Monday, May 14, 2012

Urban Farm: Ben Stallings

Ben Stallings invited visitors to tour his Urban Farm in Emporia for International Permaculture Day on May 6, 2012. Ben's 1920-era home sits on approximately 1/10th of an acre. Once you account for the house, the driveway, sidewalks and a small shed out back, there's not a whole heck of a lot of yard space left. Ben's approach to yard management, however, is appealing.

"Taking care of a lawn can be a lot of work," Ben says. "But it's not productive work."

Think of it in these terms: every time you mow your lawn you are harvesting, but in a traditional yard, you receive no benefit from the harvest.

When Ben bought the home in 2008, the yard was primarily grass and volunteer trees. Ben's goal was to reduce the amount of time needed to maintain the lawn and work it into something that would produce a good and useful harvest. He wanted the resulting garden his lawn would become to eventually be less work than the existing grass was.

Ben's background includes a year-long tour on bicycle of various ecovillages and intentional communities. This prompted his interest in permaculture. He become a certified permaculture designer in 2010 and his urban farm, starting with 36 crops in its first year, now supplies food for he and his wife, as well as cash crops for the Emporia Farmers Market where he has been participating as a vendor for three years now.

Ben does not till his soil, but instead uses a process called sheet mulching to enhance his soil and create the beds that become home to his low-maintenance garden plots. He arranges his plants in guilds, meaning that each plant should play some role in supporting the other plants in the guild. Via succession, the harvest from the guilds should change as each system matures. The area around a young walnut tree, for instance, currently grows mulberries, chive and aronia. Onions attract beneficial insects. Beans planted next to onions thrive where beans planted alone do less well.

The back yard includes a greenhouse in its second incarnation. A PVC framed hoop house sort of set up failed to stand up to snow a previous winter. A wooden frame now replaces the original design. In theory, the greenhouse is host to three poly-cultures (plants that grow better together than separately) and he relies on vertical growing to help shad plants that don't tolerate heat as well. 

Since Ben considers much of his effort experimental, there really is no failure on his urban farm. What works becomes material for him to incorporate into his designs for clients. What doesn't work simply gives him ideas for new directions to try at a later date.

An audio recording of the tour, complete with photo illustrations, can be found at Interdependent Web, as well as several other resources of value to those interested in permaculture.

What is permaculture?
"In brief, it is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating elements as a single-product system."
Introduction to Permaculture, by Bill Mollison 

Ben offered his guests strawberries and cream and chocolate mint tea. The strawberries were so sweet I never even bothered with the cream. They were perfect, sun drenched and hand picked. And everywhere I looked I saw another ripe one or two begging to be tasted.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Extending the Growing Season

Rayburn High Tunnel ~ Hamilton, Kansas

Gene Rayburn is a cattle man, by trade. "I raised cattle. I grew feed for the cattle. But this is all new. I wanted to learn how to grow things, how to feed my family, how to be a little more... sustainable."

Rayburn put up his high tunnel two years ago and brought some of his product, gorgeous leaves of lettuce, to the indoor season of Emporia Farmers Market in 2010/11. The learning curve wasn't so much on how to actually get things to grow -- Gene seems to be naturally green thumbed -- but figuring out how to distribute so much produce once it was grown.

"I can grow enough to feed a lot of people," he said. "But people around here, they don't want to pay for it. They don't care that it's better than what is at the grocery store." 

The exception was tomatoes. "People will drive here to the house for tomatoes," he said. Following up on last year's greatest successes, he has filled his hoop house with tomato plants this year, and has lettuce lining only one side. There were more than several plants with small green bulbs already on tomato plants with healthy looking, thick green stalks. 

Rows of tomatoes inside Rayburn's High Tunnel. Young lettuce grows along the right side.

Rayburn should have ripe tomatoes early this season.

High tunnel is a word that has gotten a lot of press in recent years. I've also heard them called Hoop Houses. It's a greenhouse, of sorts, but it sits right on the ground. High tunnels are constructed of PVC pipe and covered with plastic. The idea is to extend the growing season here in Kansas where a typical April might still bring snow and freezing temperatures and October usually marks the end of a long season. The sides of a high tunnel can be rolled up to let in air as the temperatures warm or dropped all the way to the ground to keep out the cold.
Gene Rayburn harvesting baby Romaine lettuce from his high tunnel. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Taste of the Tall Grass Prairie

Though this isn't specifically a food story, it is a Kansas story. What we grow and how we treat our lawns and soil affects us in many ways. Therefore, I wanted to share this information from Arnold's Greenhouse. The Tall Grass Prairie once covered 140 million acres of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri. This is "where the buffalo roamed" and "the deer and the antelope played." Today, only 4% of the original Tall Grass Prairie remains and of that portion, 70% of it is in Kansas. 

