Farm News

Profile: Hillsboro Silt Loam

photo of cilantro flowers

Hillsboro Silt Loam Is My Home

It is because of soil that I became a farmer. More precisely, it is because I loved a certain parcel of land and that land happened to lack a farmer. So with my family’s support, I bought the acreage that would become April Joy Farm. The buildings were aging, and the forest and cropland had been denuded by poor management and neglect. But even back then, I felt deliriously rich with the potential underneath my feet. From the very beginning, my motivation was to protect and restore the biodiversity of this special place. But how? I decided farming was a pragmatic way to both pay the bills and further my land stewardship aspirations.

It was in this roundabout way, I unknowingly entered into what has become one of the most important relationships of my life. Lucky for me, I hit the jackpot. That may sound melodramatic, but not a season goes by that I don’t kiss the ground at my feet.

I am one of the fortunate few to have deep, well-drained, highly resilient earth as a family member. A person can alter and change many things about a farm landscape, but like the genetics of a human being, soil is an inheritance.

Of course, this is the very important reason all farm consultants advise young farmers to seek out lands that are conducive to their goals prior to purchasing land. One crop may thrive in a certain soil type while another fails entirely. Soil tests must be taken. It is also recommended the land be visited multiple times of year to establish a baseline understanding of how weather, water and wildlife pass around and through a place.

But I had it all backwards. I wasn’t a farmer specializing in any particular crop or animal. I didn’t come to farming with preconceived ideas as to what I wanted to grow. And I didn’t find the land, the land found me. So in the same unplanned sort of way a wild, windborne seed finds the right soil with the right moisture at the right time of year, I found my way home.

photos soil and plants on april joy farm

“The place to start is where you are. Thousands of soil types have been named, classified and described. Knowing their names can tell you a lot about their general characteristics; but, like any living creature, each individual is unique. Find out what soils live in your area, how they are classified and described by soil scientists, and how that compares with what you observe about them yourself.

Soils worldwide have been classified into ten major orders.

# 3 Inceptisols: Young soils with limited horizon formation. May be very productive, as those formed from volcanic ash. Found in the Pacific Northwest, along the Amazon and Ganges Rivers, North Africa and eastern China.”[1]

With the eagerness and pleasure one finds in a new friendship, I set about to discover what my special place might be uniquely suited to creating. Thankfully, since I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about wanting to be a certain type of farmer, there was no need to force the land to produce any particular crops. Instead, my analytical nature lent itself to the joy of research and data collection. I was a sponge for agricultural information, because now I had a reason to know it. It seemed that no matter what textbook, journal or article on agriculture I picked up, everything hinged on soil quality. Quickly I realized that before I could learn to work with weather patterns, animals, or plants, I needed to learn about soil. In particular, I needed to understand the nuances of the unique soil at my feet. I was so ignorant back then; I didn’t even know her* name.

Odne, Cloquato, McBee. Riverwash, Gumboot, Cove. Cinebar, Cispus, Bear Prarie. Pilchuck, Sifton, Semiahmoo. Sara, Tisch, Kinney. Larchmount, Lauren, Gee.

 

The 1972 USDA Soil Survey of Clark County, Washington lists 39 soil series. Page 1 of the Introduction provided a beginners lesson, complete with vocabulary words.


How this Survey Was Made

Soil scientists made this survey to learn what kinds of soil are in Clark County, where they are located and how they can be used. They observed the steepness, length, and shape of slopes, the size and speed of streams, the kinds of native plants or crops, the kinds of rock, and many facts about the soils. They dug many holes to expose soil profiles. A profile is the sequence of natural layers, or horizons, in a soil; it extends from the surface down into the parent material that has not been changed much by leaching or by the action of plant roots.

The soil scientists made comparisons among the soil profiles they studied, and they compared these profiles with those in counties nearby and in places more distant. They classified and named the soil according to nationwide, uniform procedures. The soil series and the soil phase are categories of soil classification most used in a local survey.

Soils that have profiles almost alike make up a soil series. Except for different texture in the surface layer, all the soils of one series have major horizons that are similar in thickness, arrangement, and other important characteristics. Each soil series is named for a town or other geographic feature near the place where a soil of that series was first observed and mapped. Hockinson, for example is the name of a soil series. All the soils in the United States having the same series name are essentially alike in those characteristics that affect their behavior in the undisturbed landscape.

