UMass sustainable food and farming major Mike Mango transfers a barrel of goat manure into the back of his vehicle at the Goat Girls barn on the Amethyst Farm in Amherst on Saturday. The Goat Girls, a landscaping operation that rents out goats to eat homeowners' brush, offered the manure in exchange for helping clean out the goat barn after the long winter.
UMass sustainable food and farming major Mike Mango transfers a barrel of goat manure into the back of his vehicle at the Goat Girls barn on the Amethyst Farm in Amherst on Saturday. The Goat Girls, a landscaping operation that rents out goats to eat homeowners’ brush, offered the manure in exchange for helping clean out the goat barn after the long winter.

AMHERST — For The Goat Girls, a landscaping operation that rents out goats to eat homeowners’ brush, this weekend’s spring weather meant it was time to clean out the goat barn after the long winter.

It’s tough work, and probably not most people’s idea of a good way to spend a sunny 70-degree day. But owner Hope Crolius was able to lure a few members of the public to help out Saturday by posting an offer at the local garden store, on Craigslist and in the newspaper: If you pitch in, you can take as much manure as you want.

It’s like pick-your-own, except instead of berries, you get a fertilizer that Crolius said can be applied to gardens — without needing to be composted — to provide nitrogen and other nutrients.

Seven people took her up on the offer, showing up at the small goat barn at 132 Pelham Road with pitchforks and buckets to work alongside The Goat Girls employees and volunteers.

Michael Mango, 25, wearing work gloves and a sheen of sweat, loaded manure by the pitchforkful onto a tarp in the back of a Honda Element.

“I’m going to do another load after this,” he said.

He was taking it to spread on a small plot of land at the Amethyst Brook Conservation Area where he is planting his first vegetable crops for the season.

A junior in the sustainable food and farming program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Mango heard about the work-for-manure swap when he visited the goat farm with a class last Tuesday. “They needed some help and I needed some manure, so it sounded like a really great win-win for everyone,” he said.

For some dedicated gardeners, going to horse, dairy or other livestock farms to shovel their own manure isn’t a novel idea.

As they loaded a few buckets of composted goat-manure into their car, Gayle and Scott Barton of Pelham explained that they have been gardening for 40 years and always supplement their own food-scrap compost with manure.

“So for us, it’s not a new thing,” Gayle Barton said. But, she added, “it’s fun to see other people get involved, fun to see the excitement around it.”

In recent years, the movement to support local farms has taken off in the Pioneer Valley. The owners of several area Community Supported Agriculture farms say that their shareholders like feeling that they have a stake in the operation.

In the case of The Goat Girls barn cleaning day, that stake isn’t a financial one — Crolius calls it “sweat equity.” But she says people like helping a local operation, and getting some rich fertilizer to boot.

Crolius, who also owns Artemis Garden Consultants, started The Goat Girls in 2010 when she purchased three goats to clear the brush and weeds from a client’s yard. She started getting calls to rent them out to other landowners, and the business grew. Now, on land she rents from Amethyst Farm, she has 18 goats, a barn manager, an outreach assistant and several interns and volunteers.

Crolius has offered the shovel-your-own manure deal to her clients for the last few years, but this is the first year she opened it up to the public.

“I don’t see the community pouring in, but I do see a few people who are dedicated — and the day is young,” Crolius said while taking a break from the shoveling Saturday morning. Throughout the spring, people also will buy the goat manure by appointment for $1 a bucket.

Her customers like the idea of a fertilizer that is safe for the environment and comes from just down the road, she said. “I think there is something so darn satisfying about knowing that the food you’re eating was fertilized with the manure of your local goat herd,” she said. “It’s so much more satisfying than getting a bag of fertilizer that says, ‘made in China.’ ”

Ellen Chechile, who lives a few doors down from the land Crolius rents for her goats, said taking home quality fertilizer for her perennial flower garden was only part of her motivation for being at the barn Saturday.

“Primarily, I just wanted to help with the goats,” Chechile said, and lend The Goat Girls’ workers a hand. “They do a great job and it’s a system I want to support as much as possible.”

Another draw is that the friendly, dog-like goats are so popular, Crolius said. When she puts out a call for people to drop off their leaves in the fall or their Christmas trees in the winter, customers and total strangers are all too happy to oblige, she said.

The dry leaves make great bedding, Crolius said. The goats strip the trees, eating the needles, tips of branches and even the bark.

They are taking something that seems like waste and making it useful, she said.

“It’s a really great feeling to use something that would be a quote, unquote waste product.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at

Original Post

Look Sharp

By Aaron Jermain

Are your tools falling all over each-other? Create systems to keep them organized

You’re ready for spring! But are your hand tools? Did they get hung up neatly in the tool shed last fall, after a thorough cleaning and re-sharpening? If not, don’t worry! Better late than never. But if you’d planned to just claw through the pile of shovels and rakes for the right implement and get right to work this spring, don’t do it! Don’t subject your legs and back to a dull shovel. Don’t subject your plants to a blunt lopper. A few hours today will save you weeks of wasted effort and shoddy work.

Keeping hand tools clean and sharp is not just easier on your body and more enjoyable; it also sets a standard for yourself and your teammates to achieve quality and beauty with your efforts. Did I mention it makes it easier for your body and more enjoyable?

Every craft benefits from clean, sharp, well-maintained tools; farming and gardening is no different. Here’s all you need to do to rescue your aging relics:

  1. Assess the damage. Are the tool parts intact? Wash or brush away any dirt sothat you can see all the parts clearly. Wooden handles can crack and split from abuse or age. Severe rusting can irreparably damage blades and other steel parts. Some plastic parts become brittle with sun exposure. Impact tools like axes and maddocks need strong handles and a tight connection between the tool head andhandle; don’t use a loose or damaged tool for swinging or heavy work! Leave metal repairs to someone with experience. In most cases severely damaged tools need to be replaced. If you’re really committed to taking good care of your tools, paying for a quality tool will be a good investment.
This axe handle is cracked and could come apart during use. Don't use one like this! Visit your local home center and look for replacement handles
This axe handle is cracked and could come apart during use. Don’t use one like this! Visit your local home center and look for replacement handles
  1. Replace wooden handles as necessary. Wooden handles are often easily replaced by anyone with basic tools and experience. New handles are available at hardware stores; local stores may have more options than “Home Despot” or similar. If you’re not confident replacing the handle on a tool, see if a woodworker can help you.

