Benefits of Small Grains in an Organic Crop Rotation

Photo courtesy of Rodale Institute.

By Nic Podoll

Small grains provide great value in a grain rotation, especially in an organic system. They break up weed, pest, and disease cycles in row crops, as well as open opportunities for cover crops before planting and after harvest.

Unfortunately, lower crop prices and economic incentives for small grains, compared to corn and soybeans, have resulted in a large decrease of small grain acreage across the United States. As a result, many farmers are missing out on the benefits and the potential of increased profitability over their rotations that small grains and cover crops can provide. The short-term outlook (yield x price – expenses) for a given year does not tell the whole story. When profitability is viewed over the entire course of a rotation, advantages that small grains and cover crops provide can be recognized as savings and unrealized gains that are cashed in by subsequent crops in the rotation.

Most small grains have much more fibrous and often deeper root systems than row crops like corn and soybeans. The shorter growing season from planting to harvest also gives farmers an opportunity to plant cover crops, significantly increasing the length of time that living roots are in the soil. Through this diversity of plants, the increased depth and breadth of living roots in the soil, and the length of time they are present, the abundance and diversity of the soil microbial community is also enhanced each growing season.

As this occurs over time, the roots of crops release more exudates into the expanded rhizosphere that encourage the soil microbial community and allow the plants to mine soil organic nitrogen (N), which reduces the need for added N. Research has demonstrated that when corn is grown in a more diverse rotation, a “rotation effect” of 3-5% increase in yield is observed. Especially at organic premium prices, this is significant.

In addition, research has also shown that adding just one small grain and a following cover crop to a corn-soybean rotation can prevent the loss of up to 30 pounds per acre of N through leaching. The cover crop also provides an N credit of its own (which varies with species) to the subsequent crop. These effects together in an organic rotation often mean that some small grains and soybeans may require very little or even zero added N while the added N requirements of corn or other heavier feeders are significantly reduced. This increase in soil health and resulting nutrient use efficiency contributes to the increased profit potential over the course of a rotation.

Small grains in conjunction with cover crops also provide advantages in weed control that extend across the whole rotation and continue to improve over time. The planting and harvesting windows of small grains that differ from row crops suppress growth and eliminate many weeds from the seed bank. Fall planted cereals that overwinter, such as rye and winter wheat, or the early spring planting of other small grains, such as oats or spring wheat, suppress both early cool season and warm season weeds. Extra opportunities for spring tillage with later planting of small grains, such as millet and buckwheat, allow for elimination of early cool season and warm season weeds while continuing to suppress other warm season weeds through the growing season. A cover crop planted after harvest of a small grain continues to suppress and eliminate late season weeds. This continually reduces on-farm weed populations over time and the more small grains and cover crops added to the rotation, the greater the effect.

With the addition of two or more small grains to a rotation with differing planting windows (early and late) and cover crops, it is possible to achieve essentially year-round soil coverage with both continuous weed suppression and reductions in the weed seed bank for at least two years before and after row crops. This results in less weed pressure in both small grains and row crops, which reduces the intensity of tillage and cultivation operations over time, increasing soil health as well. It’s easy to see how increased weed control saves time and money while increasing yields and contributing to increased profits.

The addition of small grains in the rotation also allows for more efficient use of equipment and labor while further spreading out risk. They have differing planting and harvesting windows compared to the similar timing of corn and soybeans. This allows farmers to spread labor of field operations out compared to growing only corn and soybeans.

This also provides a better opportunity to expand acreage on the farm. It makes it possible to plant and harvest additional acres without having to upgrade or increase equipment size. Alternatively, planting and harvesting operations could all be fit into smaller windows when there is less acreage in any one crop. These ideas extend to other aspects of farming operations as well, such as storage and drying capacity. Additionally, small grains can be used as nurse crops to produce more vigorous stands of hay and forages in an organic system that also provide weed suppression over multiple growing seasons, diversify income and spread risk, and introduce the possibility of grazing animals into the system.

Finally, depending on the region and the marketing opportunities available, some of the more specialty small grains such as millet or buckwheat can produce very strong revenues, especially when organic premiums are being earned. For many small grains, it is also beneficial to clean and save your own seed. Not only is this a cost savings from year to year, but it allows farmers to adapt varieties of grain to their farm over time, increasing their performance and resiliency under stress. This provides enormous economic benefit over the long term. As the effects of climate change are increasingly felt, small grain crops that are regionally adapted ultimately give grain farmers the best chance to maintain profitability when other crops fail to produce.

Through the achievement of greater biodiversity and soil health, small grains in conjunction with cover crops unlock long term advantages in a crop rotation including nutrient use efficiency, better weed control, labor and equipment efficiency, diversifying farm income, spreading risk, and increasing resiliency of farming systems under adverse conditions. These advantages significantly increase profit potential over the course of a rotation as well as solidify the long-term sustainability and resiliency of organic farming systems. If you are interested in building your rotation by adding small grains and need some guidance on where to start, contact your closest Rodale Institute Organic Consultant today!

Nic Podoll is the Midwest Organic Consultant for Rodale Institute. He is based in Nevis, Minnesota. Farmers interested in transitioning their land to organic and participating in one or more of these opportunities can contact Rodale Institute’s Organic Crop Consulting Services to get started. Reach out at or 610-683-1416.

Hemp’s Versatility Has Untapped Potential

Photo courtesy of Rodale Institute

By Dr. Fatemeh Etemadi

Our water, air and land are being polluted more than ever by textile manufacturing byproducts and plastic microparticles. With industrial hemp’s resurgence as a cash crop and ability to integrate into regenerative farming practices, hemp might be the answer to our problems.

Hemp grows rapidly and has an extensive root system, making it a potential tool for natural weed suppression and enhancing soil health. Weed management is considered a perennial obstacle for existing organic farmers and a barrier for those considering transitioning to organic. Successful weed management in organic systems often includes intensive tillage and repeated cultivation that can degrade soil health. As a cover crop, hemp enhances soil health by shading out weeds, reducing the need for synthetic herbicides.

Hemp, as a multipurpose crop, is environmentally friendly, can increase farmer income, is nutritious when consumed, and has many uses in agriculture and industry. As industrial hemp can be a good option in the transition to sustainable agriculture, Rodale Institute has conducted several experiments to gather crucial information to help farmers succeed and to examine hemp as a tool for regenerative farming.

In 2017, Rodale Institute initiated a four-year trial studying the effects of industrial hemp as part of a regenerative organic crop rotation to enhance soil health, increase crop production, weed suppression, and improve organic fertility management when growing hemp in Pennsylvania. Subsequent trials added to this study include analysis of nutrient management, planting dates and CBD varieties. The overall goal of Rodale Institute’s research into industrial hemp is to estimate the potential for this crop to improve farmer success in a regenerative organic system.

The rotational research trial results indicated that hemp is a viable weed suppression cover crop that has higher economic value than something like sorghum Sudangrass, typically used as a forage for livestock. This may provide potential to reduce tillage in organic systems.

Soybean and wheat yields following hemp remained relatively high compared to other production systems on the Rodale Institute farm in Pennsylvania — often reaching or exceeding national averages.

In the nutrient management trial, we learned that hemp grain yield is increased with increased nitrogen fertilizer application. Sufficient nitrogen availability allows hemp to maximize growth and outcompete weeds at smaller between-row spacings (7.5 inch), while weed species outcompeted hemp in larger row spacings (15 inch) when nitrogen is limited.

In CBD varieties, CBD concentrations were highest with the application of straw and compost compared to black plastic mulch and bloodmeal (12-0-0) applied as fertilizer; however, plant height, width, branch number and biomass were highest in plants with bloodmeal and plastic mulch, resulting in higher total CBD yield. There appears to be tradeoffs between mulching types, increased nitrogen fertility, plant production and CBD concentration. Future research should continue to optimize spacing, fertility and mulching needs.

Since the launch of the Rodale Institute industrial hemp research program in 2017, public interest in our work has grown rapidly. In addition to attending conferences and meetings, Rodale Institute staff consult with farmers regularly across the Northeast and entire United States on growing industrial hemp in a regenerative way to determine how hemp can benefit farmers while mitigating environmental impacts.

In 2021, the hemp research program will begin to transition more research trials to the Pocono Organics site in Long Pond, Pennsylvania, and will include continued analysis of nutrient management, cover crops, reduced tillage and a selection of auto-flowering varieties for regenerative organic hemp production. Also, the Institute plans to test more varieties, specifically domestic varieties as they become available, and adjust planting date, harvest date, seeding rate, and spacing to maximize the marketability of the varieties for their intended use. This research helps us learn how to increase farmer income, learn more about seed and dual-purpose varieties and determine if they can fit into a grain rotation as a weed smother crop.

To learn more about Rodale Institute work on industrial hemp, visit

Dr. Fatemeh Etemadi is Rodale Institute’s Post-Doctoral Research Associate in Industrial Hemp. Fatemeh is a Ph.D. graduate from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, with the concentration in agronomy and crop physiology. Fatemeh works on Rodale Institute’s Industrial hemp research. Contact Fatemeh at

Roller/Crimper to the Rescue of No-Till of Grain Systems

A Roller/Crimper in action in an organic no-till grain system.

By Jeff Moyer

The following is an excerpt from Jeff Moyer’s new book, Roller/Crimper No-Till: Advancing No-Till Agriculture — Crops, Soil & Equipment.

For decades, Rick Clark’s ancestors were, admittedly, some of the worst soil destructors in Warren County, Indiana.
But Clark knows the power of change. A fifth-generation farmer growing corn and soybeans, he made the decision to choose a new path and pursue organic no-till management. Now he is one of the most vocal advocates for organic no-till grain farming in the country.

Today, Clark Land and Cattle is approaching 750 certified organic acres, is 100 percent GMO-free, and terminates its cover crops with a roller/crimper. Much of Clark’s grain crops go to feed dairy cattle whose milk is used for Dannon yogurt.

Clark speaks to farmer groups across the country about his organic no-till journey. He makes sure to end all his speeches with the same sentiment:

“If you’re not uncomfortable with what you’re doing, then you are not trying hard enough to change.”

Making the Change

Farmers throughout the United States are facing that need for change as consumers increasingly seek organic products and weather becomes more unpredictable. Moving to an organic no-till system, specifically one that implements the roller crimper, is becoming a popular decision for many farmers.

“I was wrestling with farming and how I wanted to farm, because we’re small farmers and I wanted to go organic,” said Levi Lyle, one such farmer in Keota, Iowa, who felt that need for change in his family’s operation.

He needed to convince his father that going organic would be in their farm’s best interest and decided to become an organic inspector himself to gather knowledge firsthand.