When I first read the pages of my Dad’s hand-me-down torn-edged copy of the Clark County Soil Survey, I was enthralled. I had no idea the soil of our region was so rich, diversified or deep (some soils are nearly rock free for over 300 feet into the ground). This was a revelation, given the many stories I’d heard from my family about the annual need to pick rocks (sometimes boulders) out of their Midwest fields. I raced ahead to find the black and white aerial photograph with soil map overlay that would tell me the name I wanted so eagerly to learn.

Hillsboro Silt Loam (HoA)

The Hillsboro series consist of deep, well-drained soils on terraces. These are medium-textured soils that developed in deposits of old Columbia River alluvium. Most areas are nearly level to gently sloping, but strongly sloping to very steep areas are along drainageways and streams.

Hillsboro soils are among the most productive terrace soils in the county; about 90 percent of the acreages is cultivated. These soils are used extensively for high income crops, such as pole beans, strawberries, sweet corn, cucumbers, and other truck crops, and for hay and pasture. They are also used for urban development. The soil is well drained, moderately permeable, and easily tilled. The available water capacity is very high. Fertility is moderately high.

Most of the acreage of this soil is cultivated or in urban fringe development. Nearly all the crops suited to this area are grown. Pears, caneberries, strawberries, pole beans, potatoes and walnuts are important truck crops. Alfalfa and red clover are important legumes for hay, and white clover is important for pasture.

That may not strike you as particularly meaningful, but when a farmer reads, “In places the profile is loam to a depth of about 36 inches, sandy loam to a depth of 48 inches and sand between 48 and 62 inches.” she gets up on the couch and starts jumping for joy. Deep, soft, well draining soil with a high capacity for self-generated fertility all located in a mild climate. That’s basically equivalent to winning the lottery.

Thus I began my relationship with the soil your vegetables are growing in.


I often here the statement “food connects us all.” Well, if you want to get particular about things, actually it’s soil that connects us all. Without soil, there would be no humans. The basic truth we as a society have forgotten is this: not only does soil support the plants that shelter, clothe, and feed us, but it also filters our drinking water. When New Mexico soil scientist Clay Robinson visits school kids to talk about soil, he jokes, “Without soil we’d be hungry, naked, and homeless. Also, breathless, because it’s the plants growing in soil that produce our oxygen.” So why is it that we associate being ‘soiled’ with being unclean, but yet the very thing we use to get clean (water) is itself cleaned by the soil we are so prejudice against?

When I read the 1972 Soil Survey of Clark County, I can see the transition between an old way of viewing the world, and a new one. Profiles, Names, Parent Materials, becomes comparisons and categorizing. Cloquato and Sara become “how it can be used.” It’s telling that on one hand, we fondly name our soils and use words that could easily be mistaken for describing humans, and on the other, we are big into comparisons and categorizing. It is also telling that farmers who have spent their lives committed to responsible land stewardship talk of particularly healthy and vibrant soil as being of good heart.

I did not have to read very far, or spend much time in my fields before my past ignorance of soil as an inert, inanimate object, a lifeless medium, rapidly dissipated. The more I learn of the inner workings of soil, the deeper my admiration grows, and the less I feel I truly know.

I’m perfectly content with this conundrum. Each season, my journey of learning continues, and each season, I make a concerted effort to pay back my soil for her generosity, flexibility, and patient, forgiving nature. Soil is accurately a ‘being’. Like us, soil lives and breathes; like us, soil can be energetic or depleted, even dead. The creational potential of my soil is the heart and soul of my work. I am here, doing what I do, because I fell in love with a certain parcel of Hillsboro Silt Loam. Though I may sell vegetables, I am not a produce farmer. Nope. I am soil farmer.

“… the Latin name for man, homo, derived from humus, the stuff of life in the soil.”
– Dr. Daniel Hillel

*Some of you might be rolling your eyes, put off that I’m personifying the soil of our crop fields, and nonetheless as a female(!). That’s fine. We can call HoA a he if you’d rather. But before you tell me to go back to singing Kumbayah, just remember that the Soil Family is what made possible the breath you’re taking right now. I’m not married to the gender, I’m only adamant that we begin to show respect where respect is due. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer discusses our “deeply held assumptions about human exceptionalism, that we are somehow different and indeed better that the other species who surround us. Indigenous ways of understanding recognize the personhood of all beings as equally important, not in a hierarchy, but a circle.”

