In the 80's, there were these hideous sunglasses called Blu Blockers made famous by an infomericial featuring a catchy, rap jingle. When I heard of soil blockers, that was the first thing that came to mind. Haha!

Soil blockers and Blu Blockers, however, do have one thing in common...the sun! Soil blockers are an alternative way of growing plant starters. Instead of using a bag of potting soil and plastic trays, you make your own potting mix and press the mixture into a handheld machine that pumps out little blocks of soil complete with a little divot in which you place the seed.  Soil blocks are great not just because you don't waste plastic starter trays but because you are making your own potting soil from scratch, which is always better, and with soil blocks, the roots of your starters are less prone to get root bound than in traditional plastic trays...somehow the roots of the plants sense the edge of the block and stop growing.

Bottom line, soil blocks are really fun to make and a great project for kids. You feel a little like you are making cookies using a recipe and molding the batter into shapes. It is definitely a little more expensive but the ingredients go a long way much like the ingredients for cookies...Once you make the initial investment like with flour and sugar, you can make many batches. In addition to the supplies for the batter, you need the soil block machine. I use the 2" block that makes four soil blocks at a time. They are $29.95 and available online (larger models that press more blocks are available).

As you get your starters ready this spring and summer, consider making the switch. You'll be glad you did! Here is a link to a nice video I found on how to make soil blocks. I first learned about soil blocks from the master, organic gardener himself, Eliot Coleman. He has a lot of great information on his website as well. Below are a couple progression photos to give a better idea for how it works and here is the recipe I use for making my own soil blocks:

3 buckets     coco peat or coir (made from dried coconut husks) DO NOT use peat moss **
1/2 cup        lime (horticulture grade)
3 buckets    coarse Perlite
3 buckets    organic compost
3-4 cups      base fertilizer
                        1cup blood meal
                        1 cup green sand
                        1 cup phosphate rock
1 bucket (give or take) of water
** peat bogs store lots of carbon dioxide. When they are farmed for agricultural purposes, all that carbon is released into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. All the world’s peat bogs store approximately 562 billion tons of carbon—more than all the trees in the world. SAVE THE PEAT BOGS...use coir!

They look like little brownies when finished!
One of Five "Eat Your Color" fridge magnets
Our first Gardens to Hospitals event is about to kick-off next week in Jackson, CA. Gardens to Hospitals (G2H) is a project of Lisa’s Organics - an organic, frozen vegetable producer based in Lake Tahoe, CA. In short, G2H partners school gardens with hospitals to raise awareness for healthy meal programs and install edible gardens at the hospital. In Jackson, students from local Argonaut High School will lead a food lesson at Sutter Amador Hospital for area children ages 4-7 years old. The lesson plays off a campaign that ran in 2011 for National Nutrition Month called “Eat Your Colors!” Unfortunately, the brilliant campaign only ran for that one month and was archived. Ironically, the campaign is very similar to Lisa’s Organics brand slogan, “Eat Your Veggies.”

I immediately saw the parallel and began to brainstorm! The result…adorable, fridge magnets as shown in the example to the left. There are five in all. One for each of the following colors: red, green, purple, white/brown and yellow/orange. Each child that attends the G2H event will receive a packet of five magnets. After the lesson, the kids will get a chance to plant some seeds and starters in raised beds which will reside on the hospital's cafeteria patio. The high school students will remind the children about the different colors of each veggie being planted as well as the color of the veggies they will be sampling that day from local, organic farms. The kids will learn their food colors, plant the seed and taste its flavor. At home, they will play with their magnets and hopefully grab one off the fridge and say something like, “Mom, I want purple veggies for dinner!”

Speaking of "colors." The growing dome has been exploding with color the last couple weeks. We are into our 6th week of harvests donating 10-12lbs of assorted greens to our local hunger relief agency, Project Mana. But last week, we started adding radishes and this week beets and carrots. One of my favorite food films, Fridays at the Farm, described the sensation of harvesting radishes to "pulling teeth from the mouth of God!" I love that visual. Today, I got the same satisfaction from harvesting the carrots. With radishes and beets, you can pretty much tell how big the root is before you pull it out of the ground. Carrots on the other hand are a big surprise. They don't reveal their size till plucked. You grab the base of the stem and start pulling. I don't know why but I was half expecting 1-2" puny, roots but on average, they were more like 6-7" long. I sounded like I was watching fireworks instead of harvesting vegetables as exclamations erupted from my mouth, "Ooooh, Wow!"  With each pull I was more and more elated as these striking orange sticks continued to come out of the ground. I felt a little like a magician pulling a scarf out of their sleeve...i just kept pulling and pulling. I love farming!

Check out the video below for a virtual tour of the dome and exciting times on harvest day!

Bountiful harvest...radishes, carrots and beets!
Me at Swanton Berry Farm - July 2011
The Food Chronicles turns 1-year old next Thursday, May 17th. Hard to believe this adventure started a year ago. I feel like I've just begun. I'm constantly rounding new corners, learning different things and getting spun down new paths. But the goal is the same...building a regional and sustainable food system that supports local economies!