“I learned what farmers were doing and where their struggles were, and I saw them really struggling on the soybean side of things,” said Lyle. “I thought, you know, this roller/crimper thing is worth looking into further.”

Having read about the roller/crimper a decade earlier, Lyle decided now was the time to pursue no-till on 60 acres of certified organic crop land.

Influenced by the research of both Rodale Institute and Dr. Erin Silva of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both Rick Clark and Levi Lyle have improved the soil health on their farms through use of the roller/crimper.

Implementation Strategies

While their equipment is the same, Clark’s and Lyle’s methods vary slightly, each with specific benefits. Clark plants green into his cover crop, usually a cereal rye or a diverse mix of his own creation.

This system allows Clark to plant his soybeans into cereal rye around the last week of April. By the time the rye has reached maturity and can be roller/crimped in June, the soybeans have already reached growth stage V2 and will continue to grow once the cover is terminated.

By allowing the cover crop to remain in the soil alive as long as possible, Clark believes his cash crops reap multiple benefits.

“We’ve created a mulch that’s suppressing weeds. We are feeding the microbes and we’ve put an armor on the soil,” Clark explained. “We are protecting the soil from sunlight, from evaporation … and conserving every ounce of water that gets into our profile.”

Lyle, on the other hand, uses a one-pass system where the roller/crimper and the planter are both attached to his tractor. This cuts down on labor and soil compaction as he plants his soybeans into a rye cover crop.

While some farmers may shy away from the roller/crimper due to timing restrictions on cover crop termination, Lyle has found that with changing weather patterns, timing can actually be a benefit.

“This year [2019], there were no soybeans planted during the month of May because May was so wet,” he described. By the time conventional farmers were able to plant their soybeans, Lyle was ahead of the game.

“We could get in sooner because the rye was already there,” he said. “So, on the first of June we went in and were planting our roller/crimped soybeans before any other farmers in our county. That felt kind of cool.”

Finding Profitability

The ability to compete with conventional systems is tied up with the question of yields and profitability, a consideration that weighed heavily on Lyle. In the end, he’s been pleasantly surprised with the results of roller crimping his soybeans.

“We’re seeing improved profits. Farmers are making three, sometimes four herbicide passes, and they still have weeds in that field,” he said. “I’ve been very happy with the amount of cost I’m saving by roller/crimping instead of using herbicide passes.”

“We’re not losing any yields on our soybeans,” Lyle explained. “We’re still getting between 50 and 60 bushels of soybeans an acre.”

Comparable yields, mixed with a reduction in input costs, leads to an overall increase in profitability on Lyle’s farm.
The same can be said for Clark’s operation — though yields are not his main concern.

“I know you’ve got to have yields to make a return on investment calculation,” Clark conceded. “But we have driven our input costs down so low that our break-even numbers are ridiculously low on corn and soybeans. So we can withstand a lot.”

“It’s not about who can raise the most corn,” he stated. “It’s about building soil health and maximizing the return on investment.”

Challenges & Opportunities

That commitment to continuously improving the soil keeps Clark moving forward every day. Clark wants to keep pushing the boundary of organic no-till to make soil health the number one consideration in his operation.

Clark is working hard to diversify his cover crop mix, explaining that even cover crops can fall into monoculture. While every soybean crop comes after cereal rye, Clark doesn’t think that cereal rye should be the only thing in the field.

He experiments with mixing in other cover crops with the rye like radish, sorghum-sudangrass, and oats for winter kill, as well as something like clover, hairy vetch, and peas that will be suppressed by the cereal rye in the spring.

Despite the nitrogen-fixing benefits he knows this mix will provide, Clark knows that he’s operating on logistical trial and error.

“My biggest challenge with the crimper,” he said, “is being able to terminate all this diverse complex cocktail next spring.”

While Clark is pushing the envelope, Lyle has become the unofficial spokesman for the classic one-pass roller/crimper system. After being featured for his experience with the roller/crimper in an article by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Lyle said he’s received calls from all over the country from farmers asking how to use the tool in their operations.

“Guys have called from Nebraska wanting to roller/crimp their wheat and plant sorghum. I’ve had calls from Texas from people wanting to roller/crimp to plant hemp, and a lot of farmers are interested in roller/crimping just to reduce the first pass of herbicides,” he said.

Lyle also loans out his roller/crimpers to neighboring farmers in Iowa, with operators coming from as far as five hours away to borrow the equipment.

“I’ve been impressed to see the amount of different systems that the roller/crimper is working in,” Lyle said.

One such new system is wildlife food plots. Lyle explained that many managers of food plots are not farmers and don’t have the same resources.

“They’re not comfortable having a bunch of herbicides in storage,” said Lyle. The roller/crimper helps these operators maintain weed control and healthy yields without requiring chemical intervention.

Looking Forward

Lyle is excited about continuing to help other farmers find cost savings with the roller/crimper, as well as growing his own operation.

He’s interested in studying soil health and its potential to sequester carbon, which he considers a new farm commodity that should be bought and traded between farmers to improve the condition of the planet.

While he may end all his speeches with his call for farmers to push themselves, what he really wants them to take away from his talks is how passionately he loves this work.

“My very last thing I say is, I’m proud to be a farmer, but I’m more proud of the way I farm,” he said. “Regenerative stewardship. That’s what I call it. It’s all about soil health.”

Jeff Moyer is the CEO of Rodale Institute.

Organic Corn Variety Immune to GMO Contamination

By Jill Henderson

Corn has been a staple in the human diet since the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica began domesticating the wild grass for its sweet kernels some 10,000 years ago. Subsequent cultures encountering the crop quickly adopted its cultivation and use, including early Europeans exploring the New World. Fast-forward to modern times and corn is not only an integral part of American culture but an essential global commodity that steadily ranks among the top five agricultural products in the world.

Of course, corn isn’t grown just for food and feed anymore. Its use as an integral component of modern biofuels has driven cultivation into overdrive, with American farmers leading production worldwide. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), U.S. farmers planted 91.7 million acres of corn in 2019, which is 3 percent more than in 2018 and significantly more than soybeans, the second-largest crop grown in the country. The USDA likens the total known acreage cultivated to corn as “69 million football fields” worth – the majority of which are seeded with genetically modified varieties. For organic, ecological and biodynamic farmers whose livelihoods depend on open-pollinated and organic feed and seed, these numbers are nothing less than a nightmare.

The Botany of Corn

The incredible diversity found in a simple grass, known to modern botanists as Zea mays, has been slowly and painstakingly developed over the last 10,000 years. Today there are five basic corn genotypes, which are determined by their heritable genes. These include dent, flour, sweet, flint and popcorn, which is essentially a specialized type of flint corn. Each of these types is prized for one of three primary characteristics of the kernel, including texture, sweetness and color.

Traditional breeding begins with one or more corn varieties and involves careful selection of desired traits such as plant form, kernel color, hardiness, time to maturity and disease and insect resistance, among others. Stable varietals are maintained using techniques such as hand-pollination, single variety planting, distance isolation, and physical barriers. Most varieties, both present and past, were created using intentional cross-breeding, while others were just the lucky results of accidental cross-pollination in the field that ultimately led to stable and useful varieties.

Corn is a monoecious plant, meaning it has both male and female flowers on every plant. The tassels are the male flowers, complete with elongated stamens and conspicuous pollen-producing anthers dangling from every thread. The silks that emerge from the ears are the external portion of the female flowers, which encompass the entire ear. Each ear shoot contains an inflorescence of flowers made up of many ovules from which elongated styles known as silks grow. Eventually, the silks protrude from the tip of the ear shoot and, when pollinated, mature into a single kernel of corn. Although multiple grains of pollen may land on a single strand of silk and germinate, only one will make it to the ovule in the race to pass on its genes to the following generation.

Because corn is a natural out-crosser, its pollen is designed to drift long distances, pollinating as many other corn plants as possible. This mechanism ensures a wide range of natural diversity within the gene pool and the survival of the species in the wild. This indiscriminate pollination, evident in all plants with wind-borne pollen, is why corn is sometimes referred to as a “promiscuous pollinator.” For farmers trying to grow corn of a single stable variety for seed or market, this kind of indiscriminate behavior in the field can wreak havoc on a season’s worth of work.

Same But Different

For ten thousand years, corn was bred using simple mechanical techniques to keep each unique variety pure and stable. Open-pollinated (OP) and heirloom seeds (which are just very old OP varieties) are the results of cross-pollination between genetically similar parents, whether in the field or through hand-pollination. OP seeds will come true to variety year after year if no cross-contamination from other varieties occurs during the growing season.

Hybrids, on the other hand, are a little more complicated. In the wild, a hybrid can occur naturally when two varieties cross-pollinate. But modern hybrids are the result of intentional cross-pollination between two highly inbred parents. In the trade, one inbred is used only for its pollen and is referred to as the “male” plant, while the other is used only for generating seed and is referred to as the “female” plant. Breeding hybrids like these involves meticulous pollination procedures every time the crop is grown for seed. Seed saved from first-generation hybrid crops will not come true to type ever again without matching the cross exactly – and this is often a trade secret of the breeder. Although some growers shun hybrids because their seed can’t be saved, hybrids are productive, disease resistant and can be produced organically.

Unlike hybridization, which is a relatively natural process of cross-pollination, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are unarguably a wholly unnatural method of creating living organisms that have had the natural genetic structure of their DNA permanently and artificially altered. Most people aren’t aware that there are two classifications of GMOs. The first is referred to simply as a GMO and is designated as such by having an “artificially altered genome” or having been “altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination.” The second has had a gene or DNA sequence from an entirely different species (including plant, animal, insect, bacteria, fungi, virus or human) inserted into a variety of different tissues within the host. These are commonly referred to as transgenic organisms, but many prefer the acronym GMTO (genetically modified transgenic organisms) to make their origins as clear as possible. Transgenic organisms are always GMOs but not all GMOs are transgenic.

Of course, GM and GMTO corn looks like any other corn on the outside and has much of the same physiological functions on the inside, which means it can and does pass its modified transgenes on to non-GMO corn through simple cross-pollination. In some cases, GMO crops are more promiscuous out-crossers than their non-GMO counterparts, which means they can be more aggressive pollinators in every respect.

Controlling Contamination

Anyone who has ever grown certified organic seed stock knows that controlling the pollination process in corn is not only essential; it is a major undertaking. This is particularly true when growing OP corn in regions where the predominant varieties are GMOs. Many seed sellers admit that it is incredibly difficult to find uncontaminated seed, and many breeders have thrown in the towel, frustrated with their inability to create enough barriers and distance between the two to keep their corn pure.

