Sunday, March 31, 2013

Seed Banks A Way to Preserve Agricultural Diversity?

I was asked to write a post on seed banks so I started doing a little research. If you simply search for seed banks the two types of sites that come up most are for cannabis and survival seed kits. Since I know the person who asked me to write this fairly well, I am sure she was not asking about cannabis, and she is a pretty avid homesteader so I do not think she is asking about an apocalypse. So I am going to cover this from a biodiversity viewpoint. Seed banks are primarily concerned with heirloom or open pollinated plant varieties. Their goal is to maintain an adequate supply of these seeds in the event of a major natural or man made disaster.

 This would be a good time for a few Rural Economist definitions:

Open Pollinated Seed: a seed from a variety of plant that when the seed is saved from that plant will reproduce a plant true to its parent. These seeds will reproduce reliably season after season.

Heirloom variety: An open pollinated variety which has been cultivated for many years and has shown to be true to type.

Hybrid variety: The first generation of an intentional cross pollination of two different plants in the same plant family. These seeds if saved will have a very low percentage of offspring that stay true to type.

GMO: Genetically Modified Organism. There are a great and ever growing number of foods that have been genetically modified. Genetic modification occurs in a laboratory with biotechnology. DNA is introduced into a plant or animal from a different, many times unrelated organism. DNA from fish, scorpions, other types of plants, and even humans have been introduced into these new "super" seeds. Most of these seeds are patented so even though GMO seed saving is possible (I cannot understand why anyone would want to), it is illegal.

Monoculture: The practice of raising only one type of produce on a large tract of land i.e. corn, wheat, onions, potatoes, etc.

Poly culture: The practice of raising several different types of edible plants and/or animals in close proximity to each other.

Since the advent of industrial farming and the wide spread practice of monoculture the number of open pollinated and heirloom varieties has plummeted. When people stopped growing or at least buying their produce locally many of these old seed types went away. As people stopped buying their food from local producers industrial farmers took over. There are places all over the world that you can go and see hundreds of acres of corn and wheat. There are places where you can see dozens of acres of tomatoes or onions. When producing something commercially you want uniformity.

Hybrids were the first to start taking the place of the heirloom varieties. Hybrids have their place. Nature produces hybrids everyday without any assistance from people. A pollinator does not typically discriminate one type of plant from another. A honey bee will move from one flower to another regardless of plant type (this is why you should never plant your cucumbers too close to your watermelons. They will cross pollinate and the melons will not taste very good). When we go to the grocery store we expect all of the tomatoes to look exactly the same, heirloom varieties do not do this. The hybrid plants can be selectively cross pollinated to always produce results with standard size and color.

Now we have genetically modified plants. The most widely known of the genetic modifications is to make corn and soy capable of tolerating herbicides. Monsanto is the world leader in this research. They have made corn and soy that is "Roundup" ready. These varieties are patented by Monsanto as is Roundup. Monsanto has also made corn that produces a toxin in the kernels that protects the corn from ear worms. One big problem.Some research leads us to believe that this toxin could be what is killing the honey bees. Simple solution is just say NO to GMO.

Okay, so now back to seed banks. Seed banks have been set up in every major country in the world. They contain thousands of varieties of open pollinated and heirloom seeds. If a major event were to occur they would release these seeds to farmers so as to ensure there continued viability.

Some types of seeds are better suited to seed banking than others. There are types of seeds that can be stored for hundreds of years. There were grain seeds found the the Egyptian pyramids that were successfully grown. Other seeds can only be stored for a season or two. Onions are the most common short storage seed. The best idea is to find a group of people who share your interest in heirloom or open pollinated seeds and seed share. By doing this you do not have to have a freezer full of seeds or grow every type of seed you want to keep available. You can do this with friends, with your community or even on a much larger scale. A friend of mine gave me some okra seeds that had been in their neighbors family for over 40 years. I was honored to be given these seeds. I enjoy sharing seeds with people. If this is something that you would like to get involved in check out . This is a large community that is dedicated to preserving and spreading long term biodiversity by the way of sharing seeds.

Together we can

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Becoming a Homestead Ambasador

I talk to lots of people everyday. Nearly everyday a person will say something that opens up the conversation to either prepping or homesteading. When this occurs I jump at the chance to share some encouragement to become more self sustainable. For each person who is trying to take care of themselves without the assistance of government our community gets a little stronger. I have said this before, but no one person can be self sufficient. Not even one single family can attain the required knowledge and resourses to be completely free of their neighbors. This is why community development is so important. A community can stand when an individual or single family will fall. This is one reason the Hispanics in my area are so sucessful. You will rarely see a single Hispanic family in a neighborhood. Hispanics try to settle in pockets sometimes extended families or more than one family in one house.