When you write a blog, you can't help but geek out on the traffic stats. It's fun to see which posts get the most hits. And one post continues to be the most popular, "Where Do Strawberries Come From." Every month since it was published on July 12th, it continues to top the leader board. I was taking an agroecology course at UC Santa Cruz at the time and we visited a farm where the young owner shared this fun fact...

    "Strawberries are a hot crop where plastic tarps cover their raised beds to generate heat and cut down on weeds. It acts as a mulch. Back in the day, they didn't have plastic mulch so they used "straw" around the base of the plant to trap heat and reduce weeds. Get it?  Straw-berries!"

I apologize to all the people doing a Google search for "Where Do Strawberries Come From" and finding my measly post in the Top 10. It hardly gives the whole story. Now, if you want the real skinny on strawberries, check out the site Strawberries for Strawberry Lovers. It appears strawberries originated along the coastlines of North and South America as well as the Hawaiian Islands. Their notoriety hit the big time when a Chilean variety reached France in 1714. Some of strawberry's foremost authorities debunk the sweet story that was told to me about its moniker. The more widely accepted story for how the scrumptious fruit got its name is because it resembles straw when it is strewn about on the ground. Booooring! I'm going to stick with my story. Way better!

Interestingly enough...I have a couple more posts about strawberries. And each was written during my course in Santa Cruz. There are lots of strawberries grown in those parts. One post profiles Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm.  Jim pioneered the techniques to grow strawberries organically. He was ostracized in the 80's being told it was not possible and the only way to grow strawberries commercially was to follow conventional practices which rely on toxic fumigants to eradicate soil pathogens. Chemical fumigants like methyl iodide are still widely used today poisoning field workers and most likely those who consume the tainted strawberries. My second post about strawberries depicts a startling, photo commentary of our current agricultural system. Check out the link! And if you think it is just strawberries that we need to worry about being dosed with skulls-n-crossbones, think again!

Revenge of the Superweed
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post which outlined a pretty far-fetched, but thoughtful, plan to reform US agriculture. The premise placed the ball in the hands of conventional farmers. Ultimately, it is the farmers who control our food. They grow it. If they were given a strong enough incentive to stop farming with chemicals then the Monsanto’s and Dow’s of the world would be brought to their knees.

It may not be that far-fetched. The toxic climate of chemical farming is finally becoming even too much for the conventional, vegetable farmers (pulled from an article on Grist.org). Many of them have formed a coalition, Save Our Crops, to fight the USDA approval for a new genetically modified corn seed that is resistant to the biggest and baddest herbicide of them all, "2, 4-D." Sounds more like a character from Star Wars than something we would put on out food unless of course Heinz has added a 58th variety.

Like most petroleum-based, synthetic pesticides and herbicides, 2, 4-D has a litany of detrimental health effects, i.e. cancer, neurotoxicity, endocrine disrupters, etc. But it’s not the health effects that have the farmers up in pitchforks, it is the environmental and crop degradation that the super-herbicide will cause. 2, 4-D is a pretty intense chemical. It is a descendent of the bio-warfare chemical, Agent Orange. When applied, 2, 4-D can drift from commodity crops over to neighboring vegetable crops which are NOT resistant; especially broad-leafed crops like tomatoes, green beans, peas, squash, pumpkins, melons, grapes and other fruits.

Farmers are starting to see the toll that these stronger applications are having on their land’s fertility. On one hand, 2, 4-D could destroy a neighboring, conventional specialty-crop in one drift and on the other hand, it could initiate a slow death for the commodity farmer who with each application is chipping away at their land's yield potential.

"Save Our Crops" could help unify the conventional, farming community bringing together commodity farmers (grains, soy and corn) who want to combat mega-weeds and specialty crop growers (vegetables) who don't want to see their crops damaged by herbicide drift. Together, they have invested interest to protect their livelihood and their shared, local economy. The result will be alternatives that work for both. Go farmers!

Perhaps the tide is turning. And conventional farmers will start integrating more sustainable farming methods into their practice.

After I read about Save Our Crops, it turned my attention back to the grassroots movement working to get GMO foods labeled (genetically modified organisms). FYI...I wrote a blog post about this too if interested - and sign the petition!

Underlining the initiative is our civil right to know what’s in our food. But its more than just a label and a civil rights issue. A GMO label could mark the beginning of the end for conventional agriculture as we know it. Think about it…overnight, millions of people will stop buying products with this label. The label will turn people off and steer them towards other options, hopefully more organics ones. BIG ag will have to adjust to the market trend and consider alternative growing methods which don’t require GMO’s.   

Granted, people still smoke cigarettes even though the surgeon general says not too. But drugs and food are different. Drugs are optional, food is not. People know the inherent risk with drugs but proceed anyway. In general, people trust food believing it is safe if is it for sale. In the case of food, knowledge can be a dangerous thing. A GMO label would carry a powerful message. I’m glad that the organizations behind this campaign is not promoting this hidden agenda but I have to believe that they see the watershed moment before them like I do. It will be a sneak attack!

With the conventional farmers on one flank with Save Our Crops and consumers on the other with Just Label It, we might just have found a way to wage this war.