A flat file like this Nicholson Handy File makes quick work of shovel and hoe edges
A flat file like this Nicholson Handy File makes quick work of shovel and hoe edges
  1. Remove rust from metal edges and joints. It’s not necessary to remove every rust spot from your tools; in most cases an outer layer of rust slows further corrosion. However metal joints need to move freely, and edges must be sharp. So start by brushing down important metal parts with a wire brush. Power tools such as a wire-wheel, flap-wheel or other abrasive methods may speed this up for you. In general, don’t use a grinding wheel on surfaces that don’t need repair or sharpening. Lastly, lubricate metal joints with a small amount of vegetable oil. Rapidly opening and closing the tool works the oil into the joint; you can feel the difference!

  1. Sharpen metal cutting edges. Now consider what grinding options you have. For basic edges like on shovels and hoes, give them a quick re-sharpening with an electric grinding wheel or with a flat file. I am partial to using small hand-crank grinders from the last century; they’re safer and less likely to damage the tool. If you use an electric grinder go slowly and cool the tool often with water. Over-heating tool edges will result in oxidation colors appearing on the edge, purple, blues, reds, and yellows, showing that you’ve heated the edge enough to soften the steel. This makes the steel quicker to dull, and is something to avoid! Unlike most knives, shovels and hoes are only sharpened from one side; look closely at your tool to see the original bevel, and regrind this. For harvest knives, loppers, and other tools with very sharp edges, you’ll need a more refined approach to sharpening. A two-grit whetstone, such as you’ll find in any hardware store, will work for most knives. No matter what the instructions tell you, use whetstones with pure water, unless you really need a big oily mess on your workbench. There are as many ways to sharpen edges as there are people sharpening their tools, but you can find good information on ways that work by doing a web search. You’ll need to see sharpening in action, so look for videos or find an experienced friend who can show you. Just remember, there are endless gadgets and jigs out for your money. An abrasive stone or two is all you need.

Before sharpening on the left, and after sharpening on the right
Before sharpening on the left, and after sharpening on the right
  1. Wipe tools down with oil. Raw linseed oil is my preferred wood and metal preservative. It’s made from flax seeds, and unlike Boiled Linseed Oil, it doesn’t contain toxic metal driers. Raw linseed oil can be rubbed on every part of a tool that is either bare wood or bare metal. Metal components only need one light coat. Wood can take several coats, if you give them a long time to dry in between. Better to just rub down the whole tool every few months with an oily rag. The dry time can be anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on the temperature. Once dry, linseed oil turns into a polymer, sealing out water, preventing rust, and is dry to the touch. In fact, dry linseed oil can add a bit of extra grip to handles. Other drying oils include walnut, poppy seed, and tung oils. Give your old motor oil to a mechanic who has an oil furnace; don’t use it on your hand tools!

Cover handles and blades with a thin coat of raw linseed oil
Cover handles and blades with a thin coat of raw linseed oil

That’s it! If you did all that, you should have weeded out the unsalvageable tools in your collection, and restored the rest. New tools may need to be sharpened as well, so check their edges before heading into the fields. Now keeping your tools looking this great only requires washing or wiping them off after use, sharpening them as necessary, and oiling them every few months. Plus, now that you have such sharp looking tools, you’re willing to make room to store them away from moisture, and in such a way that the edges won’t get damaged. Consider an organized tool shed. At the very least, bring them in from the fields and tuck them away from the rain!


Aaron Jermain is an experienced and knowledgeable hand tool-maker, and currently enrolled in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Sustainable Food and Farming program. He wants you to use more hand tools; to accept the limits of human existence; and to enjoy slow rhythms, elegant artifacts, and beautiful vistas. Send him love letters or other general interest to


Leave 10% for the Bees!

Grow Food Amherst recommends that we leave 10% for the bees!

Bee advocate, Jonathan Mirin, writes “one of the major challenges facing honeybees, native bees, and other pollinators (not to mention many other species around the globe) is loss of habitat. In the words of South Deerfield, MA beekeeper Dan Conlon of Warm Colors Apiary, honeybees in many parts of the U.S. simply don’t have enough to eat.  Our 10% For the Bees Campaign encourages audiences and communities to let nature plant 10% of their lawn – or plant a bee garden.”

If your front lawn looks like the one below, honey bees and other native pollinators will not find any food.  They need flowers!  And they need them throughout the summer.

clean cut front lawn2

If you simply don’t mow your entire lawn, clover and other flowers will fill in quite naturally over time.  Also your neighbors will feel safer as they know you are not using any weed killers!  Okay…. so not ready to let your lawn go wild?  Fine, then why not leave at least 10% for the bees?

wildlawnOf course, with a little extra effort you can create a nice wildflower border.  The bees and other native pollinators will love it!

wildflowerlawenAnd if you love flowers…..  pollinators will love you!


Finally, for you pros…. perennials make a great pollinator garden once they are established!  For information on developing a pollinator garden, see: Pollinator Garden.


For more information on pollinators and pollinator gardens see:

More on Pollinators


How to Grow Ginger in a Container

gingerThere are a few spices that grow well in containers right at home, and ginger happens to be one of them. Popular in tasty Asian dishes and in many favorite baked treats, ginger adds zingy flavor to culinary delights of all sorts. And, ginger is super easy to grow in a container. In fact, it’s so easy to grow; you may not be able to stop yourself from running out today to get this simple gardening project started. You can have fresh ginger available to add to your own recipes in no time flat.