In a 2013 article on the Seed Savers Exchange website, assistant curator Tor Janson and communications coordinator Steve Carlson discussed the ramifications of GMO intrusion in their trial of an heirloom blue corn. Their planting was at least a half mile from neighboring GMO cornfields and further buffered by extensive physical barriers that included elevation changes and woodlots – all traditional forms of isolation. Yet, when the corn ripened, they immediately spotted signs of contamination in the ripened kernels.

“From a population of over 200 plants, we found a few scattered off-type kernels on six different ears. This genetic contamination represents less than 0.1% of the population in this generation, but if those off-type kernels were planted in the next generation, those plants, with 50% GMO genetics, would introduce a far greater level of GMO contamination to the population.

“For the purposes of non-GMO food labeling, the level of contamination we experienced is acceptable. But for the purposes of saving seed, any GMO contamination is unacceptable because the contamination will increase exponentially in each successive generation.”

GMO patent-protected corn not only presents a legal threat to organic growers and seed breeders, but a historic and economic threat as well.

Breeding That Blocks GMOs

Ever since the advent of technology that allowed the creation of GMO crops without any legal protection or recourse to contamination, breeders have been searching for a way to thwart the cross-contamination of organic and OP corn. One plant breeder and researcher who has been at the forefront of this effort for more than 20 years is Dr. Frank Kutka. His extensive curriculum vitae includes a B.S. in biology from the University of Wisconsin College, an M.S. in animal ecology from Iowa State University and a Ph.D. in plant breeding from Cornell University. Dr. Kutka has held several prestigious positions during his career, including assistant director and SARE Coordinator for the Dakotas at North Dakota State University Dickinson Research Extension Center. He is currently a faculty member at the College of Menominee Nation Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, where he is developing a sustainable agriculture degree program and breeding pollen-blocking corn during the summer.

Dr. Kutka’s early work breeding pollen-blocking corn began in 2001 as a grad student at Cornell. His worked included an interesting genetic trait known as gametophytic cross incompatibility, which is naturally found in popcorn and teosinte (Zea mays parviglumis), an ancient relative of modern-day corn. First discovered in the early 1900s and used extensively to breed new popcorn varieties in the ’50s and white corn varieties in the ’70s, the trait known as Ga1S was known to inhibit the germination and growth rate of unrelated pollen in plants that carried the gene.

In 2004, after years of intensive breeding, Kutka introduced a variety of pollen-blocking corn that he named “Organic Ready” as a jab at Monsanto’s Roundup Ready brand. But Kutka was not the only breeder working with Ga1 pollen-blocking traits. Hoegemeyer Hybrids founder Dr. Tom Hoegemeyer, from the University of Nebraska, had already developed a line of hybrid pollen-blocking corn in the 1990s called PuraMaize. His hybrid was eventually patented and offered to the public through Iowa-based Blue River Organic Seed in 2011.

At the time, there was an effort to prevent Hoegemeyer from patenting a gametophytic cross incompatibility trait that had been known and freely used to breed corn since the 1900s. In the end, Hoegemeyer, Blue River, and their partners won the debate, claiming that their pollen-blocking line was not the result of just one genetic trait, but a gene-system consisting of multiple traits. PuraMaize is one of the most popular commercial choices for hybrid organic yellow corn on the market today.

Blue River boasts that while pollen from GMO, gene-edited and CRISPR corn might germinate on the silks of PuraMaize, if its own pollen is present it will grow faster and fertilize the ovule before the competition. The company touts that PuraMaize produces corn with GMO contamination levels that fall well below the European standard of one-tenth of one percent, while competing favorably with standard hybrid and GMO varieties for production and disease resistance. In terms of helping organic farmers produce a clean, marketable organic crop, there is no doubt that their system works.

The Next Row to Hoe

Over the last two decades, Kutka’s breeding projects have continued to focus on the Ga1S trait from South American popcorn as well as the Ga2S and Tcb1s traits from teosinte to create new pollen-blocking corn varieties that would be free for other breeders and farmers to use without the restraints and expense of patents. He wants farmers to know that many of these new varieties are referred to as “synthetics” by breeders. This, he says, simply refers to open-pollinated or hybrid varieties that have been intensively bred using multiple lines of pure inbred corn.

In a recent article he wrote for Broadcaster Press, Kutka said, “… many pollen blockers suffer from drawbacks – including complicated genetics – that have challenged breeding and marketability efforts.” Despite those challenges, he and many breeders have found much success over the years, creating both open-pollinated and hybrid varieties of popcorn, sweet corn and a wide array of specialty corn – all of which have pollen-blocking traits.

Although PuraMaize is still the most visible and widely used pollen-blocking “synthetic” on the market today, Kutka said that many varieties based on their genetics are available commercially. He also points out that a number of breeders are currently close to releasing several new Ga1 hybrids. These researchers include Walter Goldstein, founder of the Mandaamin Institute (, whose mission is to “use ancient varieties of grain to enhance the quality and sustainability of modern corn crops,” and Dr. Major Goodman, of North Carolina State University, who is working on new sources of gametophytic incompatibility from the tropics.  Kutka says he is currently adapting one of Goodman’s strains for the northern states and that he’s always happy to send a few seeds from his various breeding projects to breeders to use in their own projects. A few of his “populations” are currently in the commercial arena through Sand Hill Preservation Center in Iowa and Green Haven Open Pollinated Corn Group in New York. He said that his newest Ga1 pollen-blocking synthetic OP variety, Organic Rebellion, is currently available through Albert Lea Seed.

The next row that farmers hoe in terms of preventing GMO contamination in corn almost certainly must include the unique genetic gametophytic traits that allow corn to resist GMO pollination. These traits have been in existence longer than the advent of genetic modification, and yet here we are, still limited to only a few viable options for blocking GMO contamination. Like any good invention, it is the consumer that drives production. And nothing incentivizes innovation more generously than monetary support. The more farmers want and buy these seeds, the more breeders can focus on creating new and interesting varieties faster. The result for organic farmers is the ability to increase their bottom dollar while still retaining their integrity as eco-farmers.

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is editor of Show Me Oz (, a weekly blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.

Potato Growers Go to Great Lengths to Ensure Pristine Seed

Amy Gerritsen removes a full pallet box of Wood Prairie Farm’s seed potatoes from the Juko harvester.

By Lauren Krizansky

Cleanliness is the certified seed potato grower’s eternal burden and the mantra of the century old production system.

Certified seed potatoes are not the same as true potato seed. The latter are the berries collected from the potato plant. Seedlings germinated from true potato seed are genetically unique and will produce tubers with different characteristics than the parent plant.

Vegetatively propagated certified seed potatoes are tubers grown for planting that an agency inspects for authenticity and disease. These tubers are started in tissue culture from disease-free plants. Mini tubers are the seed potatoes grown out from these plants in a traditional or hydroponic greenhouse, producing a crop pure in genetics and health. This seed is then grown out for several years before it is sold for final production. As the tuber is reproduced through the generations, environment imposes pressure on the seed to maintain its integrity.

Keeping the seed potato’s wholeness intact is necessary because, ultimately, dirty seed results in substantial table stock and seed production loses. Certification along with breeding programs are the backbone of the seed potato industry. These resources identify and respond to industry needs to keep potato production viable and progressing.

No shortcuts

A seed potato grower does everything possible to keep disease off of the farm, and understanding disease and the role of certification is part of the management plan.

Vegetative propagation increases the chance of disease spreading from one generation to the next. Every year, seed potatoes are exposed to soil and air borne pathogens, and insect vectors. These factors can potentially acquire numerous bacterial, fungal or viral pathogens that cause disease. The disease will accumulate in the seed potatoes, resulting in a disease carry over during the subsequent growing season.

The certification system has a steady track record of identifying disease and, in some instances, eradicating the problem. For example, Leaf Roll, a virus, is no longer a threat in many potato-growing regions because of diligent management and decisions that did include multi-season insecticide applications that killed the infected aphid spreading the disease.

“The perfect seed has zero bacteria and zero virus,” explained Colorado Potato Certification Service Manager Dr. Andrew Hauser. “Beyond that, zero pests and zero diseases.”

Certification services conduct summer inspections and post-harvest testing to manage disease. Their findings can knock a seed lot out of the market, which impacts the availability of that seed in the future. The agencies make their annual findings available to the consumer through public reports and documents like the North American Health Certificate.

“The health certificate tells you how much disease, how many problems you are buying,” Hauser said. “My job is to show that there is a quality seed potato crop available. There are a lot of shortcuts that can be made. Seed certification service can choose shortcuts or do our best to make sure those shortcuts do not happen.”

Clean from the start

Certified seed potato rules and regulations are determined state by state. Some states, like Colorado and Montana, enforce programs through their land grant universities while Maine’s program operates under the umbrella of the state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. In 1914, Wisconsin was the first state to implement certified potato seed guidelines. Maine was the second, establishing certification services one year later. Seventeen states including Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Alaska would eventually follow. Today, although the programs are not necessarily harmonious, they do more or less follow the same disease management guidelines. The first guideline: begin with seed that is clean and, when possible, bred for disease resistance. 

“Farmers should source certified seed and pay attention to the grower’s opinion,” said Wood Prairie Farm’s Jim Gerritsen, a 40-year veteran seed potato grower in Bridgewater, Maine. “It cuts down risk. It’s like a working farm dog. Pure versus a crossbreed. With the purebred, you will understand the qualities. With the crossbred, there is an unknown, an uncertainty.”

In addition to disease, the absence of variety mix also determines clean seed. Variety mix is identified during multiple summer inspections. If it is present, it is remedied through roguing, a practice that requires walking the fields with a sharp eye and physically removing the unwanted plants.

Cleanliness on a seed potato operation rounds out with constant sanitization and disinfestation of handling, planting and harvesting equipment as well as storages, which certification services also inspect. This is primarily to manage bacterial diseases. Virus and fungal diseases are mainly present in the field.

“Sometimes growers take the risk and plant contaminated seed,” Hauser said. “Most often cleaning that seed up through virus management is challenging and not economic.”

A viral battlefield

Maine’s North Woods nearly envelope Gerritsen’s farm, which is the last of the cultivated lands on his road, six miles from the Canadian border. The woods provide him with isolation from other potato farms and his fields are positioned to the east, preventing the threat of disease laden winds. He chose to plant his seed in a place with an environmental advantage against disease, but it does not grant him immunity.

Potato Virus Y is at home in most growing environments.  It finds its way into the wet and humid fields of the northeast and the arid, desert fields of the west. It’s not all the same strain and it doesn’t express in the same ways or at the same time, but every potato field can credit the annual virus spread to aphids.

