Saturday, August 3, 2013

High Tunnels, Row Cover and Open Field: Eso-Cuc Grant study to find solutions to address farmer needs


  No two farms are the same and over the last few years I have observed a wide variety of growing techniques used by various farmers to overcome the environmental and economic challenges they face. One of the more interesting and delicious crops causing trouble for farmers are from the cucurbit family.  Cucurbits include cucumbers, squash, melon to name a few.  With each conversation,  I learn about a different growing system and methodology.  Here at Cornell, we are working on the ESO-Cuc grant, focused on improving cucurbit varieties and growing practices in the eastern United States where farmers are facing heavy pressure from diseases and pests.  The teams, located throughout the eastern region, surveyed farmers from various locations learning the biggest concerns and challenges.  At this stage, we are working to determine the most effective growing strategies, as well as breeding improved and new varieties of cucurbit crops, ones more conducive to farming practices and the climate trends in these areas of the United States.  
  At stores, buyers will generally choose...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Home Garden Plot Part II: Searching for Seeds, Seedlings, transplants, harvest


Last time, we looked at building your own raised garden for leafy greens.  Having at least a small plot of freshly grown greens has become increasingly vital to my life.  There really isn't much that compares to having an entire jungle of salad waiting right in your backyard instead of wilting in your fridge.  We do know that the nutrient content of vegetables begins to decrease as soon as it is cut from the soil and continues to lose energy as it decomposes.  The longer you wait to eat it, the more you have to share with the decomposition process.  So the fresher the greens the happier the body.  We left off here...

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Home Garden Plot Part I: Use what you got


You don't know what you got til it's gone.  The truth of that overused cliche could never have felt more real than during my current withdrawal from not living and working directly on a farm.  Although the world of research agriculture is fascinating and important, there is nothing like a stash of delicious homegrown veggies growing just steps away from your door.  No trips to the market, questions to ask, determining if prices are fair, deciding which company or farmer seems most trustworthy or who has the best reputation.  Trying to determine the differences between the supermarket organic brands and market brands can be time consuming.  Although I believe in buying local, which generally means closer to harvest when purchased, it still leaves a lot of unanswered questions.  In this "wild west" time for food production there's no easy "best" option for you and your family.  Observing my own transition, I've gone from a person who almost never bought produce, to growing my own food (basically living in the produce section) and now purchasing food as a more conscious, yet fairly confused consumer.  It's a weird in-between, last year I bought food to supplement what I grew and now I find myself growing food to supplement what I purchase.  Not bad, just different.  Compromises and opportunities offered with each choice, and choices, although at times frustrating, are a beautiful freedom I am thankful for.  Today we are touching on a simple and...

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Plant Breeding: It's not just about science, we need it


We recently looked into the basics of plant breeding at Cornell University.  We talked about the different shapes and sizes of our everyday food, but this story goes much deeper.  This isn't just about pretty fruit, it's the everyday miracle of life.  It's easy to take for granted that sparkling fruits and veggies just appear everyday at the local store, but the story that unfolds when tracing those veggies back is incredible.  There are teams of researchers and farmers working to select and develop the highest quality produce.  As we all see in the news and in our lives, there are challenges we must face everyday, there is no exception for plants.  As the seasons change, as the climate changes, as the soil changes, each plant must learn to adjust or face its inevitable demise.  Unlike humans, the earth and cosmos don't think in 79 year lifetimes, these evolutionary battles rage on for thousands of years, but incredibly, humans can step in and play a role in assisting our plant friends if only for the selfish reason that we rely on them for sustenance.  It's not to say these plants wouldn't survive without humans, as they did this for thousands of centuries before we came to exist, but the wild and domesticated varieties in which we can eat do need us to continue to propagate them and maintain their seeds.  If it wasn't for human intervention, we may not have a...