Ginger has been a useful plant since before historical records even began. It’s believed to originate in India. It’s been a popular spice on the worldwide scale, second only to pepper, throughout time.

The ginger plant’s adaptability has allowed the most humble of folks all the way to the fancy rulers to enjoy it throughout history. For example, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) is credited with enjoying the appearance of gingerbread men popular still today at Christmastime. Ginger’s rich history goes right along with its impressionable flavor, and millions continue to enjoy its flavor and its medicinal properties today.

How to Plant Ginger: Container Selection and Sprouting

The healthiest ginger plants are grown from reputable nurseries or from quality online gardening sources. But a ginger root can also be purchased from your local grocery store. Grocery store ginger roots may be coated with a growth inhibitor, which prevent it from sprouting in the grocery store. Grocery ginger root may also be treated with fungicides and/or pesticides. So, to clean your ginger, soak your new ginger root for 24 hours before slicing it up to plant.

Choose a wide, flat container to plant. Ginger’s roots grow horizontally, so width is more important than depth. Containers that are small enough to easily be moved inside and out are the perfect choice for ginger. Fill your container with a rich potting soil that will drain well.

Slice your ginger knob, into thin pieces. Select pieces of the knob that have “eyes” on them. Eyes are indentations in the surface of the root, where sprout will begin. Place the piece of ginger with the eyes facing up into the soil, and cover with about and inch and a half of soil.

How to Care for Ginger Plant

Water your ginger well in the early stages of planting. Continue to water or spray your plant’s soil often to keep the soil moist but not soggy. And be patient. Ginger can take several weeks to sprout.

Ginger is a good plant to enjoy indoors in colder climates. While it will enjoy the outdoors during warm months, any frost will kill a ginger plant. Choose a location with indirect light for your ginger.

After about eight months, your ginger plant will be mature. At that point, you can separate the rhizomes by pulling off a section of the plant including a piece of the rhizome. Transplanting is as easy as setting that rhizome into a new container of soil. Ginger is an easy root to share with a friend.

How to Harvest Ginger

Although the ginger plant may take many months to mature, you can harvest ginger when the plant is three or four months old. When you push away the soil from around the rhizome, you’ll notice that ginger rhizomes look knobby. You will also see roots reaching outward and downward from the rhizome. The rhizome is the edible portion of ginger. The roots can be cleaned off as you clean the rhizome to eat.

To enjoy a bit of ginger, simply uncover a piece of rhizome, and trim off one of the finger-like extensions. You can harvest ginger in this manner anytime you wish. However, you may find that you love it so much that you’ll need more than one rhizome planted at a time. You can alternate snipping from your plants if you grow more than one.

Before you eat ginger, you should rinse it and peel the skin off with a potato peeler. Then, enjoy your ginger freshly sliced or grated. Or, dry your ginger by slicing it paper thin and setting it on a baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in an oven or outside in a dry, sunny location. Ginger may take several hours or several days to dry. When it’s completely dried, it can safely be stored in plastic bags. You can also grate your dried ginger with a coffee grinder. Grated ginger is a delicious result of an easy gardening project!

Original Post

Your late fall and winter garden start today!

wintergardenOnce you’ve gotten used to fresh, homegrown food, it’s a terrible shock (financially as well as flavor-wise) to go back to buying it—even if your ambitions, like mine, stretch no further than salad fixings, herbs, and handfuls of kale for the soup pot. In warm climates, growing crops outside for much of the year is relatively straightforward, but in colder areas, things get a bit more complicated.

If you have the room and aesthetic tolerance for a plastic-wrapped structure in the backyard, building a modular greenhouse, à la organic gardening authorities Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch, is well within the capability and budget of most DIYers. But there are smaller-scale devices and strategies that work on the same principle—capturing the sun’s warmth by day and radiating it back at night—that are even easier to implement.

In The Garden Primer, Damrosch recommends that unless you live in a frost-free climate, you should have some form of protection handy in case an unexpectedly early fall cold snap threatens to do in the tomatoes and basil. A big sheet of clear plastic or even a tarp or old blanket will work—anything you can throw over a large number of plants and weight at the sides with stones if necessary. “On a still night no weighting is needed,” she adds. “In fact, it’s usually on still, clear nights that frosts occur.” Got it. She’s also had good luck with a so-called floating row cover, basically a garden blanket made of spun-bonded polyester. One popular brand is Reemay (available at numerous online sources), which allows 75 percent light transmission and provides frost protection down to 30°F.

To protect small individual plants in the ground, Damrosch uses plastic gallon jugs with the bottoms cut out—a practical if inelegant riff on traditional garden cloches. Either stick the plastic jugs into the soil around each plant, “or partially cut the bottom to make a flap, which you can anchor with a stone. If you leave the jug on during the day, be sure to unscrew the top in case it gets hot.”

For sheer versatility and dependability as a season extender, however, the cold frame wins, hands down. A cold frame is usually a bottomless wood box with an easy-open (for harvesting), adjustable (for ventilation) top made from a repurposed window, shower door, or tempered-glass patio door, but it can also be jury-rigged from straw bales, stacked bricks, or concrete blocks covered with plastic or translucent corrugated fiberglass. A cold frame should be positioned so that its transparent top is angled toward the sun; the ideal spot is next to a south-facing wall of a building, in order to maximize every bit of warmth and wind protection. For centuries, kitchen gardeners have relied on cold frames not just for raising cold-weather food crops, but also for overwintering ornamentals and herbs in pots and hardening off seedlings in the spring.

You’ll find design plans and detailed how-to info on cold frames on any number of websites and in books such as Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook, both of which make great bedtime reading. His August 2009 piece for Vegetable Gardener magazine is full of sterling advice too; in particular, he gives a shout-out to a couple of gardening supply houses that sell ready-made cold frames, Charley’s Greenhouse & Garden ($89.95) and Peaceful Valley (from $149).