The USDA defines PVY as a monopartite, single stranded RNA virus that infects mainly Solanaceous plants. In potatoes, it causes a mosaic pattern in the leaves of infected plant. This mosaic expresses as a green and yellow variation, but can also be expressed as a roughness in the leaves, yet most strains do not affect tuber quality. The virus has become predictable in its unpredictability and it is determining what potato varieties can survive in different environments under the most dynamic Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plans.

Every summer, Hauser walks seed potato fields with his band of inspectors under the hot, high desert sun. Most of the lots he inspects are woven between commercial and highly PVY susceptible Norkotah Russet crops. He witnesses many virus management techniques with a great appreciation for the growers’ determination to produce a quality seed potato crop in a place where overexposure to the virus is the norm.

“You have to manage for PVY,” Hauser said. “If you want a seed industry in a place like the San Luis Valley, you have to. Even if you are a commercial grower.”

In a place like Montana, commercial production is scarce, creating an advantage for its seed potato growers.

“Montana has the luxury of being an almost exclusively ‘seed potato’ state,” said Montana Seed Potato Certification director Nina Zidack. “We do not have a significant amount of commercial potato production in Montana which allows us to grow seed potatoes in relative isolation.”

Similar to Gerritsen and his secluded farm in the woods, Montana growers know their isolation does not make them immune to threats.

“Our growers still manage diseases by growing early generation seed potatoes,” Zidack said. “The grow as far away from other seed potatoes as possible, with some farms growing their seed plots in counties that have no history of seed potato production.”

IPM and other considerations

When PVY is present, it does effect yields negatively. Hauser explained in a typical Norkotah Russet crop, 450 hundred weight per acre is considered a good yield. If there is 25-30 percent PVY present in that field, he said, it might drop the yield to 375 or 400 hundred weight, which is not considered terrible.

“This is still an acceptable yield,” he said. “That is the problem. You don’t know that you have that potential. The blame for the acceptable yield is the weather or water or something else, something less provable.”

What Hauser is able to prove, however, is that IPM works. He said insecticides, timing, roguing, oils, and biological practices all have shown to lessen PVY spread in one way or another in the high desert growing environment and elsewhere.

Growers, he said, are applying insecticides like pyrethroids and neonicotinoids in furrow at planting and throughout the season via chemigation systems to kill aphids.

“Neonics are more effective compared to pyrethroids, which excite the aphids and send them hopping from plant to plant,” Hauser said. “The neonics kill more instantly. Overall, the insecticides are not too effective.”

Roguing is a valuable tool for removing plants expressing mosaic symptoms from the field, but it is time and labor intensive depending on varieties and planted acreage.

Planting and vine desiccation timing can shorten the window of vulnerability to infection, which is a serious factor in some organic seed potato production.

“The longer the seed is alive, the more opportunity aphids have to come in and spread the disease,” Hauser said.

Without organic vine desiccant available, organic growers usually either have to wait for a deep frost to kill potato vines or use equipment to beat the vines to encourage skin set. In recent years, a former organic seed potato grower lost an entire operation because of mechanical PVY spread, proving how devastating the virus is when management is neglected.

Bringing additional life in the form of flowers to a seed potato field, however, did reveal that managing the amount of PVY aphids carry is an effective IPM tool. Several seasons ago, Colorado State University supported Hauser in a research project where he planted a diverse flowering border crop around seed potatoes. He found that with the border crop, the spread of PVY was reduced. Since PVY only lives in the aphid for a few hours, it is able to clean its stylus in non-host plants, like the flowers in Hauser’s mix. If the pest enters the seed potato field with a clean stylus, it will not spread PVY unless it feeds off of an infected plant within the field.

The border crop also provided an environment for predatory insects to feed and reproduce. Hauser said he attributed the mitigated PVY spread to the predatory insects the border crop attracted and the alternative food source it provided for all the insects.

Mineral oils are gaining popularity across the industry to battle the virus, and they are especially effective when the grower plants clean seed, Hauser said. It is considered an organic, proactive approach that inhibits the aphid from inserting its stylus. The downside is the expense. The oils cost around $15 an acre and are applied every 5 to 7 days. The management tool also requires significant labor hours and applicator passes.

Gerritsen has found success with mineral oils. This year, he complemented the tactic with a foliar spray that encourages the plant’s natural defense system. Since he is an organic grower, he is working with two certification systems that, for him, have yet to conflict with one another. He said he has found support through both systems to produce a healthy, quality crop, unlike the grower who interpreted organic management as no management at all.

“I abide in the faith, the understanding that the system is right and that there has to be an organic method we can deploy,” Gerritsen said. “I’m not interested in poison, and there have been no restraints. The goal is to grow healthy plants that make healthy tubers.”

Regardless of the management method or certifying agency, quality seed potatoes are available because of the people who understand that the potato is an essential crop and believe in the future of agriculture. Without the checks, the balances, the dedication and the progress, the potato might not grow or even taste like they do today. Farmers, certifiers, breeders, chefs and those who only eat the final product all benefit from the system put in place generations ago to feed many generations to come.

Lauren Krizansky is an agricultural journeywoman. She loves, lives and works with her partner, Brendon Rockey, on Rockey Farms in Center, Colorado.

How You Select, Grow, Harvest, Store and Cook Your Food

Fruits and vegetables that are dark in color often have the highest amount of nutrition.

By Leah Smith

Food is supposed to do more than simply satisfy your hunger; it is supposed to provide your body with the nutrients it needs to function. Good food does this, but as most people in this country continue to be overfed and undernourished, and as we find that the chronic diseases that bedevil society have their origins in poor health and nutrition, it seems that good food is getting harder to come by. However, there are many steps that can be taken to improve the nutritional content of the produce you grow to feed your family. These steps occur not just at one point in your “food chain.” From plot to pot, here are some ways to provide a nutritional boost to your plate.

Building Healthy Soils

Nutritious foods begin with healthy soils for a couple of reasons. Many antioxidants that humans want to consume are produced by plants if they are growing in nurturing conditions. If a plant is struggling to survive, it is using its energy to provide for its basic needs and will not be producing the anthocyanin, lycopene, lutein, and numerous other protective phytonutrients that benefit both the plant itself and us. People also require minerals for health; these need to be in the soil in order to be taken up by plants and thus be made available to humans as well.

So what makes a healthy soil? Soil microbes play a critical part. They are a biological component that works with the physical components of soil to create the overall picture of healthy soil.

Carbon in its many stages of composition (and decomposition) is also essential. It is the building block of plant life and also of soil biology. Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association (an organization whose objective is to increase the quality of food) advocates not only providing soils with minerals, microbiology and carbon sources, but also aiding them in maintaining the necessary levels of air and water.

Providing and maintaining each of these soil components becomes so interrelated that it can be hard to separate one from the other — humic substances increase a soil’s water holding capacity, which encourages plants to grow well, which causes them to send exudates into the soil, which causes the soil microbes to proliferate, which also increases the soil’s water holding capacity and mineral levels, and on and on.

Plants are an integral part of the picture. Remember that various plants should be continually growing in your soil, whether cash crops or cover crops.

Selecting Healthy Plants

Now it’s time to plant. Let’s start with some basic information. Cucumbers, summer squash and zucchini, green beans and fresh peas have little nutrition. They have some nutrition; all fresh produce at least has some vitamin C because it is fresh. But especially when matched against a number of other fruits and vegetables that are simply loaded with nutrition, they have none by comparison.

On the other hand, garlic, red cabbage, red pepper, kale and beets have loads of nutrition. So an initial thought might be to adjust your planting selections with the intention of altering your menu. This might sound like no guarantee that you will eat any healthier if you simply don’t eat these “strange and foreign vegetables” in the end.

On the other hand, if children are more apt to try eating different vegetables when they are involved in the cooking of them, maybe parents would be equally willing if they grew them. But if you love cucumbers, don’t remove them from you diet or garden. Rather, be mindful about how you consume them. Instead of making cucumber salad with three cups of cucumber, maybe you can start to eat more green salads with a “healthy” topping of cucumber instead.

It is not always a question of produce selection. In many cases, increased nutrition can be achieved (more painlessly) by variety selection. For example, purple carrots not only have more beta carotene than orange carrots, but they also have high amounts of alpha carotene and anthocyanins. The Purple Peruvian potato has anthocyanins of its own as well, and because of this it is much more nutritious than white-fleshed and white-skinned potatoes. This is one of the trends in food nutrition: the deeper and darker the color of a vegetable (or fruit), the more nutrition it will have, and the purples, reds and greens (the darker the better in each case) are superior to yellows and whites. So select sweet corn that is blue, red or at least a deep yellow in color. Grow those tomatoes that are deep red, purple or even described as black or brown. And pick the purple carrots and potatoes.

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A second rule for increased nutrition is that the smaller in size a fruit or vegetable is, the more nutritious. A currant or cherry tomato has more nutrition than a beefsteak-style, large tomato. A pearl onion has more nutrition than one of those one-pounders.

The reason size matters is that nutritional components (the antioxidant-type) are concentrated in the skin and outer layers of produce, so the more skin you eat the better. To approach this another way, for a set volume of food like tomatoes, you need to increase the crop surface area (skin) you are going to eat; 2 cups of diced tomato from large tomatoes is going to include much less skin than if you made your 2 cups from sliced cherry tomatoes.This is somewhat related to the third principle, which is that the more open a crop is, the more nutrition it should have due to exposure to the sun, which stimulates the production of phytochemicals. Phytochemicals means nutrition for you. Selecting for exposure to the sun should lead you to looseleaf heads or leaf lettuce as opposed to tight heads of lettuce, and looseleaf radicchio instead of a firm head of radicchio.

Certain varieties of many kinds of crops are also genetically disposed to being more nutritious than other varieties. The Ovation strawberry has two times more antioxidants than most other strawberry varieties. Packman is a broccoli that is extra nutritious, as is Jersey Knight asparagus. Reading variety descriptions can help to identify these powerhouses.

Additionally, Dan Kittredge recommends selecting any variety that specifically mentions being valued for its flavor. Flavor comes from nutrition, so any time flavor is mentioned, the variety intrinsically has a greater potential to produce nutritious food. It is important to note that the nutrition a plant is described as having is its genetic potential. If a growing plant is showing signs of nutrient deficiency, the potential of the crop is now limited, and it will not be able to be as nutritious as it could have been because it is not getting all the nutrition it needs to grow.

A Healthy Culture

Cultural techniques also impact the nutritional levels of plants. Many practices here overlap with maintaining healthy soils.