Ways to promote homesteading are many, but I think the most effective is to lead by example. While in college I had a professor who first day of class stood up and said ,"You have heard those who can do and those who can't see where I am". This set a tone for the class and not a very good one. I questioned everything that man said. I hope he was smart enough to know that is what would happen. This should not be the case with anything, but it cannot be the case with homesteading. The type of life I am trying to live is not only a mental exercise. The homestead lifestyle is very mechanical and artistic in nature. You can explain how a family grist mill works, you can show pictures,or even record a video of the process, but will will never grasp the full experience until you smell the corn being ground. You feel the heat off the freshly ground corn. Touch the corn meal, ball it up in your hand to check the consistency, and even taste the meal fresh from the stones. My family has ground our own corn meal for over twenty years and it is an experience that I wouldn't take anything for. This can only be learned by doing and most thing dealing with the homestead life are like that.

Everyone I know who is a homesteader does some kind of experiment every year. A friend of mine is planting blue potatoes for the first time this year. I am hoping to do an experiment with modified hugelkultur this year (there will be a lot more about that later). Every year your knowledge base and experience should expand. This should be shared or it will be lost.

The second most powerful way to be an ambassador of homesteading is by giving. Giving is a natural part of the human condition. When we see a person in need we want to reach out and help. One of my goals this year is to tithe from my homestead production. The pastor has already said that the church will find someone in need to give them to. You do not have to be involved in a church to have a positive impact. Few things show the difference between home grown foods and store bought than a tomato. If someone has never tasted a fresh tomato, when they finally do they always ask where you bought it. This is a prime opportunity to talk about learning to grow your own food. Be willing to teach. If you find someone that keeps taking and doesn't try to learn, they may be one of the perpetual takers. Those folks must be left to their own.

Based on the definitions provided in my last blog I am not a picture perfect prepper, but I am trying to become a poster child for homesteading. My strongest point is I am always willing to learn and teach. Together we can build a better future by.......

Keeping It Rural

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Difference Between a Prepper and a Homesteader

The other day I was talking to someone about a generator. In the course of the conversation the guy asked me if I was a prepper. I told him no, that I was a homesteader. Then came the question. What is the difference? I told him that in my opinion a prepper is getting ready for a specific event and a homesteader is just striving for a more self sustainable lifestyle. I have had this question several times recently. When I have the same question repeatedly in a short period of time it is something that needs to be covered.

When I decided that I was was going to write this blog I reached out to the members of my facebook community and the members of the forum on self sufficient homestead . I asked them for input and a consensus was quickly realized.

A homesteader is concerned with being self sustainable or self sufficient. A prepper is more concerned with being self reliant. Now it is time for a some Rural Economist definitions.

Self sustainable - being able to produce enough of a variety of products to be able to trade for anything that is not produced. If I produce all of my own fruits and vegetables and I produce an excess of fruits or vegetables I can use these items to trade for meat or fabric or whatever I think I need.

Self sufficient - being able to produce almost everything you need no matter what it is. In my opinion it is possible for a community or extended family group to be self sufficient but it is extremely difficult for a person or immediate family to be so.

Self reliant -   a persons ability to utilize surrounding or stored resources to make it through an acute short term or prolonged crisis.

A homesteader is always trying to cut costs and improve results. In this way an effectively ran homestead's methods can seem similar to any business. There is one crucial difference between a homestead and a business. Most businesses try to specialize so as to decrease cost of production. A homestead wishes to diversify as much as possible to produce the maximum number of different things that their family needs. A homesteader constantly tries to find ways to use the things they already have on hand and reduce the number of things they throw away. If you will just search the Internet there are hundreds of ways to use an old soda bottle as a planter. A true homesteader is trying to do everything they can for themselves and their families with little or no impact on their neighbors (corporate agriculture will spray pesticides and herbicides with little regard to how it truly impacts the environment).

Both homesteaders and preppers are concerned with food storage. It has been my experience that someone who is purely a prepper relies on inventory i.e. stored food, water, and other items to provide some semblance of normalcy. Some preppers will have up to a couple of years of food stored. A homesteader is interested in storing enough food to make it from harvest to harvest and for a bad season.