Aside from planting the right crops in a cold frame (I’ll get to that in a sec), the most important thing to remember is temperature control. The soil inside a closed cold frame heats up much faster than it does out in the open, and you don’t want to cook those vegetables before their time. “Keep the temperature below 60°F during the day by opening the frames a little,” Coleman writes in Vegetable Gardener, and although you can easily vent a cold frame manually by propping open the top, a temperature-activated ventilating arm is mighty handy. He likes the solar-powered Univent control ($49.95) from Charley’s Greenhouse & Garden because it allows you to open the top all the way.

Choosing the right crops for a cold frame is key. Among the vegetables that flourish in cold weather are arugula, brussels sprouts, carrots, chard, kale, leeks, mâche, radishes, and spinach. Check out the helpful fall and winter vegetable planting guide at Ed Hume Seeds for more details.

Equally important is sowing time. Plant carrots and leeks right now for a winter harvest; they’ll be mostly grown by the time the cold weather hits and will keep in the soil all winter long, getting sweeter and more delicious with each frost. Coleman lives in Maine, and by mid-August, he’s sowing mustard and turnip greens. In September, he sows mâche, spinach, claytonia, arugula, and mizuna, as well as radishes. “From time to time, spaces open up where a crop finally gives in to winter,” he writes, “or where I’ve harvested whole plants such as mâche. I sow seeds for new crops in these holes. Arugula, mâche, spinach, claytonia, radishes, and lettuce will germinate during the winter. If they fail, I try again. As the sun climbs higher in late winter, these seedlings are poised for rapid growth, and about the time my earlier crops are finished, the winter-sown ones are ready for harvest.” It all sounds delicious.

Original Post


If gardening and farming is more than a hobby for you, consider earning a Bachelor of Sciences degree in Sustainable Food and Farming at UMass!  Or check out one of our ONLINE classes!

The Public Domain Seed Pledge

One of my former students sent me this powerful essay from J.L. Hudson Seed Co.

We recognize that the biological diversity of the Earth has intrinsic value, beyond any value to humanity.

We recognize that the biological diversity of the Earth is the result of ages of evolution by the community of all living beings, therefore humanity’s efforts at breeding or selecting improved varieties for our own use only builds on the fruits of countless generations of effort by the whole of life.

We recognize that existing cultivated varieties are the result of the efforts of countless generations of gardeners and farmers throughout the world, therefore our own efforts at breeding or selection of improved varieties only builds on these gifts that have been freely shared with us by our ancestors.

THEREFORE we recognize that the biological diversity of the Earth, and the diversity of all cultivated species are the common heritage of all life, and of all humanity, and we REJECT the theft of the biological commons by individuals, corporations, and governments through plant patenting, gene patenting, Plant Breeder’s Rights (PBR), Plant Variety Protection (PVP), or any other form of intellectual property applied to living things. We reject life patents in any form.

We pledge that we will not patent or otherwise seize control over the varieties we produce or reproduce. We pledge that we will not sell or distribute patented or PVP- or PBR-controlled seeds or plants in any form. Further, we will distribute the seeds and plants which are in our trust only with the express prohibition of their use in any breeding, selection, genetic engineering or any other activity which is intended to result in any form of life patent, so that the seeds, plants, their progeny, and all genetic material will remain in the public domain in perpetuity.—J.L. Hudson, Seedsman, 1 January 2002

About Difficult Seeds

Over millions of years, wild plants have evolved germination strategies which ensure their survival, but which may not be convenient for the home gardener who wants a quick and even stand of plants from a packet of seed. Many seeds sprout irregularly, so that if the first flush of seedlings is killed by adverse weather, insect predation, etc., more will come along to take their place. In adaptation to various environments, some seeds need periods of cold, warmth, darkness or light, fire, etc. Some have seedcoats of varying hardness or impermeability, and others contain chemical germination inhibitors which must be leached from the seed before it can sprout. Some species disperse themselves over wide areas by being eaten by animals, the seed sprouting far from the mother plant, the seedcoat softened by digestive juices. Many seeds have internal clocks, and give much higher germination at certain times of the year, regardless of the treatment given. All seeds wait for the correct time and conditions before sprouting, and the gardener must mimic those conditions to ensure successful germination.

We are continually testing seed for germination, and conduct research into improving methods of handling difficult species. For slow seeds, which take months or years, making a standard test impractical, we may use 2,3,5-triphenyltetrazolium chloride to test for hydrogenase enzyme activity, which quickly indicates whether there is a living embryo in the seed. It can take years of research to determine the best ways to germinate a specific species. Oryzopsis seed has been studied for over 50 years, yet we still do not fully understand its requirements. Even then, seed collected from one population may germinate readily, yet the same species gathered in a cold-winter area may need cold treatment.

We offer many seeds which are easy, and sprout quickly and evenly. But with some you must be prepared to experiment, be patient, and use your initiative and intuition. Remember that with some rare species, you are venturing into unknown territory. Most corporate seed companies will not carry difficult seeds, only selling, easy, mass-produced varieties. We like to offer a more challenging alternative.—J.L. Hudson, Seedsman, November 1989.

About Organic Seeds

One of my earliest memories is of watching my father turn the compost pile. The sight of the teeming life within the pile, and the warmth and rich scents it gave off, are still so clear to me that I feel like I could reach out into that memory, and pull myself through, shedding over a half-century of years and return to that happy summer day. I learned organic gardening from my father, and have practiced it to this day. A few years ago, when visiting my father, I noticed some weed killer in the garage – a strange and unexpected sight, and I did not realize at the time that it was one of the first signs of the Alzheimer’s that finally killed him. So it was only madness that brought him to put poison on his land, and this pointed out to me again the madness of industrial agriculture.

There are nearly 7 billion people in the world, and all of us need to eat. Can this number of people be fed by organic agriculture? Without fossil-fuel mined phosphates, without fossil-fuel fixed nitrogen? Without fossil-fuel driven tractors to till, and trucks to take the food to people?