Plants (and soils) need water and air, so maintaining moisture levels in the soil is important, of course. This may take the form of planting into raised rows or beds so that moisture drains properly from the root zone. It could include mulching the soil (or planting a cover crop) to hold in moisture and to protect the soil surface from weathering.

Note that too much water is as much of a problem as too little. It forces air out of the soil, and produce from plants that have been receiving more than the ideal amount of water do not have as intense of a flavor; the taste is “watered down,” and good flavor goes a long way toward encouraging willing consumption. Good cultural practices also means not working the soil when it is too wet, which will lead to the destruction of soil pores used by both air and water.

As mentioned above, sunlight touching plant surfaces stimulates the plant into producing protective compounds that add to their nutritional content for humans. This is why an apple on a sunny portion of a tree will be more nutritious than one grown in a shady portion. So while apples and pears, peppers and tomatoes may need some protection from the sun via their plant’s leaves, growing underneath too dense a canopy would mean too little sunlight and therefore a loss of nutrition. Likewise, it is possible for a crop to spend too much time underneath a shade cloth and to reduce its nutritional performance in this manner.

Before we get to post-harvest handling, a word on harvesting itself. Not only are many fruits and vegetables at the peak of flavor when they are at the peak of ripeness, but this is also when they are at the peak of nutrition. Some crops, such as tomatoes, apples and peaches, give you a little leeway and continue to ripen after harvesting. However, berries, cherries and grapes do not ripen after harvest. So if you are harvesting for immediate family use, allow your foods to be as ripe as possible.

Actually, while on the subject of ripeness, make sure that if you grow winter squash you learn how to test for their ripeness accurately so that you only harvest them when they are fully ripe. Though the difference may not be as stark as with ripe and not-fully-ripe strawberries, for example, a fully mature butternut squash is more flavorful and also more nutritious than one that was harvested too early.

At this point, you may be asking yourself about green versus colored bell peppers. A green bell pepper is immature (there are some peppers whose immature color is a white or purple, but shades of green are most prevalent). Does that mean that once it has ripened and is fully mature (typically red, orange or yellow) that it, too, is more nutritious? Yes, it most certainly does. In fact, the red bell pepper is one of the most antioxidant-rich vegetables there is; the green pepper is nowhere in the running.

Post-Harvest Handling

Anyone who raises produce for sale is familiar with this concept. The way you harvest and handle your crops has a huge impact on their appearance and, therefore, sell-ability.

But harvesting impacts nutrient levels at the same time. A harvested crop is not a dead crop. It is alive and “breathing,” or respiring. This means it is consuming carbon dioxide (and nutrients) and producing oxygen. This process is slowed by lower temperatures. That’s why cooling off crops as quickly as possible is so important for nutrient retention.

Harvest early in the morning so that your crops have been naturally cooled by the night air. Do not let harvested crops sit in the sun. You must get your produce into the cooler as quickly as possible.

But before that there is washing to consider. If you have picked a cool crop and it really isn’t that dirty, just get it right into the fridge. If it is dirty, clean it and drain it thoroughly, as excess moisture creates the perfect environment for decay; just don’t forget about it and leave it out too long.

An important wrinkle to remember is that if you are harvesting a crop that isn’t already cool, let it soak in water for a time, whether it is dirty or not; view it not as a cleaning step but rather as a cooling-off step, as the water will bring down its temperature much more quickly than simply refrigerating it will.

Ideal post-harvest handling means more than just rapid cooling; other steps can be taken, especially when the harvest is for personal consumption and not for sale. Remove the tops from root crop like carrots and beets. Leaving them on during storage increases respiration and nutrient lost. In some cases, just using the produce as soon as possible (no storage at all) is the best step to prevent the loss of nutrition. Spinach that has been stored for one week will have lost half of its antioxidants, and lettuce should not be stored for extended periods either. However, proper post-harvest handling and storage in closed plastic bags with pinprick-size holes to allow for respiration will help to maintain their quality for as long as possible.

Preparing ‘Health Food’

We are now at the final link in the chain, and it is time to prepare your produce to eat.

Fast Food: Different elements come into play for nutrient retention when we talk about food preparation. The first is how quickly produce is used after harvesting. For some crops this is a critically important issue, and for others not so much. Remember the respiration rates we talked about earlier? This is where they become very important.

As you might expect, some crops have high respiration rates and some have low ones. A low rate means that the crop can be harvested and held; it is a good storage crop that will not have used up all of its nutrients before you consume it. Cabbages, beets and carrots are these sort of vegetables; even cauliflower can be stored for roughly a week with negligible nutrient loss.

Vegetables that have a high respiration rate use up their stores of nutrients promptly and are best eaten very fresh. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts, two vegetables with some of the highest antioxidant levels, are very prone to loosing nutrition and sweetness in storage due to respiration. Asparagus is much the same.

Skin Is In (and More): Strange as it may seem, how food is prepared can influence its ultimate nutrition as well — not the cooking method, but the preparation itself.

As discussed above, vegetables and fruits have their greatest nutrition in and below their skin or peel. This holds true for foods you would never think of peeling or can’t peel (celery and strawberries, for example), and also, more importantly, ones that often are peeled. This list is long and includes apples, carrots, cucumbers, peaches, pears, potatoes, etc. So whenever possible you should leave the skin on your foods.

The effects can be dramatic. Potatoes have 50 percent of their antioxidant content in their skin. Another instance of the importance of preparation relates to garlic. Garlic is by far the most effective cancer-fighting component to your diet, thanks chiefly to its allicin content. However, whether or not you reap its substantial benefits depends entirely on how you prepare it for cooking — it is strictly a question of time.

Freezing is a food preservation method that is often a preparation step on the road to a finished dish, and it has nutritional specifics of its own. Some foods loose so much nutrition when they are frozen that this method of preservation should be avoided. Broccoli, carrots, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are good examples. On the other hand, blueberries and raspberries possess almost as much nutrition when frozen as when fresh. You can conserve more nutrition when you freeze items as quickly as possible (both in terms of how quickly you freeze after harvesting and how quickly the food itself is actually frozen).

In Hot Water: And lastly, how you ultimately cook (or don’t cook) your food is your final opportunity to get the most nutrition out of it. Not only do you need to avoid nutrient loss, but if you play your cards right you will be able to increase nutrient availability as well.

Some foods, such as arugula and kale, are most nutritious when eaten raw. Many foods, however, benefit from light cooking, such as sautéing, because the heat makes its nutrients more bioavailable (it converts it to a form more accessible to the body). This group includes asparagus, beets, carrots and tomatoes. Many foods also benefit from being cooked with a fat, since fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) are more bioavailable in its presence. Boiling is consistently the worst way to prepare vegetables in terms of nutrient loss, and is especially harmful to arugula, beets, broccoli, carrots and cauliflower.

Now that you have all of this information, it is time to get active and creative. Trade a low-nutrition tomato variety for a high-nutrition one. Make favorite recipes “potato-skin friendly.” Look for cooking options that will allow you to swap high-nutrition food in. For example, if you want onion on your sandwich, you would benefit greatly from using red or yellow (cooking) onions that are much, much more nutritious than sweet white onions; but you must sauté or caramelize them first to remove their assertive heat (this is doubly beneficial, as cooking will itself increase the content of the antioxidant quercetin in the onions).

Knowledge is power — in this case, the power to improve the nutrition in your food.

Leah Smith works on her family’s organic farm in mid-Michigan, Nodding Thistle. She is a home and market gardener, avid reader and writer, and editor of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA) quarterly newsletter. She has learned a great deal of information about plant variety selection and food preparation for increased nutrition from the work of Jo Robinson and her book Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health.

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Interview: Bryan O’Hara Digs in Deep on No-Till Vegetable Production

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an interview with Bryan O’Hara from the April 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine. To read the full interview, purchase a digital or print copy of the April 2020 issue, or subscribe to Acres U.S.A. magazine for monthly coverage of similar in-depth interviews and educational articles on eco-farming. 

Bryan O’Hara intensively farms three acres of market vegetables in Lebanon, Connecticut, at Tobacco Road Farm. He began his career in 1990, and over the years, through observation and experimentation, has developed a very successful no-till, pesticide-free system.

O’Hara is the author of No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture: Pesticide-Free Methods for Restoring Soil and Growing Nutrient-Rich, High-Yielding Crops. The book is a manual for all aspects of market gardening, with a particular focus on no-till techniques.

Bryan O'Hara
Bryan O’Hara

Named the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Farmer of the Year in 2016, O’Hara is a frequent speaker at conferences and events in the Northeast and around the country. In this interview he discusses the factors that led him, over many years, to his innovative no-till system, as well as his thoughts on plasticulture, cover crops and protected growing.

O’Hara is an excellent “demystifier,” as he says, of biodynamics, and he offers his take on the fundamentals for Rudolf Steiner’s principles. He also discusses the realm of the possible, both in terms of finances and labor, for young farmers.

Interviewed by Paul Meyer

ACRES U.S.A.: The book is called No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, so obviously it focuses on the no-till part of your operation. You were tilling at the very beginning, though. Describe your evolution toward no-till. At what point — what year exactly — did you become 100 percent no-till, as you would define it?

O’HARA: Well, here’s how I define no-till. This is what’s appropriate for us; there are a lot of different definitions out there. What we’re talking about when we say “no-till” is that we don’t use tillage equipment to create a seed bed, or any other soil disturbances in terms of prepping soil.

So, there’s no soil disturbance, except for things like planting equipment — furrowers for planting potatoes or transplanting furrowers. So, there is some soil disturbance with planting equipment, but not for the actual preparation of the planting surface.

ACRES U.S.A.: What about using a broadfork or a tilther? How would they fit into your definition?

O’HARA: Tilthers and broadforks are reduced-tillage implements. They’re heading away from tillage.

Our movement away from tillage equipment went in phases — from intensive tillage to reduced tillage to a no-till system. Originally, when we started growing vegetables, around 1990, we used the organic method, which is just compost application with some minerals, limestone and things. We used a lot of tillage to prepare the land — to move from one crop into another. So we purchased all kinds of tillage equipment: plows, harrows, rototillers and hand tools.

We were cropping vegetables, a lot of them short season — sometimes there were three, four or more crops on a given piece of land in a single year, and there’d be tillage passes and bed-shaping between every crop. I basically just hopped from one tractor to another with different tillage tools and bed-shaping equipment. It all proceeded under a pretty intensive tillage regime. Everything was nice and straight and tidy, set up for cultivation.

But the soil was deteriorating in terms of its aggregation and structure. We had excessively loosened soils, even though we worked to compress them with rollers and various equipment. But we weren’t getting the crop growth that we had previously — say, ten years earlier, when we started out.