A prepper can be a homesteader or a homesteader can be a prepper. There are a lot of overlapping thought processes and each group can learn a lot from the other. We share some of the same goals.
There is one major difference that I have noticed. Some of the hardcore preppers that I know will be seriously disappointed if some type of collapse does not occur. A homesteader does not care if everything stays so good that everyone is riding unicorns and eating rainbows or if everything goes to hell in a hand basket, or as a Phillipino friend of mine used to say a in tin bucket "it gets hot on the bottom faster".

I hope this clears up at least my thoughts on the difference between preppers and homesteader. I do not intend on offending either group.We are all working to be able to take care of ourselves. With the way the world is now anyone who wants to do that should be applauded and has my support. I invite you to share you comments.

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Keep It Rural

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Low Down on Compost

Over the past several years there has been a growing interest in composting. Compost can produce a good organic fertilize for your plants. As well as reduce our dependence on chemical companies for fertilize and soil treatments, it will greatly improve the soil over time so that plants are less susceptible to disease and even common plant pests. Composting can and should be easy.

Just like everything else when there is a growing interest in a subject a lot of people try to find a way to make money off of people who are just getting started. There is every kind of compost bin, tumbler, and there is even a bio booster "designed" to speed up the composting progress. The truth is you can spend as little or as much as you want and be as basic or as fancy as you want. In fact, when I first started composting I just used a pile. Guess what? I ended up with  rich dark compost. All I did was add kitchen scraps when I had them and a shovel full of composted manure that I got from a neighbor. So if I could do that anyone can.

What You Can Compost:

Really you can compost ALL of your kitchen scraps except meat related scraps. The reasons you do not want to use meat byproducts are several; 1) meat byproducts smell 2) meat byproducts tend to attract unwanted insects 3) and they can induce disease into your food source. Everything else in the form of kitchen scraps are good to go.

You can compost a lot of the things that we throw out in the trash. Newspaper pages, not the glossy ads, shredded, paper bags, the kids old homework, old cotton clothing torn into shreds, even human and pet hair. All of these things can be included in your compost. These things add what compost geeks (hey I am one so don't judge) call brown ingredients.

Other things that can be composted include grass clippings, garden  byproducts (corn stalks or old plants) leaves, and herbivore manure. No carnivore or human manure should be included. These manures can be composted, but must be composted in a different manner to ensure that cross contamination. We have greatly reduced the amount of things that we put out with the garbage by composting. Simply put, composting can slow the growth of land fills.

Compost Method:

Compost Tumbler

The tumbler is the quickest method of producing compost. You have to mix browns (carbon heavy items)and greens (high nitrogen). Browns would be dry leaves, egg shells, tea bags, coffee grounds, or wood chips. Green items include things like grass clippings, left over lettuce, onion cuttings, and herbivore manures. These should be mixed half and half then watered to the point that the bulk is thoroughly damp, but not soaked. You will also want to add a shovel full of completed compost or compost starter. Once all of this is done, you will need to turn the tumbler a minimum of 3 times per week and if possible everyday. The tumbler is perfect for small areas. They can be made in something as small as a 5 gallon bucket. The output would be adequate for a small raised bed or several containers used for garden plants.

Compost Bin

Next step up in production is a compost bin. This will produce more than all but the largest compost tumblers, but the time from start to completion is increased as well as the amount of labor. In a compost bin it is more important to properly mix or layer the different types of ingredients. Remember the two types of ingredients are greens and browns. These terms have little to do with the color of the ingredients, manure looks more brown, but is a true green. The greens are items that are rich in nitrogen and the browns are primarily carbon. I would suggest if you are going to use bins have at least two. You will want to turn the bin about every three days for quickest results. You will still want to add a couple shovels full of either completed compost or rich soil to get the process started. During dry times of the year your bin will need to be watered. You want the bin to be moist not wet.

Compost Pile

The largest method we will cover is a compost pile. In order to achieve optimal temperatures in the center of the pile one would want the pile to be at least 3 feet high and 3 feet wide at the base with the same mixture of browns, greens, and rich soil or compost. Ideally these ingredients should be accumulated all at once and be turned or the pile moved from one place to another every 3 days. Moving the pile increases airflow in the pile and keeps it "cooking". These piles have been known to produce enough heat to keep a greenhouse warm enough to prevent delicate plants from getting too cold. All of the same rules apply to the pile as did the bin as concerning moisture. The only difference is a matter of scale.