Maybe. We don’t know. It would take a massive, worldwide reorganization of human society to achieve this.

Can this be done?

When the oil runs out, we, or our descendents, will find out.

Until that time, we support an orderly move towards a more sustainable, more regenerative agriculture. Theoretically, we have the knowledge and the technology to make this transition with minimal suffering, but we feel it is unlikely that humanity will choose to take the steps necessary to create a viable future. Currently, our species is on a path that seems destined to create a future of the maximum possible human suffering.

While we use organic methods ourselves, and we fully support organic agriculture, we must object to the “organic seed requirement” of current law. This requires organic growers to plant only organically-grown seed, otherwise their crop will not be considered “organic.”

Most people do not realize that this requirement was inserted into the law at the request of a large corporate seed company in one of their attempts to gain control of the organic seed market, or that many in industrial agriculture support the organic seed requirement because it will be an additional burden on organic farmers, which will lessen their economic viability.

There are currently some exemptions to the organic requirement, but again, the corporations are pressing for and “end to the loopholes”, and claim that no matter what the cost of organic seed, or no matter how limited the selection of organic varieties, that this is no excuse for organic growers to fail to buy their product.

We are also seeing serious profiteering by a few organic seed suppliers at the expense of their fellow organic growers, with some organic seed selling for ten times or more the cost of conventional seed. There is absolutely no excuse for this – NO organic seed is worth TEN times its conventional counterpart.

While we fully support the move towards the organic production of seed, we do not believe that there is any solid evidence that organic crops grown from conventional seed are any different from those grown from organic seed. In over thirty years distributing seeds, we have seen excellent organic seed as well as excellent conventional seed, and poor organic and poor conventional seed. We do believe that organically-grown crops are superior in many ways to those grown by industrial agriculture. We do believe that when seeds are grown organically for many generations, that particular strain will be better-adapted to organic production, but I doubt that anything under ten years will be significantly better.

The key to the quality of seed lies in the DNA – the genetic content of the seed, and only secondarily from the conditions of production, harvest, drying, and storage. Without good DNA, no matter what the conditions of production, the seed will not be worthwhile to plant.

For example, wild-collected seed is not considered to be “organic”. If a grower wants to produce an organic crop of a medicinal plant, and that seed is available as certified organic, under current rules she must use the organic seed, and cannot use the wild-collected seed. Wild populations of medicinal plants may vary considerably in the specific medicinal properties, or in adaptation to specific local conditions, and several organic growers have expressed concern that some medicinal crops in cultivation are in serious need of the greater genetic diversity that would come from an infusion of wild genes from wild plants. Under current rules, plants grown from wild seed could never enter the organic market. This is causing the same kind of genetic uniformity seen in conventional agriculture, which is contrary to organic principles of diversity.

Also, many traditional vegetable varieties vary considerably – some growers are careful about reselection for superior traits, others are not. If a specific variety is available as “organic”, an organic grower would be required to use the seed, regardless of quality.

We support organic agriculture, and we also support small-scale, family farms. Should we purchase “organic” seed produced by a large corporation, or seed from a struggling small farm who does not happen to have organic certification? What would you do?

We believe that organic growers need the freedom to plant the best seeds and the best varieties they can find, regardless of how they were produced. We feel that the dangers of the loss of genetic variation in our food crops by the limitation of available variety, and the consolidation of control of seeds by corporate interests, currently far outweigh the advantages of “organic seed”.

When we have spoken about our concerns with organic growers, most have heartily agreed with our views, but a few have taken a very fundamentalist hard-line that “We support ‘organic’ no matter what!” and that organic seeds should be required no matter what other harm this causes. We would suggest that it would make more sense for these organic purists to also require that organic growers may not use plastic irrigation pipe (a major source of toxins), or any fossil fuel or electricity (sources of environmental harm) in their operations or when transporting their product to market. Should we require that organic growers use only human and animal power to plow and ox-carts to carry their produce to market? The “agri-smog” of pesticides from California’s agricultural Central Valley is killing frogs far downwind, high in the Sierra Nevada. Can any grower downwind of this kind of agriculture be considered truly “organic”?

In the summer of 2004, we replaced some of our ageing, flexible black polyethylene waterlines with larger-diameter, more permanent buried PVC pipe with glued connections. Periodically I emptied the pipeline and refilled it, checking the expelled air – for over 6 months, it smelled strongly of PVC solvent, and over a full year later, it still smelled faintly of solvent. The solvents used in PVC glue are toxic, and no doubt contaminate the water the pipes carry to our plants – for this reason we flush them before use. Although miles of PVC pipe are used in organic operations, we know of no other organic grower that has checked this source of toxins. Should we require that organic growers use expensive steel pipe? Should we require that water lines not be used for a year, until all trace of solvent has dissipated into the air? Should we be absolutists, and make it even harder than it already is for small growers to remain economically viable, or do we accept the reality that nowhere on the planet is free of man-made toxins?

We would like to point out, that while we fully support organic agriculture, we do not support fundamentalism, irrationality, or superstition, and we certainly do not support profiteering or corporate attempts to control organic seed supplies. We are opposed to making organic agriculture into a fundamentalist religion, and we are opposed to the theft of the word “organic” by government bureaucracy, and we are opposed to the corporate takeover of the “organic movement”.

“Wait a decade or two and every potato coming out of the state of Idaho will be labeled ‘organic’, a word already under very serious stress. The process will be entirely predictable. The big food companies will buy federal and state legislation designed to put the small producers out of business, the same way the meat companies finished off the small packers and processors years ago, by insisting on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stainless steel and other ‘sanitary’ equipment, all intended to bankrupt the local sausage or ham maker. Wall-Mart’s buying power will drive down organic food prices and start to drive small farmers to the wall.”
—Alexander Cockburn, “Wall-Mart’s Coming Lunge into Organic Food”, an article on the corporate takeover of organic and the weakening of organic standards.