That was a combination of the intensity of the tillage, combined with the deterioration of the environmental conditions here — we’re under a lot of pollution and other detrimental impacts. The vitality of the whole system, even beyond the fields — all the forests and the fields — are suffering extensively from insects and diseases.

The combination of the tillage and the environmental run-down started giving us difficulties in growing crops, particularly with fungal diseases. So we started to address those — because, of course, we don’t apply pesticides — with various cultural approaches. And no-till was a great leap forward for us.

We did a lot of other things, too. We adjusted our fertilization, our composting, our foliar feeding programs. We got into biodynamics and Korean natural farming for biologicals and for a greater understanding of the whole system. But the biggest, quickest improvement really was switching into no-till.

Our journey into no-till started with experimentation. It was a process of many years; we didn’t just switch overnight. We had a slow, careful approach, using various experiments and techniques at a time.

The first step was to reduce tillage. To do that, we set up permanent bedding systems so that the wheels of the tractors or equipment would consistently travel over the same ground from year to year.

That alleviated the need for releasing or correcting the compaction from equipment. Simply by laying out the permanent bedding system, it got the equipment off of any areas that would be growing crops in the future.

There are basically three profiles of tillage. There’s surface preparation with light tillage tools. There’s working the plow layer, essentially from a couple inches down to, say, ten inches deep; this layer is commonly worked with the plows or harrows, or even rototillers. Then you have subsoiling tools, like chisel plows and subsoilers, that reach beyond the plow layer.

By setting up the permanent bedding, we eliminated tillage tools in the middle layer. We stopped the deep rototilling or plowing, or deep harrowing, but we continued with occasional chisel plowing to rip through existing plow pans and alleviate previous compaction issues.

So, we went with occasional deep chiseling, mixed with just surface bed preparation in the top couple inches, which is very similar to what using the tilther for surface preparation and the broadfork to get down into the plow pan. That was classic reduced tillage, and a lot of growers are switching to that — surface preparation and occasional deep working of the soil with gentle tools like the broadfork, or an occasional rip with a chisel plow.

ACRES U.S.A.: That’s similar to what’s described in some of the market gardening books — Eliot Coleman, J. M. Fortier, etc. They’re using techniques pretty similar to that, correct?

O’HARA: Right, yeah. Exactly. And we got improvements using that system. What we soon found, however, was that those chisel plow rips became less and less necessary because we weren’t re-compacting the soil with equipment or other tillage tools.

So we went from that to eventually just surface preparation. For surface preparation, originally we used very shallow rototilling. But then we tried to get into just using field cultivators and light disc harrows and tined arrows, because a rototiller, of course, really creams the aggregates on that surface. So we started using even gentler tools as much as possible, and mixing in some hand labor to kind of shine the beds up, because those tools aren’t as effective at giving you a smooth seed bed as the rototiller was. We used a little less aggressive tillage tools and a little more human labor. That was the next progression. Until, finally, we got into complete no-till, when we discovered solarization.

ACRES U.S.A.: Can you describe the difference between solarization and occultation?

O’HARA: Sure. That was the big breakthrough for us — when we figured out how to use solarization. It really fit into the speed of our production system.

Read the rest of this in-depth interview on no-till production in the April 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

A How-To on Hemp Planting

Author Doug Fine waves hello from the middle of a large hemp field in Oregon.
Author Doug Fine waves hello from a hemp field in Oregon.


Editor’s note: The following excerpt is from Doug Fine’s new book American Hemp Farmer: Adventures and Misadventures in the Cannabis Trade (Chelsea Green Publishing, April 2020) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

The easiest part of hemp planting is figuring out your seed depth, plant spacing, and watering protocol. The hardest part of hemp planting is getting your farm equipment to implement those instructions.

In fact, I’ll tell you right here to plant at a half-inch depth in moist soil that allows for good seed-to-soil contact and thus maximum germination. Doing that with the 7-to-15-inch spacing we discussed will occupy 47 minutes of your 20-hour planting day. The other 19 hours and 13 minutes will mostly be spent under a terrible device called a seed drill. By, say, 11:00 a.m., generally the emotional nadir of a planting day, you’ll be dirty, bloody, very hungry, and thinking, Huh, I would’ve thought my first hemp-planting day would involve more actual planting of hemp. By lunch you should consider yourself in very good shape if you’re even sinking the first seeds in the ground. In case it helps you remember that you’re not alone, this diary of my group’s three-acre 2018 planting of the dioecious Samurai cultivar in Oregon’s Emerald Triangle reflects how planting day usually goes.

7:05 a.m.: Survey of Field, Yoga, Return to Child Mind. The ideal date range for sowing hemp is a latitude-factored-on-climate-change issue. It’ll vary from late March to mid-June depending on your spring weather forecast and cultivar. In 2018, it is at the end of May for our field above the Rogue River. By this point we’ve cultivated billions of microbial communities before the seed even hits soil — mostly by leaving it alone for 20 years.

Not long after sunrise I set my coffee on the tree stump that marks our snack stockpile and tool dump near the gate to the field. After a few Sun Salutations, the whole thing looks so doable. I’m sure we’ll have our 50 pounds of seed in the soil in no time and I’ll be tubing the river by midafternoon.

I should know better. By 2018, I am aware — as I wake in the farmhouse of my mentors and partners Edgar and Margaret up in the hills of southern Oregon’s famous cannabis-cultivation region — that before noon we’ll have basked in two dozen nerve-curdling delays. This is not my first hemp rodeo. I’ve chased goats, woodchucks, and one determined family of wild pigs out of hemp fields.

After a baker’s dozen plantings, I have learned that the only certainty will be joys and hassles we can’t dream up. For instance, the Pacific Northwest version of the — ho hum — Anthropocene epoch’s annual millennial wildfires won’t start for a few weeks in Oregon, and they will last for more than five weeks. But as always, I am willfully forgetting the coming realities of planting day. Spring has sprung. So right off the bat, I’d probably be happy in the DMV.

Being outside sets up a struggle between logic and endorphins, between deadlines and love, where the right brain wins every time. As you stretch, you’re smelling forsythia and raspberry blossoms. Working in the dirt. Your office has no walls. Courting hawks land in nearby limbs. Nothing else exists. For those unused to the feeling I’m describing, it’s called sanity.

From a practical perspective, this “child mind” is what makes you forget last season’s planting nightmares. It is probably some chemical wafting out of healthy soil that casts an indisputable spell of forgetting. This is, really, the essential component of childhood—you don’t know, or don’t care, what’s coming next.

It’s not only last year’s seed drill delays that you forget. Your product’s bottle caps don’t quite fit the bottles? Your state’s regulators are sticking with the absurd “field out of view from road” requirements for another season? Whatever, that was yesterday. Today is planting day. The ultimate now.

7:19 a.m.: Return to Barn for First Human Error–Caused Tractor Breakdown. The wise farmer approaches planting day very much the way a pro ballplayer approaches spring training. It’s intended to get the cobwebs out. But Major League Baseball is smart enough to have 37 days of practice games. We farmers have to wake up, get dressed, and immediately pour lubricants into the wrong reservoirs in tractors.

Terrible sounds and smells alert the group to the problem. In 2018, our perpetrator (not mentioning names, he is just playing an assigned role) avoids eye contact by checking irrelevant tanks with a dipstick. Then the tractor expires into a profound quiet. Our planting day stops before it starts.

This, of course, happens when the temperature is still frosty, and the last thing anyone wants to be doing is unscrewing metal plugs. The next 27 minutes are spent draining one disgusting fluid, pouring in a second, and remembering that we meant to run to town yesterday to pick up a third.

7:46 a.m.: Talking Big. This important phase of planting day commences when, already three-quarters of an hour behind schedule and clustered around the stalled tractor and seed drill, your whole team is now on-site. Just seeing a bag of hempseed unleashes passion. The infectious excitement about the season opening in front of you all results in conversation that goes something like this:

“We can probably do two hundred fifty thousand units,” your partner gushes, pouring a bit of test seed into the seed drill reservoir from a 25-pound bag balanced precariously on his shoulder. “These babies look like they’re ready for it.”

Before you can decipher that remark, the tractor-fluid situation gets straightened out and the engine turns over, leading to a group cheer. The ice is broken.

The aged diesel motor is loud. You shout louder. The hawks scatter. You and your team continue crunching numbers, visualizing the killing the enterprise is going to make when this superlative crop finds itself on shelves.

“Gonna be a great season,” you agree, ignoring the fact that implementing your colleague’s 250,000-unit suggestion would mean 25 times the storage you have dialed in for the flower harvest alone.

As the seed drill is attached to the tractor in a sort of awkward Iwo Jima re-creation, you spend some moments wondering if they award prizes for Most Righteous Farmer of the Year. Before getting a seed in the ground, you tend to put the cart before the oxen.

In the business cycle, planting time represents what you might call the R and D retreat, or the spitballing phase. Some good ideas do come from these field meetings. But really what unfolds represents the primate love of daydreaming. It’s pleasant to visualize that “lying on the beach with an umbrella drink” moment that provides the final scene in 73 percent of movies produced in the 1980s. Everything is ahead of you.

7:51 a.m.: Tractor Moves. Leading a parade of choking farmers and dogs, the farm conveyance crawls 200 yards to the field, churning roughly Bhutan’s annual petroleum output. This is one reason my product labels boast of a petroleum-free harvest. The planting, usually but not always, has been a different story.

8:04 a.m.: First Seed Drill Malfunction. There comes a moment on planting day when the final distractions fade. You feel an all-systems-go sensation. You’ve built soil, acquired your genetics, and prepped your field. Your seed has germinated at 95 percent in the 100-seed paper towel test you conducted as soon as you brought it home six weeks earlier. The tractor has bumped its way to the east side of the field, something that seemed wildly improbable half an hour ago. There you plan to make your first “pass,” which is farmer-speak for the bundle of rows you plant each time your tractor does a lap.

Something clicks. The whole crew feels it. An internal timer signals that you’ve daydreamed long enough. Between fast-moving foggy hints of rain and skin-singeing teasers of how hot the day may get, everyone shoots one another an effervescent thumbs-up or shaka. Let’s get to work.

This, according to the universal calendar of hemp, is when the seed drill fails. As the walls of our bubble of forgetting explode around us again on May 28, Edgar and I shoot each other a glance that says, Oh, right. This.

This is my fourth year of planting delays. His 62nd. We know our day has changed. We will have to spend many gory hours resolving this kind of SNAFU.