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Spring On The Farm: Black Plastic Mulch and Drip Irrigation


Agriculture is inherently an unnatural process.  It is a division of horticulture, the study of the cultivation of plants.  It's unlikely to find plants naturally growing in perfect, weed-free, straight lines.  Wild plants do not sprout up in raised soil beds year after year.  Human selection has perpetuated and "improved" the development of our food system to feed large populations of people throughout the world.  Since agriculture is not a direct act of nature, it requires outside interaction and when humans get involved, choices have to be made.  As we continue to develop a deeper understanding of the current limiting factors we face i.e. natural resources, we have to decide how to properly manage our means of sustenance.  This includes a balance of environmental, economic and social factors.  

Today we are looking at black plastic mulch and drip irrigation, a great combination involving a balance of time efficiency and environmental...

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Fun with Flowers: The art of squash breeding at Cornell University


Winter squash in the spring?  Yes.  Should you care?  Yes, but why?  Have you ever thought about why the carrots at the store are orange or why the tomatoes are always red?  Does it have to be this way?  The short answer is no.  As it turns out, these colors, shapes and sizes have more to do with human selection than any "fact" of nature.  At the beginning of my journey, the question was where does food come from?  This lead to the farm.  Taking things a bit further, the question became, where do all the seeds come from to grow the food on those farms?  In an interesting twist, while exploring the beautiful, natural diversity of northern California's agricultural scene, I got an unexpected email that lead me back to the northeast, where I am currently working at Cornell University, an institution at the heart of northeastern food production.  I'm working in the department of Plant Breeding and Genetics with Dr. Mazourek and his team.  Through surveys and direct communication with farms, they figure out the biggest challenges facing farmers in growing our favorite annual vegetables.  Who knew so much thought and so many people went into those little cucumber slices (not to mention all the other veggies) we eat everyday in our salads?  Behind every delicious bite of food is a massive web of research, people, farms and institutions working to protect and progress our food system.

  The goal is to develop stronger, tastier, more disease/pest resistant varieties of our favorite everyday foods.  With a current focus on the cucurbit family (e.g. squash, melons, watermelons, cucumbers, gourds) as well as research on peas and peppers, this team gets to the crux of solving these problems through traditional plant breeding.  This is the natural, methodical, ancient process of pairing two plants together, with desirable traits and observing, selecting and experimenting with the best of each new generation.  In conjunction with nature's methods, we are fighting the war against disease and pest pressures that can restrict and limit growers from producing food locally.  The research spans a number of different specific crop traits and as I get more involved in these projects, I will continue to share that knowledge.

  Today we are looking into the basics of pollination.  Last year, while working at the Stone Barns Center, we touched on the basics of pea pollinations and got some great feedback from readers working on similar projects (click here for a refresher).  With peas, we looked at pollinating perfect flowers.  Unlike a pea, which can pollinate itself, squash have separate male and female flowers, which require...

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Winter Pruning: A Journey to California Pruning Peach Trees


One of the most challenging yet exciting parts of farming without your own land is figuring out your next step.  What do I want to learn and where do I want to learn how to do it?  At this rather early stage in my farming career, stability can still take a backseat to opportunity and exploration.  The goal is to have my carrots and eat them too, but while searching for that balance, there are many roads to travel, some of which happen to be in California.  Christmas marked the end of my season with Barbara and Eliot, at Four Season Farm and I booked a ticket to California.  I started up in the foothills of the Sierras, down through the valley of Sacramento and west along the Pacific coast, I encountered a variety of farms and lifestyles.  Every farm is different, every farmer has a different philosophy and every two hours I experienced a different climate.  Farming and good food have been staples in California for many years and although the majority of our country's conventional food production is found in the Central Valley, some of the longest running organic farms and farmers can be tracked down not to far away.  Locally sourced food isn't as much of a gimmick as it is a lifestyle here in California, but maybe that's because you can grow 12 months of the year without too much additional infrastructure.  In the northeast, we have a long way to go to catch up, but with greenhouse technologies and places like Four Season Farm and Stone Barns developing and sharing simple, applicable, four season farming practices to this ever-growing population of interested and active eaters, we are well on our way.  Today we are going to narrow this trip down and focus on one fascinating...