We need to build bridges, not walls. Instead of a black/white – organic/conventional standoff, with the small-scale grower caught in the cross-fire, we need to provide for a whole range of possibilities that will allow farmers to easily move along a spectrum of alternatives towards a healthy agriculture, rather than building a wall they must vault over.

Take back organic!

About Hybrids

The word hybrid is used in two very different ways in the seed trade. First, to designate F-1 hybrids, and second, to designate open-pollinated plants which originated in the crossing of two distinct varieties or species.

F-1 means ‘first filial generation’, and F-1 hybrids are the first generation produced by crossing unlike parents, the offspring of which exhibit ‘heterosis’ (hybrid vigor) and are very uniform. The characters of F-1 hybrids are not stable, so that seed saved from F-1 plants will not come true, and may produce many distinct types in the second generation, often reverting to various ancestral forms. Therefore, the original cross must be repeated each year in order to produce seed.

The second meaning of the word is much older, going back to the last century. Many flower mixtures are called ‘Hybrids’ or ‘New Hybrids’. These are not F-1 hybrids. They are the result of crossing unlike parents in order to produce variation, the progeny were then selected for desired attributes such as new flower colors, etc., and these characters fixed by selection. These are open pollinated, and are relatively fixed. The original crosses are not repeated – the various strains are kept pure by selection and isolation. I distribute this type of seed.

Open pollinated. or O.P., means that bees, wind, and the agencies of nature are allowed to pollinate the flowers, rather than by emasculating the flowers and applying pollen by hand as in F-1 hybrids.

I do not distribute F-1 hybrids. First, because the grower cannot save his own seed from them to multiply the plants as he chooses. This insures the gardener’s and farmer’s dependence on the seed company to produce and sell the seed to him each year. Second, gaze at a field of F-1 plants. They appear to be almost machine-made. This genetic uniformity of the first generation causes vulnerability to crop failure. Two famous examples of crop failures in genetically-uniform crops are the wheat stem rust epidemic of 1954 which took 75% of the crop, and in the southern corn blight epidemic of 1970, which destroyed 20% of the crop. Even more devastating was the Irish potato blight of the 1830’s, in which 2 million people starved, and 2 million fled, reducing the country’s population by half, was also because of uniformity in the crop—because potatoes are propagated vegetatively, they have high genetic uniformity in fields, actually being clones of the same plant. Although the wheat and potatoes were not F-1 hybrids, they highlight the problems that may occur with genetic uniformity. Third, the widespread cultivation of F-1 hybrids to the exclusion of the old open pollinated varieties narrows the genetic base of our crops, and contributes to the ‘genetic wipe-out’ which is alarming biologists and agronomists throughout the world. Finally, the methods used to produce the F-1 seed each year are inhumane, and contribute to the exploitive world-view which is destroying our environment.

An important point: in wild nature, hybridization between populations, races, varieties and species is a common, natural occurrence. In wild nature this is a highly beneficial process, promoting diversity and evolution. The objection here is to controlled, large-scale industrial production of hybrids, leading to uniformity rather than diversity, and leading to the corporate control of germplasm. There is no problem with natural hybridization, or with home gardeners experimenting with hybridizing plants in their backyards, except that each individual should give consideration to the ethical questions about the invasiveness and inhumaneness of the procedure.

Certain people have mis-interpreted our opposition to hybrid seeds as a justification of their erroneous ideas against so-called “race-mixing”. I would like to make it very clear that the classification of human beings on the basis of skin color or other superficial characteristics is not biologically sound. A rose of any color is a rose. The equality of human races is a scientific fact, as is the fact that there is no such thing as a “pure” race. Contrary to racist superstitions, it is a scientific fact that the mingling of human races socially, culturally, and by intermarriage is a highly beneficial process, and should be encouraged.—J.L. Hudson, Seedsman, 1974, 1986 and 1996.

“They do not want to know that centralization is not only the death-knell of liberty, but also of health and beauty, of art and science, all these being impossible in a clock-like, mechanical atmosphere.”—Emma Goldman.

“Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”—Thomas Jefferson

Amherst is awarded a State Grant to acquire land for a proposed Town Farm and Community Gardens

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs announced today that Amherst has been awarded a grant for $105,665 to help acquire land for development of the proposed Town Farm and Public Gardens at the Fort River Farm in East Amherst.


The Proposed Site in East Amherst

Local Acquisitions for Natural Diversity (LAND) grants are designed to help cities and towns acquire land for conservation and outdoor recreational uses. To qualify for the grants, communities must fund projects upfront and the protected open space must be open to the public.  The Kestral Trust is committed to help Amherst with bridge funding.

According to the grant application submitted by the Town:

this 19-acre farm field and wetland is located in the East Amherst Village Center with frontage on Fort River.  It will be used for new model community garden with a large tillable area instead of individual plots. Licenses may also be granted to area farmers to farm 1-2 acre plots. A trail with accessible component will be integrated throughout property with educational signage. Adjacent to Fort River Elementary School, it can be accessed via an easement through adjacent properties, and by footbridge to be built from the school.”

To complete the acquisition, the Town will be required to find additional funds.  A November 15 story in the local newspaper describes the next steps planned by Town officials.  The Community Preservation Act Committee voted unanimously to support a request for CPA funds.  The proposal will go before Town Meeting in the spring.

Grow Food Amherst is planning a discussion meeting to be held on Thursday, April 10 at the Woodbury Room of the Jones Library at 5:00pm to seek public input and support for the project.   

Anyone who wants to get involved is invited to this public meeting on:

Thursday, April 10

5:00 – 6:30 pm

Woodbury Room – Jones Library

Facebook Announcement

Please join us!

