Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

Straight-Ahead Organic
Against the Grain – Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food
Sharing the Harvest – A Guide to Community-Supported Agriculture
The Homebrewer’s Garden

Straight-Ahead Organic

Straight-Ahead Organic
By Shepherd Ogden, 1999
Chelsea Green Publishing Co., White River Junction, Vermont
$24.95; 266 pgs., paperback

This is a superb book for the beginning gardener; for the gardener who uses pesticides and synthetic chemical fertilizers and wants to get off the chemical treadmill; even for experienced gardeners who want an up-to-date review of the issues and practices involved in organic growing.

Although arguments in favor of organic gardening are presented throughout the book, they are addressed specifically in the first chapter. Ogden says, for example, “The distinction between cultivation and control structures our whole approach to gardening.” He eschews the outdated idea of dominating nature. He talks about the semantics of the word ‘organic’ and efforts of the USDA to contaminate the term. He talks about the hazards of pesticides and about cancer rates among farmers.

The rest of the book tells how to avoid these hazards, beginning with garden design, then moving on to tools and equipment (including a section on “Why I Hate Rototillers), caring for the soil, planning the garden, seeds and seedlings, planting and cultivation. Throughout these chapters, issues arise and Ogden addresses them. One sidebar discusses the history of the fungicide Captan, for instance. Another discusses genetic engineering; Ogden points out that scientists and engineers working in this field “have both abdicated responsibility” for the harmful social, economic and environmental effects of genetically engineered crops “and left decisions about which technologies we should embrace to the politicians and the economists.” His sidebar about pressure-treated wood ends with a great insight: “The great inner truth of organic gardening generally is that all the costs are up front, with no surprises coming along later on when untested technologies are found to have caused extensive problems.”

The final chapter – nearly 100 pages long – profiles different vegetables. This last part is bound to be of most interest to experienced gardeners. Did you know, for instance, that when you harvest basil, if you cut just above a pair of leaves, the plant will branch at that point and produce another harvest two or three weeks later? (This is from a short section on herbs.) Have you ever grown a white beet? Do you know how Mostoller’s Wild Goose pole bean got its name? (Look for that fascinating story on page 174.) Ogden’s vast knowledge of vegetable varieties – he and his wife own Cook’s Garden in Londonderry, Vermont – makes this chapter invaluable, and he has many cultural techniques to impart as well.

This book is not just full of facts, it’s full of personality, and it’s a personality you like more an more as you read the book. Ogden talks repeatedly about how his grandfather, “Big Sam” Ogden, gardened, about which techniques Shepherd picked up from his grandfather, and which he changed. He talks about how his wife, Ellen, freezes leeks. He expresses his thoughts and feelings passionately and logically. This is a writer worth reading.

– Jean English


Against the Grain – Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food
Marc Lappé, Ph.D., and Britt Bailey, 1998
Common Courage Press, P.O. Box 702, Monroe, ME 04951
$14.95; 164 pgs., paperback

Genetic engineering, say Lappé and Bailey, “is not so much a technological marvel as it is opportunistic. New genes are piggybacked onto existing genomes – the full genetic makeup of an organism – by brute force. The few plants in which such genes ‘take’ are the ones chosen for propagation.” This piggybacking is accomplished either by using bacteria or viruses to insert the novel gene, or, “More recently, genetic engineers have used a literal ‘shotgun’ approach, firing microbullets coated with DNA into plant target cells.”

Brute force, a shotgun approach … the so-called science of genetic engineering has taken the agricultural scene by storm, and Lappé and Bailey review how this was done (with essentially no regulatory oversight) and why (to profit corporations). They explain that farmers did not ask for this technology, and consumers have not expressed any desire to eat these ‘frankenfoods,’ yet the products have been forced upon us – with some frightening and some unknown effects.

The authors question proponents’ arguments that genetic engineering will feed the world, given that yields of engineered crops so far have not been stellar; that genetic engineering will reduce pesticide use, given that most such crops have been designed to be used with larger amounts of herbicides and/or to express insecticidal toxins at very high concentrations in all parts of the plants. One of those herbicides is bromoxynil, a teratogen (a substance that can cause birth defects and other reproductive harm) and carcinogen (a substance that can cause cancer) that is used on cotton. “Few public health officials would have recommended full-scale development of this toxic herbicide in transgenic crops like cotton,” according to Against the Grain, and, even more alarming, the novel toxic metabolite of bromoxynil, DBHA, which is found in cotton engineered for bromoxynil resistance, has never been tested for toxicity. What’s the problem, if no one eats cotton? Consider the byproducts of the fiber crop: cottonseed meal, which is fed to animals, and cottonseed oil, which is a common ingredient in processed foods.

How did these engineered corn, cotton, soy, canola and other crops become such a large part of the agricultural landscape in North America? The authors talk about the power of corporations, conflict of interest within the government, lack of regulatory oversight, and muddled responsibilities within the EPA versus the FDA. They compare reactions to these genetic experiments in North America versus in Europe, where much more caution has been exercised and many more restrictions and bans have been implemented.

This book is a good resource regarding the problems of engineering crops to resist herbicides and insects; problems regarding regulation of engineered crops; ethical issues and long-term consequences relating to biotechnology; and more. The problem with writing such a book now is that this field is changing almost daily, with new crops being introduced while at the same time new research is highlighting the dangers associated with these crops. Thus, the book is already out-of-date regarding such topics as refuges (areas of nonengineered crops set aside to slow the development of resistance on the part of pests that the engineered crops target) and the effects of market forces on the amount of land planted to engineered crops.