The last method we will discuss is the method I use. Worm compost or vermiculture. This can be done either directly on the ground or as a raised worm bed. I place mine directly on the ground. Do I lose some of the worms by them going down into the ground? Yes. Do I really care? No. Why? Because they are working the ground for me. Improving both the soils fertility and the aeration. I also move my vermiculture bed around my garden. This softens the ground where ever it has been placed. I add kitchen scraps nearly daily. I add all the new materials to one side. When I want to harvest some compost, I change the side I am placing the new items on. As the food (new items) are used up the worms migrate to the new food side. After a day or two I remove the compost from the old side collect the worms that are in the compost and either put them back into the system or go fishing. I still occasionally mix the pile, but it is not as labor intensive as the other methods. For me this is the best option.

Tools for composting:

If you choose the bin or pile methods you will need a compost fork. I do not advise trying to turn a compost pile with a shovel. You will work yourself a lot harder than need be. You will also need a source of water.Lastly, you will need time.

Now that I told you all of this, if you do not wish to manage your compost, just pile it up and wait. Nature has been doing this ever since it was set in motion. It will take a LOT longer without management, but it will still work. Compost can and should be another step toward getting chemicals out of our food.

Working toward a traditional Rural Lifestyle.

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Friday, March 1, 2013

Simple Steps to Becoming More Self Sustainable

In the past we have discussed ways to make your money go farther by calculating unit price and by shopping at thrift stores. These methods help you become a little less dependant but they do not help you become more self sustainable. Now I would like us to have a conversation on things you can do this week to make yourself more self sustainable. The baby steps of becoming independent if you will. These first steps can be taken no matter where you live. Many of these suggestions can be accomplished with no additional cost to yourself and very little work.

The first thing you need to do is take an inventory of your assets. Again it does not matter if you are in an apartment with a balcony, a half acre, ten acres, or a hundred. If you can plant things in the ground what type of soil do you have? How rocky? Sandy? How much clay? If you cannot plant something in the ground how much space do you have that you can use?

Once you have all of this in mind, you can start. Think about the things you use most. If you do not use a lot of herbs in cooking, don't bother with planting a full herb garden. If you don't use it now, most likely you will not use it if you grow it. I have seen this many times with people who plant their first garden. People will go out and plant a lot of things that they end up giving away. Again only grow things you will use.

Things that we do with the leftovers from the grocery store. Green onions can be grown perpetually from what you buy at the grocery store. Once you cut off the blades of the onions, just pop the white parts in a jar of water. Wait a couple of days to a week for the blades to start growing back. After you have seen some growth either plant them in the ground or in a shallow pot. Green onions can be planted very thickly.

The same steps above can be used for a lot of different vegetables. Table onions can be done the same way with a few differences. When you cut up the onion, cut about 1/2 inch from where the roots would have been. If you will look at the onion you will see very small "centers". Each one of  these little centers can make a new onion. You can either place them in a bowl of water or actually put them right into soil. If you put it right into soil you will have to make sure it stays damp. Each onion will produce two or more new plants. This can take up to four weeks to get large enough to divide (growth rate is dependent on temperature). Table onions cannot be planted as dense as green onions, but can easily be grown in pots.

Other Items that can be grown using the same method. Celery or any of the left lettuces can be propagated in the same manner. I am sure that there are more that I do not know. If you know of more things that can be grown in this manner let me know or share them in the comments.

If you use a lot of fresh garlic, take one of the cloves and plant it in a pot. Do this every time you buy garlic for a full year. If you do this it will not take long before you have a continuous supply of fresh garlic.

Nearly all of the peppers can be grown from the seeds you cut out and throw away anyway. If you want to do this, take the core out of the pepper.You will need to remove the seeds from the core and let them dry for 24 hours. If planting in a pot,I would plant 3 or 4 seeds per pot. There is no need to plant multiple plants of the same type of pepper unless you use them a lot. Pepper plants do not need others to bare fruit. Pepper plants have what is called a perfect flower. A perfect flower means that each flower can produce a fruit.

There are many plants that can be grown in pots. So no matter what your living arrangements are you can start producing some of your own food. Warning; as you produce your own food and realize that what you grow yourself tastes better, you might just become addicted.

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Table onions sprouting from the centers as explained. There look to be at least three from this one.
Celery sprouting and three green onions just getting started. 
Green onions at various stages of growth.