Put on the pottage: Authentic Renaissance garden flourishes in Amherst

Mount Holyoke College alumna Jennie Bergeron works in the Tudor vegetable garden being developed at the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies in Amherst. KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »
Mount Holyoke College alumna Jennie Bergeron works in the Tudor vegetable garden being developed at the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies in Amherst.
KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

By Cheryl B. Wilson – Bulletin Contributing Writer -Thursday, August 8, 2013

‘A mess of pottage,” a simple stew or thick soup made of root vegetables, herbs and legumes with the occasional addition of meat or chicken, was the staple diet for commoners in Renaissance England. The pottage or kitchen garden was right outside the cottage while grains for bread and forage for animals were grown in larger plots of land in the community.

A typical pottage garden was created this spring at the Massachusetts Interdisciplinary Center for the Renaissance in Amherst by six students in an independent studies course at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A special free open house at the garden will be held Aug. 17 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The garden is also open to the public weekdays from 10 to 4 p.m. free of charge.

Jennie Bergeron, a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, who took the independent studies course, is in charge of the garden this summer, working two or three days a week maintaining the garden.

In an email she wrote, “In the quiet yard of the slated roof house that is the UMass Renaissance center, I often pretend I’m working in the Renaissance and try to picture what it might have been like for the common person, the hunger they would have had to stave off each day and ask myself, ‘What would they harvest and store, what would I make for pottage today?’ ”

There are 49 kinds of vegetables, herbs and fruits in the garden. Bergeron and her classmates did extensive research last fall on medieval and Renaissance gardens. They were fortunate to use original Renaissance books as well as reproductions of 16th- and 17th-century gardening guides, all owned by the Renaissance Center. Of particular interest were the “Kreuterbuch,” or herb book, printed in Germany in 1564, and”Gerard’s Herbal,” by John Gerard, a classic work from the early 17th century. The work by Gerard became “the bible for the garden,” said Arthur Kinney, director of the Renaissance Center. All the plants in the garden are listed in Gerard’s book.

What to plant?

Incorporating the research by the half-dozen students last fall, Bergeron took on the task of designing the garden and drawing up a list of desired plants. Professor John Gerber of UMass Stockbridge, who taught the course, found the seeds from a variety of sources. Some of them were planted in greenhouses at UMass by Stockbridge students and later transplanted into the garden. Others were directly sown.

The project began more than a year ago when Kinney decided to plant an orchard at the center.

He contacted apple experts at the UMass Orchards at Cold Spring in Belchertown and they located authentic varieties that would have been grown in England between 1500 and 1700. The orchard was dedicated in May 2012.

“Gardening was such an art form in the Renaissance, I have always felt it important to have gardens around the center,” Kinney explained last month. He noted that the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., has a small flower garden while the Huntington Library in California also has a garden, though it isn’t strictly Renaissance.

The UMass pottage garden is a utilitarian garden of the 1500s, Bergeron explained. It includes leeks and onions, turnips, carrots, several forms of beans, kale, cabbage, radish, peas, endive and escarole and many, many herbs.

“No one plant was used for just one thing,” Bergeron explained during a tour of the garden.

Chamomile is an herb used for a soothing tea but also important as a strewing herb for making a fragrant renewable “carpet” for the dirt floor of the cottage. Sage had many uses, especially for respiratory ailments, as well as a seasoning for meats. Hyssop is another traditional herb with multiple uses. Horehound and rue are seldom seen in today’s gardens but were well-known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

“Fresh herbs could be added to the pottage to change the flavor of the meal,” Bergeron said.

Borage with its bright blue flowers was used in drinks, and lovage, which tastes like celery, could be used in the pottage. Heartsease or pansies were another flower used to brighten meals.

Several kinds of beans are found in the new garden: fava or broad beans, long used in England and northern European vegetable gardens, garbanzos or chickpeas from the Middle East, and dry shell beans such as Vermont Cranberry, which came from the Americas after Columbus. Peas were an English staple and the UMass garden has ‘Champion of England’ peas, which Bergeron said can grow 10 feet tall. These are shell peas, not Asian snow peas or modern sugar snaps.

Part of the garden is laid out in simple square raised beds. One section, however, has a more elaborate design with a circular center and sets of triangular beds— similar to the look of gardens of the nobility.

Kinney said he is very pleased with the outcome of the garden project.

“I am impressed by the size of it and the design, I like very much,” he said. “I thought it would be more scrambly like herb gardens.”

Keeping pests at bay

Creating a barrier against pests is always a challenge for a vegetable garden. Cottagers traditionally used taller plants like mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) on the periphery as a barrier, Bergeron said. On the garden tour last month, she commented, “Oh good. The mugwort is getting big, just what I wanted.”

After depredations by woodchucks and rabbits, Bergeron decided to use wire fencing in addition to the natural barrier. A woodchuck devoured the kale and Bergeron said “I know I’ve had a deer.” The plan is to build a traditional wattle fence, usually woven of supple willow boughs, to enclose the garden as would have been common in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Aaron EvanBrowning, a friend of Bergeron’s who works on a farm, is working diligently on that project but has run into a snag — a lack of willows.

They had amassed a huge pile of willow but the first fence section used the entire bundle. Now they are searching for more sources of willow branches.

“It’s becoming a real challenge,” Kinney said. ”It’s hard to find willow branches.”

Recently they thought they had found a good source but the trees were surrounded by poison ivy, Bergeron said.

“At this point and in the interest of time, we are looking for any sapling, small branch, shrub or vine material that we can harvest,” she said. EvanBrowning is now using hawthorn, which is very accurate to the time period.

Other damage has been caused by insects and disease. The caterpillars of the black swallowtail butterfly quickly found the parsley and dill, their favorite food. In addition to companion planting, Bergeron has resorted to modern neem oil, an organic product. She said she is concerned that the fava beans have developed a fungal disease, evidently a common problem with that species.

Although the science behind companion planting might not have been known to the Renaissance peasants, Bergeron is sure that they knew the efficacy of planting certain vegetables and herbs together.

“They would have been in their gardens every day. They would have noticed how certain plants thrived together,” she said.