The seed drill (also known as a grain drill) is a device invented to punish us for something (maybe for staying still and farming at all, rather than wandering around seminomadically after caribou, wildebeest, and bison, the way we’re hardwired to do). It’s a nonmotorized machine hitched to the back of a tractor (or oxen team), basically a storage container with carefully calculated leaks that drop seeds down a series of chutes from the bin to the ground as often and as deeply as you calibrate it to do. Theoretically.

Like the tractor itself, it’s supposed to make agricultural endeavors easier by improving on the time it would take actual human beings to plant seeds. Instead, working with a seed drill is easily the most maddening element of planting season. Not the only maddening element. Just the most reliably maddening. More practically, seed drill–maintenance delays ensure that agriculture remains about as efficient as it was on the first planting day along the Euphrates.

We appear to be trapped in a constant here, which I call Fine’s Law of Abandoning Traditional Economic Rituals, or FLOATER. This constant establishes that in mechanized agriculture (defined as farming that employs machines rather than hands, hand tools, or livestock), a mission critical problem with a poorly designed, factory-made piece of crap will occur exactly once per pass during the first morning of a given year’s planting season.

It can vary, but early in the day when everyone and everything is rusty, the time it takes to plant a pass plus deal with the malfunction leading up to it usually totals around an hour and a half. We have about 60 passes in front of us this day.

For a long while all the hawks can see are eight booted feet protruding, midfield, from under a tractor and its seed drill attachment. All they can hear is the occasional expletive when yet another socket wrench attachment proves to be just the wrong size.

Despite the delay, spirits are high in the long-angled morning light. That’s because the mood in the field is that of a home birth. We are hemp midwives, and loving it. If you speak to most midwives, they’ll tell you it’s a pretty joyful occupation. A perpetual birthday party. And in our bodies as we plant any crop, oxytocin is exchanged as in any parent-child relationship.

Plus as a farming group, enough of us know that the pace tends to pick up in the afternoon. Even during the worst moments of FLOATER despair, it helps to keep in mind that the hemp will get planted. It’ll just take 10 times longer than you’ve budgeted.

I haven’t yet heard anyone say, “Dang, planting day was just too much of a pain in the ass. I decided not to go through with it.” I have indeed heard such a sentiment following harvest quagmires. But not at planting.

The brain is a remarkably flexible chemistry lab. It can secrete, at electromagnetic speed, any emotion for which the situation calls. The sequence of planting day emotions is: Bliss. Frustration. Elation. Repeat. Unless you really do plant a small-acreage crop by hand, though (not a bad idea), just don’t imagine for a second that you’re immune from the FLOATER constant.

Read more about Doug Fine’s adventures in hemp farming in the book American Hemp Farmer in the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.

Doug Fine is an investigative journalist and pioneer voice in cannabis/hemp and regenerative farming. He’s an award-winning culture and climate correspondent for NPR, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others. His previous books include Hemp Bound, Too High to Fail, and Farewell, My Subaru (a Boston Globe bestseller). Find him online at and @organiccowboy.

Doug Fine Teaches Hemp

Learn how to grow hemp from one of the leading experts! Doug Fine is the instructor in our Eco-Ag U Online course A Grower’s Guide to Hemp: From Soil to Seed to Sales. In addition to a broad overview of the many of uses of hemp — from food and fiber to medicine and construction material — Doug will go deep into regenerative growing methods and soil preparation as well as strategies for building a profitable business and navigating legal challenges. Learn more here!

Doug Fine was also a key speaker at our May 2020 Hemp Farm Accelerator Webinar. This free webinar included presentations by hemp expert Edgar Winters, soil consultant Noel Garcia and hemp farmers Sarah Cotterill and Jamie Perkins. In this webinar, Doug Fine discussed hemp entrepreneurship and marketing. Watch the Hemp Farm Accelerator webinar here.

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Acres USA has hosted two virtual Advancing Hemp events, designed to prepare farmers for successful hemp production through practical, applicable advice from industry-leading experts and growers. Learn more about the 2020 replay including Doug Fine and Gary Reding here, plus the 2021 replay including John Kempf and Dr. Whitney Cranshaw here

Accelerating Industrial Hemp 2020

Free! On May 19, 2020, Acres U.S.A. hosted the Hemp Farm Accelerator webinar – an educational event focused on advancing the education of growers who are trying for market share, a higher quality product, a higher CBD percentage and to improve their soil management program. Gain in-depth information on soil analysis, fertilizer and crop nutrition, and pest and weed management from hemp industry innovators and soil health experts.

Watch the Webinar

View the full 2-hour Hemp Farm Accelerator webinar here!

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Doug Fine

Doug Fine

Doug Fine is a pioneer voice in cannabis/hemp and regenerative farming. In the hemp/cannabis sphere, Doug is a farmer, author and well-regarded researcher and consultant for projects all over the world.

Noel Garcia

Garcia is a Certified Crop Advisor under the American Society of Agronomy. He joined Texas Plant & Soil Lab in 1991; he now serves as vice-president, operations and technical director.

Sarah Cotterill & Jamie Perkins

Sarah Cotterill

Sarah Cotterill (pictured) and Jamie Perkins are the CEO and owner, respectively of Lineage Hemp, a vertically integrated hemp company harnessing generational wisdom and agricultural innovation to produce and distribute high quality hemp (fiber, grain, and CBD) using regenerative organic methods.

Edgar Winters

Edgar Winters

In 2014, Edgar Winters received the first Oregon-issued hemp license in 77 years. His roots in Hemp go back to the late 1950s when his grandfather used to cultivate hemp for baling twine. 


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Making the Most of Your Space for Fruit and Vegetable Production


Agriculture can come in all sizes. Having a small space in which to work doesn’t have to limit you in terms of the diversity of what you produce, nor does it mean you won’t be able to satisfy your needs handsomely; it simply means you need to know how to go about it. There are several different approaches to getting the most you can out of your land.

(An important strategy for achieving top-level production that I won’t be covering in this article is to make your soil as healthy as possible, which leads to healthy, productive plants. Not to worry! I will be covering this subject in another issue.)

Plant Variety Selection

If you have had any experience with vegetable varieties, you will know that they are not created equal. Plants thrive in different growing conditions, even if they are the same species. There are also different things that they will or will not be able to do for you. Can they be staked? Will they produce a heavy crop? The required nutrient level and drainage of soil, required sunlight level, and ability to compete with weeds are further characteristics that will continue to separate plants. It is useful to think about potential members of your garden in a variety of ways to determine which are the plants for you.

One approach to variety selection to make the most of a small space is choosing varieties that are noted for heavy production. If you thumb through seed catalogs, you are sure to find a variety or two of most every vegetable or fruit that will be worthy of this description. For example:

  • Irish Potato—Red Maria, Elba, German Butterball
  • Snap Pea—Super Sugar Snap
  • Pickling Cucumber—Double Yield
  • Bush Bean—Provider
  • Mini-Hubbard Winter Squash—Gold Nugget (doubly useful as it is a compact plant)

And almost every variety of acorn winter squash is noted for both enthusiastic production and compact growth. Pole beans are also famous for high yields, and note that they come in flat and round regular, Romano, and French/filet varieties (there are even some dry shelling varieties, such as Bingo). On the other hand, there are many varieties of fingerling potatoes and heirloom tomatoes, which are much more judicious when bearing fruit and should possibly not be considered.

Some produce varieties should be selected because they make great use of the space given to them. Long salad radishes like Dragon and French Breakfast will give you more radish flesh with their one inch-square of ground than, for example, Cherry Belle and Easter Egg, because they simply keep on growing down. Cylindrical beets, as opposed to the more familiar round roots, repeat this technique. Pole beans, as well as being productive plants, are also very large plants (8 to 10 feet tall) that produce very large yet tender beans (pods range from 6 to 11 inches long depending on the variety). Yard long and runner beans also boast enthusiastically tall plants, and a correspondingly greater harvest potential.

Then there are the “keep on picking” plants, those with a larger harvest over time. Kale, Swiss chard, and collards are the sorts of greens that will keep on giving as long as you keep on taking. As long as eggplant and pepper plants have time to produce more flowers, and as long as you keep on picking, they also will produce more fruits. Broccolis can be different; some varieties produce only a strong central head, and the harvest is over. Instead, select one that produces a central head and then a good harvest of side shoots (De Ciccio and Umpqua are two nice open-pollinated varieties); or pick a sprouting broccoli.

You could also select plants that have a compact growth habit. There are varieties of summer and winter squash, melons and peas that produce very large or long plants. And there are cabbages and carrots that require ample space because they produce a generally large plant. But there are also varieties of all of these that stay small. Sometimes it is because the produce you harvest is of a diminutive size as well, and sometimes because they just don’t need to grow as large vegetatively to produce their crop. See Table 1 for a listing of plant varieties that are especially suited to small areas. Note that varieties listed in the “container” column can readily be grown in a “tight” planting scenario, but that the converse switch should not be assumed to be true.

Table 1: Plant Varieties for Container or "Tight" Plantings

Tomatoes offer different options for the small garden; the key is to remember what is what. They can be indeterminate, which in the scenarios above would mean “keep on picking.” Indeterminate plants continue to grow and produce tomatoes until there is a killing frost. On the other hand, a determinate tomato plant will only grow to a certain size and fruit count, which ripen all at once. Compared to indeterminate plants, determinate ones are compact and bushy, better for spaces where you don’t want them trailing all over. So as you can see, you can choose to grow either kind of tomato plant as long as you remember what it will do and where/how to plant/culture it accordingly.

There are plants that can do double duty for you, giving you greater opportunities to harvest. Squash like Tromboncino (zucchini rampicante) can be harvested when smaller and immature as a nice summer squash, or allowed to mature and be used as a winter squash. There are many heirloom squash varieties that can bridge the summer/winter gap, such as Kamo Kamo, Mongogo du Guatemala, and Table King Bush. A favorite cucumber of ours is the Silver Slicer. It is from the “slicing” section of the seed catalogue and it is a great slicer, but there have been years when pickling cucumbers became scarce before the canning was done and we found that when picked small they were perfect pickling stand-ins. Depending on your corn proclivities, you could raise Hopi Blue or Painted Mountain and pick ears at the immature, sweet corn stage for fresh eating (provided you are not afraid of exotic colors and real corn flavor), and allow the rest to mature to be harvested and ground into corn meal. When maximizing the edible is an important consideration, you might want to confine yourself to hardneck (stiffneck) varieties of garlic. This is the class of garlic that produces a hardened flowering stalk, which is the garlic scape. Garlic scapes are a harvest unto themselves, and with this one simple guideline you are now producing more food.