[1] Gershuny, Grace and Joe Smillie, The Soul of Soil.

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Farming for Bees and Soil

Our CSA is split into two groups which pick up on alternate weeks. To keep things straight, we’ve named these ‘half share groups’ after two of our favorite plants. You might be surprised to learn our favorites aren’t actually crops we grow for sale, but plants we admire deeply for their contributions to the success of our farm ecosystem.

Clovers in general are an absolute necessity to sustaining healthy soils and thereby growing great vegetables.  We use Crimson Clover extensively in our fallow (un-planted) beds as a way to protect against erosion, increase the organic matter of the soil and to capture nitrogen, one of the most fundamental elements for producing food.  It is a fantastic fact that clover fixes atmospheric nitrogen. This means the plants are able to capture nitrogen from the air and collect it in nodules along their roots.  When the clover completes its life cycle, this nitrogen is released into the soil and available as food for our growing vegetables. Chemical based farming relies heavily on a petroleum and energy intensive processes to manufacture anhydrous ammonia which is then sprayed onto fields to supply nitrogen for crops. But clovers, like most all legumes, move nitrogen to the soil quietly, freely, and beautifully.  Clover is an ideal partner to the strategic and patient farmer, and not only because it fixes nitrogen.  Clovers are a much needed food source during spring for our pollinators.  Clover roots till deep into the soil and break up hard layers that would stunt our vegetables’ growth.  Clovers are also a nutrient dense source of food favored by our pigs.  That’s an impressive resume if you ask me!

 

Phacelia, pronounced [fuhsee-lee-uh], is also known as ‘Bees Friend.’  This complex and beautiful plant is a powerhouse, providing abundant nectar and pollen for a wide variety of pollinators and beneficiary insects, all while smelling decadently like honey.  Also spring blooming, phacelia seed was once difficult and expensive to source, so we have slowly built up a seed bank to expand the amount we grow each year. We’re grateful to see now it is available in good quantity from quality regional seed houses like Wild Garden Seed. Phacelia is tough and survives arid dry conditions.   It has tender stems and is easy to turn under, breaking down quickly to provide a clean seedbed for the next crop. We use phacelia in our brassica (cabbage family) beds because the predatory insects it attracts reduce aphid populations that prey on our fall crops.  Phacelia easily reseeds itself and has become a much welcomed addition to our spring high tunnel beds, turning unused corners into rich smelling, self-regenerating, and astoundingly beautiful insectaries.

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Allicin: Garlic’s Superpower

chopped garlic on cutting board

Meet Your Food

In Eating on the Wild Side, Author Jo Robinson explores the tremendous antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, anticlotting and anticancer benefits contained in the humble garlic clove. All of these healing properties stem from allicin.

“Raw garlic contains the ingredients needed to make allicin, its most active ingredient, but not the compound itself. Allicin is created when two substances in garlic come into contact with each other. One is a protein fragment called alliin and the other is a heat-sensitive enzyme called alliinase. In an intact clove of garlic, these compounds are isolated in separate compartments. They do not commingle until you slice, press or chew the garlic to rupture the barriers between them.

In 2001, a group of food chemists “discovered that heating garlic immediately after crushing or slicing it destroys the heat-sensitive enzyme that triggers the reaction. As a result, no allicin is created. It takes only two minutes in a frying pan to reduce garlic to little more than a flavorful ingredient. If you microwave fresh chopped garlic for just thirty seconds, 90 percent of its cancer-fighting ability is gone.

You can cook garlic and reap all its benefits if you make a simple change in the way you prepare it. Chop, mince, slice or mash the garlic and keep it away from the heat for ten minutes. During this time, the maximum amount of allicin is created so the heat-sensitive enzyme is no longer needed. Then you can sauté, bake, or fry the garlic and still get all its medicine.”
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Stalk & Stem: Why Do We Trim?

kale stalks image

Each week, I stand for several hours at the packing shed sink cleaning produce for our CSA families. This kind of work provides wonderful contemplation time. Recently, I caught myself trimming the stalks on a crisp bunch of greens. Before the rough ends hit the bottom of the compost barrel, I thought, “Why did I do that? Surely it wasn’t just to make it look neat and tidy?!” Upon further consideration, I remembered my early post-college days and the first kitchen sink I could call my own. Until the farmer’s market opened in the summer, I bought my vegetables at the old Hy-Vee grocery store in the center of town. The browning, wilted ends were a give-away as to the true age of the produce. Having been trucked in from a long way off, the decomposition process was clearly evident. This is where I first picked up the habit of trimming all my produce. I remember cutting inches off the bottoms of winter greens, ‘just to be on the safe side.’ But now I that I have the privilege of cooking with such fresh produce, my engrained behavior serves no purpose.