In addition to the orchard of antique apple varieties, the new Renaissance Center garden has heirloom hops and strawberries. Bergeron explained that Sonia Schloemann, a small-fruit specialist at UMass, found the plants through the USDA Germ Plasm Center in Corvallis, Ore., which stores antique varieties. ‘Fuggle’ and ‘Kent’ hops (Humulus lupulus) and ‘Woodland’, ‘Ruegan’, ‘Pineapple,’ ‘Moschata’ and ‘Mignonette’ strawberries (Fragaria vesca) arrived as tiny plants. Bergeron said she was afraid they wouldn’t survive, but they are doing nicely. There are also Alpine strawberries. All of these have much smaller berries than modern hybrids but are reportedly extremely sweet.

Hops are vines which must be staked, Bergeron noted. They were newly popular during the English Renaissance for brewing ale. Previously beer and ale production in England had strictly relied on malt for fermentation but on the Continent hops were more common. Mead, a honey-based drink, and cider were also popular beverages since water was often a source of disease due to poor sanitation practices.

“What pleases me most about the garden is showing up each week and noticing a new bloom or how much the perennials are establishing. It brings me joy when the plants are happy and vibrant. It’s almost magical to view the variety of pollinators that appear in front of me while I’m weeding,” Bergeron wrote in an email.

Bergeron said she hopes people will visit the gardens any weekday throughout the growing season.

“We want people here. I love when people stop by to see the garden and spend time in it.”

Kinney added, “The more people come here, the more they will know about the Renaissance.”

Cheryl B. Wilson can be reached at

The Open House Community Day is Aug. 17, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Bergeron and Gerber will be on hand to answer questions and there will be a handout about the garden. The event is free.

The Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies is at 650 East Pleasant St. in Amherst. For information call 577-3600 or visit A blog for the garden, done by Gerber and Bergeron and the students, can be found at

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New UMass Urban & Home Gardening Demonstration

You are invited to visit the new UMass Agricultural Learning Center urban and home garden demonstration plot.

A welcoming sign with the site in the background.
A welcoming sign with the site in the background.
The demonstration is a short walk up the gravel road.
The demonstration site is a short walk up the gravel road behind Lot 44.


The site is at 911 North Pleasant St., in North Amherst (just north of the Immanuel Lutheran Church and behind the Wysocki House).

Parking is available in Lot 44 after 5:00pm weekdays or any time on weekends. From UMass Parking Lot 44, walk up the gravel road.


Here are a few of the demonstrations:

Lots of containers may be used to grow food!

Create your own garden at home!

A "vertical" planter made from a pallet.
A “vertical” planter made from a pallet.

This is the first year of operation at the Agricultural Learning Center, which was dedicated this past spring.  For more information on the new UMass Agricultural Learning Center, see:

Internships at the Agricultural Learning Center

Agricultural Learning Center Groundbreaking

There is much more planned for the Center in the future.  Here is  short video describing the development and objectives of the new Agricultural Learning Center.

Please stop by and visit!



Grow Food Amherst noted in editorial

Editorial: Hopeful signs for Amherst-area farming economy

 Daily Hampshire Gazette – Thursday, July 11, 2013

Support for farmers and all things created locally is strong and getting stronger in Amherst, with an expanding farmers market, an indoor marketplace preparing to sign a lease downtown and a food co-op taking shape.

On top of that, the first growing season at a new farm — The Book and Plow — at Amherst College is under way and the University of Massachusetts has been getting national recognition for the permaculture gardens carved out of under-used lawns on campus. Grow Food Amherst, a group aimed at getting 350 people or 1 percent of the town’s population interested in agriculture in some way has met its membership goal and is holding regular meetings and workshops. The next one is a jam-making session at the Bangs Community Center Aug. 22.


It is great to see such public enthusiasm for consuming local produce. The energy of those planning the indoor market, called the All Things Local Store, is infectious as they seek to sign up 300 members in an effort to raise $15,000 by the end of the month to secure the downtown storefront they have picked out on North Pleasant Street. They are also in the process of trying to amass $300,000 to buy the kitchen equipment and remodel that space occupied by the Souper Bowl restaurant, which closed recently. They are hoping to attract some local investors willing to make loans. “People are so excited about this,” said organizer Tina Clarke.

If the indoor marketplace opens this fall, as Clarke predicts, it will be unique in this area as it will showcase, year-round, both local growers and craftspeople selling their wares. They get to keep 80 percent of their profits while contributing the other 20 percent to pay rent and utilities for the store. Clarke, who describes it as an old-fashioned market, said she saw the concept at work out in Wooster, Ohio, when she was there on business. Organizers of the All Things Local Store intend to add a healthy dose of fun to good health and good business by offering workshops, food demonstrations and parties.

Such a lively place is certain to be a draw beyond Amherst’s borders and can only be a boon to the downtown.

Meanwhile, plans for the Amherst Community Market, a worker-, consumer- run co-op, are moving ahead with fundraising and a logo-design competition, with a July 31 submission deadline. Similar to the River Valley Market grocery in Northampton, it harkens back to the Yellow Sun Co-op that existed in downtown Amherst years ago that many locals wistfully recall.

At the same time, the Amherst Farmers Market is adding four to six new vendors to the 30 who set up shop downtown each Saturday from April through November. And it is expanding from its location in the Spring Street parking lot onto Boltwood Avenue in front of the Lord Jeffery Inn. Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said the market’s planning committee is working with the Lord Jeff to kick off the expansion with pizzazz — maybe cooking demonstrations and other events. The date has not yet been determined, as there are some details yet to be worked out, he said. He pointed out that the Wednesday Kendrick Park farmers market, also downtown, is going strong,too. This will be its third summer. “It’s very exciting that new people, new farmers want to get involved in our downtown,” he said.

Farming is a difficult business. Many local growers have been forced to diversify operations and take other measures to keep going. But seeing local food as a desirable commodity is a positive trend. And such public signs of support are indeed heartening.

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