From an Arnold's Greenhouse brochure:
Beginning in Spring 2012, We will be offering a prairie plant collection of native grasses and wildflowers for you! This "Taste of the Tall Grass Prairie" includes six different native grasses and twelve different native wildflowers. The collection includes one jumbo six pack (like what we grow our strawberry and sweet potato plants in) of each plant. Thus, you will receive a total of 108 plants. Provided there are no germination failures, we will have six plants of each of the 18 varieties in the collection.
 Planting all 108 plants will cover approximately 200 square feet, when planted 16 inches apart. Like all plants, they will need two or three years to fill in the space you have given them in the garden.
 We are not wanting you to replace existing flower beds with a "Taste of the Tall Grass Prairie"; you have worked hard to establish those beds, so leave them and enjoy them! Rather, most of us have way too much lawn to mow. A 10 ft. by 20 ft area converted from a boring lawn to a "Taste of the Tall Grass Prairie" will benefit the environment and our children. You will even want to hum a few bars of "Home on the Range"... "Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam..." Well, maybe you won't be humming "Home on the Range," but the butterflies will!

Arnold's will donate 10% of every native plant collection purchased to local schools to be used for teaching ecology. 

Arnold's Greenhouse 1430 Hwy 57 S.E.  LeRoy, KS 66857

Spring HoursMarch, April, and May

Monday through Saturday 9am - 7:30pm

Closed on Sundays. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Local Food Finder

The Local Food Finder application was created by Emporia Area Local Food Network member, Ben Stallings, to assist shoppers in finding local and/or organic foods in their areas. This user-contributed database is free to anyone and especially useful in helping shoppers share information about where to buy local and organic foods.

The application is currently being used in Emporia, Kansas and other communities are welcome, invited and encouraged to use it, too. The more people who use and contribute to the database, the better the tool will be.

If shopping local and buying organic is important to you, consider adding this free application to your smartphone to help increase awareness and assist others as they shop for local and organic food.

From the website: is a free service to help grocery shoppers share information about where to buy local and organic foods.

Use it to plan a shopping trip:
Just enter your zip code and see which stores in your area carry each of the local and organic foods on your list. The site is designed to be used on any smartphone, so you can check the list while you're out running errands.
Share what you know:
If the information is incorrect or incomplete, simply log in and select the store whose inventory you want to edit. The editing form is designed to be used on your phone right in the store, so you can update the information as you shop.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Arnold's Greenhouse ~ Le Roy, Kansas

For 110 years, Arnolds have lived just west of the little town of Le Roy, Kansas. George and Rita's children were the fourth generation of Arnolds to grow up on the family farm. Their children and grandchildren now work alongside them running Arnold's Greenhouse, a 120 acre paradise for gardeners and those who dream of gardening.

George Arnold was a farmer in the 1970s. In 1977, he built a 10' x 16' hobby greenhouse and sold a couple hundred of dollars worth of cabbage, broccoli and miscellaneous vegetables to the local Duckwall's store. His hobby grew, and by the 1980s, George and Rita were selling a wide variety of plants to wholesale markets. In 1997, he built the current 60' x 80' steel building and attached 120' x 288' greenhouse that is now the centerpiece of Arnold's Greenhouse.

"I don't farm anymore," George says. "And this place is more retail than wholesale today."

EALFN members get a tour of the greenhouse from George Arnold.
My first visit to Arnold's was with the Emporia Area Local Food Network, a group that works to promote local foods and grower resources and opportunities in Lyon County Kansas. George walked us through the enormous greenhouse, which is beautifully marked with signs designating shade loving vs. sun seeking perennials and annuals, all alphabetically arranged by scientific name. It was spring open house week at Arnold's and the weather was actually spring-like, a bit cooler than the unusually warm days we've been having in Kansas.

The seed room at Arnold's.
George's tour took us past the seed room. Everything from vegetables, herbs, trees, shrubs, vines and aquatic plants; if you want to grow it, there's a good chance you'll find it at Arnold's.

The nursery: here strawberry shoots are shown emerging from the soil in this steamy warm room.
About 40 employees help George and his family grow and cultivate the approximately 3,200 varieties of plants offered for sale at Arnold's Greenhouse.

Our group was only able to stay for about an hour to tour and shop at Arnold's. The place is created with a much longer stay in mind, however. It is ripe for day dreaming and making plans. Just stepping foot in the place, my mind started envisioning a vegetable garden, as well as flower beds, fruit trees and landscaping around my place. Arnold's is family friendly, as well, complete with a picnic area, a Kansas grass maze for the kids, and chickens!

Plants are transferred into containers for sale at the greenhouse.

Need a tomato? Chose from a wide variety.

A display of plants inside the main greenhouse at Arnold's.

Arnold's is easy to reach from most any direction. It's about an hour from Emporia and about an hour and a half from Topeka, Lawrence or the Kansas City area.

Arnold's Greenhouse 
1430 Hwy 57 S.E.  LeRoy, KS 66857

Spring HoursMarch, April, and May
Monday through Saturday 9am - 7:30pm
Closed on Sundays. 