And there are still other interesting crops to explore. Celtuce is one. A type of lettuce, you harvest the lettuce leaves from the plant at any stage of its growth, as it is the 12- to 14-inch stem on which they are produced that is your primary objective; it is crunchy and tasty. Cracoviensis, or Asparagus Lettuce, is similar. A lettuce that grows fast in cool weather, there is again no bitterness in the leaves on the thick, fleshy, “bolted stem” it sends up, which is to be peeled and eaten like asparagus.

So far I have focused on vegetables, but fruits have a place in this discussion as well. Strawberries in particular offer a wealth of options. A standard variety like Honeoye is known for being highly productive and for producing fruits over a longer period of the year than other June-bearing varieties. Several varieties are everbearing strawberries, which produce all summer (smaller quantities measuring by-the-week, but for many more weeks). Some varieties have a compact growth habit, so that one can easily find room for them in a small garden or a container, even a hanging basket. Alpines are a strawberry type that have varieties of this sort.

The list goes on. Huckleberries can easily be grown in containers. Top Hat is a blueberry variety that grows on a miniature bush, measuring 2 feet tall and 12 inches in diameter, and will fit in a container or anywhere at all. There are other blueberry varieties that have compact growth, and some that offer two separate harvest periods (such as Bushel and Berry Perpetua). There are many fruits that grow on vines and so have a small “footprint” in the garden, including grapes, goji berries (goji berries are a double duty crop, as they have edible leaves), and kiwi. The kiwi Prolific is self-fertile, compact in growth, and produces fuzzless, bite-size fruits in hardiness zones 4-8. And there is a plant called a dwarf flowering cherry or sand cherry, which is a 5-foot bush and not a tree like other sweet cherries, and so much easier to fit into a limited space.

Many available fruit trees (apple, pear, peach, and plum) have been grafted so that they bear five different varieties of one fruit, offering selection in the space of one tree. And many of these are dwarf trees, meaning that they only grow 8 to 10 feet in height and so won’t overwhelm the area where they are planted. Additionally, there are also single-variety fruit trees that are dwarf and/or self-fertile, cutting down on the height of your trees and the number required for fruit.

Cultural Techniques

It is not only what you grow but how you grow it. There are various culturing techniques that will help you maximize land use.

Time to Grow Up: As referenced earlier, one option it to make crops go up. Whether it is tomatoes, pole beans, or cucumbers in cages, on trellises, on a tripod, or on cattle panels, it is important to keep efficiency when harvesting (or at least convenience) in mind when setting up your “aerial” system. Some varieties of crops are more suitable to growing up than others. Many varieties of slicing cucumbers have sufficiently strong vine growth. Melons that also have strong vines and/or come as dainty fruits (such as the honeydew Orange Silverware and the speciality melon Tigger) are exceptionally well suited. And caging all manner of small-sized tomatoes makes harvesting them so much easier (as well as being a good way to save space), they should not be grown any other way.

A Little Training: Simply sending plants up into the air saves space. Further manipulation and training of plants to grow in a specific way can be of even greater use. Techniques that come to mind are espalier pruning and cordon trellising of fruits, which are most often used to orient plants to grow flat against a wall or straight up within a small circumference. Once the basic objectives of pruning are understood (once you know how not to cut off next year’s fruit), almost any shape can be achieved or, rather, almost any space can be filled. And filled by many different kinds of fruits, from apple or pear trees to currant or gooseberry bushes.

Close Quarters: Container production opens up other options as well, both indoors and outdoors. Whether it is fresh herbs or microgreens in the kitchen itself, cucumbers in a window box, or strawberries in a hanging basket, the more plants that are happy to grow in a container of any sort, the more ground area you will be left with for others. Again, refer to Table 1.

Space it Out: Plants need to be given sufficient space to produce their crop, but required spacing can be investigated. Take the onion family. Always plant scallions in bunches of 4-6, and pull them out of the ground in a bunch. Instead of planting bulbing onions individually in a row, plant them 2-4 in a group. They will simply push each other aside as they each size up. And a leek variety like Zermatt can be planted densely and used for a first picking of (alternating) baby leeks, leaving the remainder with space to produce full-sized leeks. What other space modifications are out there?

The Best of Friends: Companion planting is planting different crops in close proximity for a variety of reasons, all of which are intended to lead to increased production. Improved pollination and pest control are a couple, as is “plant partnerships” that use nutrient cycling and associated soil microbes of plants to help one another. Research companion planting for the specifics.

A Shapely Approach: Yet another practice for filling up a garden space efficiently involves the basic planning of the garden so that you can practice intensive crop production. Raised-beds (typically rectangular) and the further specialized keyhole and pyramid gardens are some on the layouts on which most intensive gardening takes place; the garden areas are more contained and more controlled, with the objective of being more productive. Square foot gardening is about as precise as it can get, with plots marked at each foot to closely monitor plant density. Raised-beds can be of even greater benefit if they are used along contour lines on slopes, creating garden space where there otherwise couldn’t be due to erosion.

The Element of Time

We have been discussing ways in which plants don’t take up a lot of room spatially. There are also ways to work with how they take up room temporally.

A Winter Garden: An excellent production booster is the planting of an off-season garden that will continue to yield in the dead of winter and into spring of the next year. You can find varieties of many different crops to serve this purpose. The Giants of Colmar carrot, Tadorna leek, purple sprouting broccoli, and many other crops can withstand the cold months of winter. A successful winter garden is simply achieved by planting the correct varieties and possibly using a bit of mulch for extra protection. Imagine the possibilities if you were to use cold frames or other means of season extension as well! Be sure to plant these long-term crops with ones that grow rapidly so that the ground for your winter garden isn’t out of production for a time; rather, you can still get a fall harvest and then have the winter planting as a bonus.

Space Holders: Which brings us to the point that cool-season crops that grow in the spring (and do so rapidly) should be thought of as space holders in the garden. This refers to arugula, lettuces, mesclun, radishes and spinach, for example. Summer transplants can be put into the ground as soon as the spring crop comes out, or they can be planted at the same time (see interplanting below).

In Rapid Succession: Successional planting is keeping your ground in fairly constant production by having seeds or transplants ready to go into the ground as soon as the previous crop is removed. Be mindful of varieties, as succession planting depends upon crops’ time-to-harvest, which varies from crop to crop and even variety to variety. For example, some carrot varieties may take 50 to 60 days to reach maturity, while others take 80 to 90; you must decide which is appropriate where. Even crops like tomatoes and potatoes that require a lot of time in the soil can be thought of for succession plantings. They can go into ground that was used for an early spring crop, or move right in when the winter garden plantings come out. Various short-season crops like scallions and cress, as well as the rapid growth, cool-season “space holders,” are certainly great for hopping in and out of the garden in rapid succession.

Profitable Partnerships: The growth of plants can complement one another in many different ways, leading to numerous combinations to keep your ground packed for production. Interplanting is planting different species in close proximity to make the fullest use of a given resource. For example:

Sunlight: Some crops require full sun, while others can grow in (or prefer) partial shade. See Table 2 for a sample of crops that fall into the “light” and “shade” categories, and so can be planted together.

Rooting Depth: You can interplant species that make use of different zones of the rhizosphere, as plants do have characteristic rooting depths. See Table 3 for information on the rooting depths of various crops.

Time to Maturity: It is considered when you plant successionally, and also when you interplant crops with different dates to reach maturity. In a sense, interplanting based on time to maturity is successional harvesting as opposed to successional planting.

The combinations are endless, though you will find some work better than others. Obviously, the well-known “Three Sisters” combination of corn, vining beans, and vining squash makes use of complementary rooting depths perfectly, and they clearly work together in terms of sunlight, moisture and nutrition, as well as by the corn providing a natural trellis for the beans. Onion, carrot, and lettuce is another good combination that works for rooting depth, sunlight, and time-to-harvest. And there are other ways in which crops can fit together well and be synergistic in a close arrangement. People use “prickly,” vining cucurbits as a physical barrier to help keep furry garden pests from the succulent crops they desire. Or they use crops like peppers or dry beans as markers to help locate the “base” of melon plants for soil drenching at the roots, which can be hard to find in a sea of vines. And why not use sunflowers or broom corn as natural trellises, too?

Table 2: Light and Shade Partners

Edible Landscaping

A final thought is to remember you might have access to more land than you think you do. Creating an edible landscape allows you to go beyond a conventional garden and employ plants that can offer you food as well as provide for other practical needs. If you are in need of a hedge, why not an eight-foot-tall blueberry (or serviceberry or Nanking cherry plum) for a hedge you can also harvest from? Or if you are in need of a ground cover, try putting in lingonberries or strawberries. From small trees (like aronia berry, sea buckthorn, or crab apple) to vines (hardy kiwi or vine peach), there are numerous options of plants to choose from which are attractive and practical.

Not to mention that there are many typical garden plants that are attractive enough to be used in landscaping, too. Jerusalem Artichoke or Red Veined Sorrel, or any of those really intriguing eggplant or okra varieties, especially those with arresting colors. What is more beautiful than an okra flower? I saw a quinoa variety in a catalogue recently called Brightest Brilliant Rainbow. With vivid pink flowers, it is absolutely gorgeous. As it has calcium and iron-rich leaves, and seeds that provide a plant-based complete protein, it is a plant worth growing for a variety of reasons. Also bear in mind that having the full expanse of your lawn at your disposal (with occasional buildings interspersed) should make plant isolation easier in case you wish to save seed.

Table 3: Characteristic Rooting Depths

Anything Is Possible

Don’t stop here; there are yet other ways to produce your own food without using a great deal of space. Why not grow grain? Grain crops don’t have to be planted in large fields and harvested with a combine. I think buckwheat is fun. Flowers for the honeybees, seeds for the chickens, and more seeds for you. Why not the Otaheite Orange, a dwarf plant that does well in indoor container gardening? Or the Moringa, a complete protein superfood full of vitamins and minerals with leaves, seed pods, and seeds to offer? And there is absolutely no reason that the list of shallow-rooted, shade loving “plants” that you consider for your garden shouldn’t include mushrooms (with the correct mulch, of course).

The potential benefits of urban and small-space agriculture are many. From more land being used to perform carbon and nitrogen sequestration to providing food and habit for beneficial insects to helping to reduce storm runoff in urban areas to energy conservation for society in general, as well as the energy and food savings and personal satisfaction provided to the growers themselves, the challenge of gaining the knowledge, skill, and technique needed to make urban agriculture work really well is more than worth the returns.

Leah Smith works on her family’s organic farm in mid-Michigan, called Nodding Thistle. She is a home and market gardener, avid reader and writer, and editor of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA) quarterly newsletter.

This article was originally published in the April 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.