited and did a lesson on Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF). AMF are known to help increase drought tolerance in their plant hosts. She taught the students how to take root samples for AMF analysis and showed us microscopy images of stained roots back in the classroom. Jean has Prescott ties so I’m really looking forward to collaborating with her in the future, especially since I am a fellow rhizosphere microbial ecologist!

Dr. Jean Stutz demonstrates how to take root samples to test for AMF colonization

Root sampling

Plants in rows farthest from the camera received full irrigation while those in the rows closest to the camera were purposefully drought stressed to see how they responded

One of Dr. Jean Stutz’ microscopy images of AMF colonized root tissue


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Dung fungi and earthworms, oh my!

Moving to the desert from the soggy Northeast (via the soggy Northwest), I had a horrible feeling that I would never see a mushroom growing out of the ground or a wild earthworm again. It turns out I was wrong! Especially during a heavy monsoon season.

I TAed the Cornell Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology course “Magical Molds Mischievous Mushrooms” in 2011 and we had a fun unit on dung fungi. Based on the amazing dung fungi I saw at Jenner Farm last week, I’m really looking forward to developing a soil microbiology course in the future that includes these fascinating organisms and their role in decomposition and soil nutrient cycling.

Just a note, I really can’t mention mushrooms without pointing everyone to my friend and mentor, Kathie Hodge’s, Mushroom Blog.

Dung fungi in horse manure
More dung fungi on horse manure
Coprinus spp. or “Inky cap”

And now, on to the earthworm casts. The earthworms at Jenner Farm are really loving the monsoon season. They have been surfacing and doing some serious construction and remodeling on their burrows.

I had always seen earthworm casts in my mom’s garden, but I didn’t get interested in them scientifically until I read Darwin’s classic “The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits” in 2000. Check out this etching from the original publication (courtesy of the American Philosophical Society’s museum in Philadelphia).


Earthworm casts at the entrance of a burrow

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Buen Viaje to Tim Crews!

Well, it’s official. Tim gave me the key to the mesquite hammer mill trailer on Saturday and he and Sarah headed out for Kansas yesterday. Safe travels and agroecological adventures to you both!

Read the full article with comments.


Sarah and Tim Crews and their dog, Trucha, spend a snowy day in the Prescott National Forest a year ago. Tim is leaving his job of 18 years as director of the agroecology program at Prescott College.

9/3/2012 9:47:00 PM
Long-time Prescott College professor pulls up stakes

Ken Hedler
The Daily Courier

PRESCOTT – Tim Crews arrived at Prescott College 18 years ago to start the agroecology program, and left Monday to become research director at the Land Institute in Salina, Kan.

Defining agroecology, Crews said, “It is looking at farms as ecosystems with insects and nutrient cycling, trying to manage them more as ecosystems than factories.”

Crews, who earned a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., recalled that Prescott College appealed to him by offering a commitment to “field-based studies, bridging with rigorous academics.”

Besides establishing an off-campus farm, Crews helped to found the Prescott Farmers Market in 1997 and the community supported agriculture (farm co-op) program on campus three years later.

Crews, 51, regards launching the agroecology program as his biggest accomplishment because it has gained a national reputation for the small private college. The program now offers master’s degrees.

Crews said he has become acquainted over the years with the Land Institute, a nonprofit organization and research center housed on the banks of the Smoky Hill River.

The institute’s website states, “We are creating a new agriculture informed by nature. It produces food while preserving biodiversity. It minimizes the inevitable damage associated with annual crops: soil loss and degradation, water fouled with toxins and drained of its oxygen, and high greenhouse gas emissions.”

That mission meshes with Crews’ values.

“I have been collaborating with them for about 12 years, and I believe very strongly in their goal of developing farming systems that function much more like the native ecosystems they replaced,” Crews said.

The institute’s managing director, Scott Seirer, said, “We have known him for several years. He’s an ecologist, and we have to add that role to our science mix. … He will also be research director, so he will supervise the science staff.”

Scientists at the institute conduct research to find perennial grain crops.

“Tim’s role as an ecologist will help us look at the concept of growing more than one crop in the field at the same time,” Seirer said.

While looking forward to his new challenge, Crews said he and his wife of 23 years, Sarah, will miss Prescott and walking their dog, Trucha, in the Prescott National Forest.

Sarah Crews works in the hospice field.

She and Tim have two daughters: Ruby, 21, and Claire, 18, who attend Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., and Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., respectively.

Crews’ former students will miss him as well.

“I would definitely say he was my favorite professor,” said Shanti Rade, a 2001 graduate who operates a small farm with husband Cory in Paulden. “He was an inspiring teacher. He is just a dynamic teacher. He really got his students excited about the subject matter.”

Crews said Prescott College hired an “excellent replacement,” Allison Jack, who earned a doctorate at Cornell from the Department of Plant Pathology & Plant-Microbe Biology.

Referring to his former employer, Crews said, “It’s a gem. I’ll miss it.”

p.s. I just found this photo of Tim and I at Tim and Sarah’s farewell party.

The passing of the agroecological torch

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Prickly pear processing, South Tucson, AZ

The Prescott College 2012 Agroecology of the Arid Southwest course visited the Arizona Cactus Ranch near Green Valley, AZ earlier this summer and instructor Rebekah Doyle graciously invited me to tag along.

Prickly pear, Oputina engelmanii, is an amazing cactus plant. It is not listed in National Geographic’s “Edible, An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants“, but I assure you both the fruits (Spanish: tunas) and pads (Spanish: nopales) edible! I just bought Carolyn Niethammer’s “Prickly Pear Cookbook” and I can’t wait to try some of the recipes. There has been some interesting research on the health benefits of multiple prickly pear species extracts related to cancer, cell damage,  and diabetes.

Wearing “snake legs” because rattlesnakes love to eat the rodents that hoard the prickly pear seeds right under the plants.

Prickly pear fruit

RoyDan was brave enough to peel the fruits, I was too scared to touch them

Looking more delicious with the glochids removed, thanks RoyDan!

Sam loading the truck

Kevin rocking a hair net at the prickly pear processing facility

Me, not so much rocking the hair net

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Entomology at Jenner Farm

Earlier this summer in the agroecology course held at Prescott College’s Jenner Farm, a 20 acre teaching and research farm in Skull Valley, AZ, we had a visit from Dr. Neil Cobb, an entomologist from Northern Arizona University.

A beautiful day to study entomology at Jenner Farm

Neil Cobb shows Prescott College agroecology students members of many of the insect orders

Blister Beetles mating!