TO TRIM OR NOT TO TRIM

When we pick up the paring knife, we are making a critical decision: we are deciding what is edible and what is not. Unless composted, what we deem to be “not edible” contributes unnecessarily to the painfully large amount of food waste in our country.

In my own kitchen, I chop up stems, (including for instance, that [carefully washed] part of the carrot where root becomes top) and sauté them in the pan at the same time the onions and garlic go in. Just by giving the stems a little longer to cook, they are more than edible. By the time the soup or casserole or pasta is finished cooking, the trimmings are as tender as can be. These ‘vegetable edges’ disappear into background flavor and sometimes make two servings into three.

When I’m not planning to sauté, a grater, blender or thin dicing with a knife reduce my stems and stalks to palatable, non-stringy bites that add crunch, color and/or body to whatever raw dish I’m making.

When I have more stems and stalks than I can use in one recipe, I find a way to preserve them. It is easy to keep cleaned, chopped ends in a gallon ziplock bag in the freezer. On a cold day, you have the makings for a great stock. Likewise, it is easy to let carrot tops or extra parsley stems dry like herbs on your cutting board. I find I use them more frequently this way because the are so visible and accessible.

With corn on our list this week, I’ll offer one more tip a favorite chef taught me. After you cut your corn off, save those cobs! Corn stock is a welcome winter treat in our house. It can be made with the carrot tops, parsley stems or even just water and cobs. The aforementioned favorite chef once made me a corn soup that was simply corn stock, salt, and cream. I can still taste that rich meal!

YOU DON’T HAVE TO TAKE IT OVER THE TOP

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not overly strict about stems and stalks. There are times when the bitterness of a stem or core is just too much, and I’m certainly not munching on things like grapes stems. The point is to think first, then act so that discarding a part of the vegetable or fruit is more the exception than the rule. Out in the packing shed, back at the sink, every stalk or stem I come across, I think to myself, could my families reasonably be expected to make use of this part of the produce? If not, I keep it at the farm to feed our chickens and to feed our soil. Thanks to my packing shed musings, I’m no longer trimming for looks or out of habit. Nature works hard to feed us. Meal after meal, this is a blessedly simple way we can show our respect.~AJ

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Care of Leafy Greens

Care of Leafy Greens

It is a misconception that all crops want hot, dry weather.  Leafy greens prefer cool, mildly wet weather and tend to taste spicy or bitter when subjected to extended hot, dry spells that are typically of summer.

We always package our leafy green crops in bags.  This is because these crops are 80-90% water by weight.  Once cut from their roots, the plants have a very limited supply of water to keep cell walls rigid (i.e. crisp).  If you leave your greens in a hot car, or on the counter or even in the fridge in an open bag, they will quickly wilt.  The large surface area of leaf crops allows for water to be rapidly pulled out from the plant.  So be diligent and keep your greens in bags, with the tops shut, out of hot weather.

If your greens wilt, they are not bad or un-edible.  Please don’t throw them out.  Remove any damaged, brown leaves.  Fill a bowl or sink with ice cold water (out of direct sun) and allow your greens to soak for up to one hour.  If you are in a rush, just give them a good, ice cold dunking. Then lightly shake off excess water (a little water on your leaves is a good thing) and put in a plastic bag in the fridge.  Make sure the bag opening is folded over or twist tied shut.  Hooray for osmosis!

Alternately, if your greens have been prematurely wilted you can simply eat them that day.  Wilting with heat in a frying pan is really no different than drying herbs on a counter.  Time and heat are just used in different proportions.  Regardless of the amounts of time or heat your leafy greens have been exposed to (within reason, obviously- nothing should be slimy or smell off) they are entirely edible raw or cooked, there is absolutely nothing ‘wrong’ with them.  The only thing we need change is our mindset.
 

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