Against the Grain is not always easy to read; I thought that it could have been better organized, less repititious, and more clearly written in places. However, it is an important book for anyone who is following this field and wants grounding in its background and thoughts on its implications regarding ethics, health, economics and the environment.

– Jean English


Sharing the Harvest – A Guide to Community-Supported Agriculture
By Elizabeth Henderson with Robyn Van En
254 pages, $24.95. Chelsea Green, 1999

Community Supported Agriculture is a connection between a nearby farmer and the people who eat the food that the farmer produces. It’s as simple as that, writes Elizabeth Henderson – and as complex. You see, most people in the United States simply have no idea where or how their food is grown. California tomatoes are trucked to New York State supermarkets, and folks in New Orleans get their organic milk from Boulder, Colorado.

Ever since the great raisin shortage of 1970-something, I’ve been uncomfortable with the notion that we must truck food great distances to markets. Why couldn’t local farmers grow fruits and vegetables for our grocery store shelves, I wondered. Years later I heard about the CSA movement. In a burst of naive enthusiasm I decided to start my own CSA. Nothing big, mind you, just summer vegetables for the local community …. I really could’ve used Henderson’s book!

Like the CSA movement it documents, Sharing the Harvest grew out of a community effort. Robyn Van En, founder of the first CSA in the United States, began writing the book a few years ago. Elizabeth Henderson, involved in CSA farming for more than a decade, volunteered to write a chapter or two. The Northeast SARE program provided financial assistance for the project. When Robyn passed away, Liz took on the gargantuan task of completing the book.

“Growing food is the most basic use of natural resources,” she writes. “How each society or nation produces and distributes food in large measure determines its identity.” At the turn of this century almost one-third of our country’s population lived on farms. Now, poised on the edge of a new century, less than 2% of the population lives on farms and we’re losing productive cropland at an alarming rate.

As businesses go, family farming is a losing proposition. In 1993, farmers lost $59 for each acre of corn they produced, $52 for each acre of wheat, and $2 per hundredweight of milk. The fact that over 100,000 households are buying food through Community Supported Agriculture projects indicates a growing dissatisfaction with the way food is being raised, and a real desire to support sustainable food systems.

In Sharing the Harvest, Elizabeth Henderson tries to honor the diversity of the CSA movement. Photos, poetry and bits of gardening wisdom are tucked among historical accounts that document the growth of Community Supported Agriculture. For those who level the criticism that only yuppies can afford organically grown produce, Liz discusses how we can integrate biodiversity with social diversity. She takes a critical look at national food security.

Even so, Sharing the Harvest retains the feel of a “how-to” manual for anyone who is or wants to be involved in Community Supported Agriculture. An entire section is devoted to getting started, with tips on creating a CSA, choosing a farmer, and acquiring land. Chapters on getting organized focus on labor, money and legal matters. Lots of detailed sidebars illustrate sample budgets and start-up costs. The section on food includes produce and animals, harvest and distribution, and is replete with crop planning charts, harvest calendars, and suggestions for what makes up a share. Reading through this book is the next best thing to talking with someone who’s “been there, done that.”

– Sue Smith-Heavenrich, Candor, New York


The Homebrewer’s Garden –
How to Easily Grow, Prepare and Use Your Own Hops, Brewing Herbs & Malts

by Joe Fisher and Dennis Fisher
Paperback, 188 pages, $14.95. Storey Communications, Pownal VT, 1998

In The Homebrewer’s Garden, the Fisher brothers – MOFGA members from Winterport – not only encourage brewing your own, but growing the brewing components as well. Discover the flavors that are possible when you grow hops, herbs, grains for malting, maybe even brewing yeast.

For centuries – and especially before refrigeration – homebrewing was a household task that depended on an assortment of locally available components. I suspect that our ancestors tried a little of everything that grew, learning by experience what tasted terrible, what was poisonous and what plants produced great ale or beer.

Why not revive this almost-forgotten art? The authors suggest that plenty of experimenting remains to be done and stress that homebrewing is fun: … “if you aren’t having fun, what’s the point?”

Keeping things simple, they recommend brewing with “extract or partial-mash brewing,” though as one learns, one can try all-grain brewing and other advanced methods.

A chapter on hops explains how the vine grows, types of hops to plant and cultivation techniques, trellising methods. A clear, two-page chart lists individual hop characteristics.

The section on pests and diseases is excellent, planned for organic growers. Then comes harvest, postharvest care of vines, drying and storing hops, and using them.

An astonishing chapter on brewing and bittering herbs is, by itself, a complete monograph. Learn how to grow, propagate, harvest, dry and store these herbs. An alphabetical list of brewing herbs, with a clear line drawing of each by Sarah Brill, discusses hardiness, siting, culture, harvesting and use in brewing.

An enlightening chapter on “Homegrown Grains and Homemade Malts” includes quinoa, rye, sorghum, wheat and others.

To learn more, check out the authors’ other books: Brewing Made Easy and Great Beer From Kits. Order from a bookstore or call Storey Books, 1-800-441-5700. Telephone orders carry a delivery charge.

– Carol Howe


MOF&G Cover Fall 1999