Arnold's also sells garden tools, garden art, decorate pots and  garden furniture.  They also host a variety of gardening and how-to classes. See their website for current information.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Bee Story

shared with permission
*originally published at Inside My Head, by Tracy Million Simmons, 5/7/2009

Farmer John of Shepherd's Valley shared this story along with our share yesterday. I wanted to pass it on, first, because bees fascinate me and I (as yet) know very little about them and second, because I've actually seen a swarm of bees (photo below) and I had no idea what I was seeing. I thought they were stuck to something. I guess I assumed it was some some kind of giant fly strip or something. (I didn't harm them, I just walked away!)
Our late morning planting of sweet corn on Friday was interrupted by a sound – a sound different than the tractors planting in nearby fields. The sound a beekeeper has learned to train his ears to hear – the sound of a swarm of honeybees. I followed my ears to find the trees along the creek alive with the sound of music! I watch the swarm form, move up and over and around, from treetop to treetop, then finally settle right along the freshly mowed path along the fence – in the shade, no less, about 4 ft. above the ground. A beekeepers dream!

It was a huge swarm all clustered together in the lower limbs on an elm tree. And although from my position I could not see the bees settle in, I watched as the limbs bowed beneath the weight of the bees, then later discovered their landing spot. It was almost lunchtime, so I gave Ben the signal to gather up his “bee stuff” and we’ll all eat a quick lunch, and then tackle our unscheduled afternoon task. Ben and I successfully lowered the 3½-foot long by foot wide ball of bees carefully into a hive body. We will transfer the hive to Ben’s new place in a few days. Ben caught another swarm over the weekend and we are now fielding calls from several local communities about honeybees. Guess word gets around fast!

If you see a swarm of honeybees (big ball/cluster of bees) hanging from a tree, roof eave, picnic table, or wherever else, DON’T PANIC - call us and we’ll come get it. Don’t call 911 (it’s NOT an emergency) or the Exterminator (who will likely charge you several hundred dollars and kill these wonderful creatures). Don’t do like one lady who recently called the police in a nearby town. When the police got hold of me, and I got there, she said, “the neighbor took care of it. She poured gasoline on ‘em and threw in a match.” Aarrgghh! I get very perturbed when I hear things like that! When honeybees are swarming, they will NOT sting. Just watch them settle and call me: 620-787-2380. I can entertain you with my antics, and educate you and your family and friends on the value of the honeybee. Lots of folks call their neighbors and bring out lawn chairs to watch the retrieval process and videotape the fun!

Here are some sad stats pertinent to the lady that burned a swarm of honeybees. At an average of 5 gallons/year (you could get lots more) x10 years, she burned a potential 50+ gallons of honey, current retail value: $2,000. Pollination benefits @ 20% yield increase per year x 10 years retail value: another $7-10,000. That swarm would likely have produced about 6-7 more swarms, and grandfathered maybe 24 more, each worth about $150+ each x30 = $4,500. Each of those swarms would then have produced honey and pollination benefits over several years, worth approximately $400/hive/year x 30 hives = $12,000. With inflation and standard price increases, add another 5%/yr. x 10 years = $14,000. So that little burning action cost about $40,000+ in potential gross income over the life of the colony. It makes me sad to see such beautiful, helpful, and valuable creatures destroyed by such ignorance.

Here’s a picture of the first swarm we caught this season. It measures approximately 3½ ft. long x 1 ft. thick.

Friday, March 23, 2012

PrairieLand Partners: Local Foods Promotion

“We hope this truck, which will go door-to-door delivering vegetables, will be an icon for Emporia promoting locally grown foods.” Paul du Toit, August 2011

March 2011 - The 1948 International Truck before Thurston's Plus Autobody got their hands on it.

March 2012 - The newly refurbished 1948 International Truck made an appearance at the St. Patrick's Day Indoor Winter Farmers Market and appeared in the Emporia St. Patrick's Day Parade.

 Paul du Toit may be relatively new to Emporia (he moved to the area in 2009 as the manager of Prairieland Partners, Emporia's John Deere dealership), but his agriculture roots run deep and that makes him a champion of local foods, as well as a local leader in the movement. 

Paul and the employees of Prairieland Partners started a garden in 2011 and succeeded in supplying produce to Prairieland families, as well as to a few local businesses and grocery stores. "Our garden was started on the idea to support our local community through the production of fresh vegetables by having large enough quantities and a variety of vegetables to supply our local market. We are also hoping to inspire and encourage growers. Like starting any business, there are no guarantees," said du Toit. "We are learning a lot and taking the project one day at a time."

Most of the work on the garden was done by the employees of Prairieland Partners over the noon hour or after 5:00 PM. Several brought their children out to help plant crops.

Harold Brenzikofer, Emporia Farmers Market Vendor and Paul du Toit, PrairieLand Partners,  visit about the truck at the Indoor Winter Farmers Market on March 17, 2012.

The truck all decked out for the parade.

From Paul du Toit and the Local Foods Community: A big round of thanks to Jess and Beth Wilson of Thurston’s Plus Autobody for all the hard work they have put into this truck. These guys have been unbelievable! They have more volunteer hours in this project than we can ever pay them back for. The group from Thurston’s does excellent work and is a leader in community partnering!