Paul & Elizabeth Kaiser: Sustainable Farming 2.0

I applaud the Kaisers for their success, but they failed to mention that the vast majority of their soil's nutrients is imported from off site. Like market gardener Jean-Martin Fortier, they develop their deep, rich soil by purchasing virtually all of the compost they use. This practice enables very high productivity per acre, but it is not a practice that can be called 'sustainable'. When the Kaisers and Fortier produce all the carbon they add to their soil on site, I will be more impressed.

I agree with many of the comments above - quite inspiring and more information would be useful. My number 1 question is about the organic matter used for mulch. What is used and where does it come from. We all know compost piles shrink to a quarter their size as they mature - and when its spread on the garden a big pile disappears in no time. (I'm sure you are right Waikaalulu2, they will be importing compost materials rather than growing their own compost crops. They only have a few acres and like all of us they have financial pressures - I don't criticize this as I import material myself - however it is not a truly sustainable approach.)
One of the benefits of preparation is that we can fast track our soils to better health using the leverage of technology. It is important to understand principles of sustainability but I personally have no qualms about using imported organic material and biological fertilizers to build my soil.

Tall - you are quite right about the nitrogen deficit in the soil after adding mulches high in structural carbon - like straw, sawdust etc. To me this is short term pain for long term gain. It does boost the humus content in the soil and provided you are aware of the issue you can add nitrogen on a short term basis.

Blackeagle - have you thought about building compost piles on your garden beds. I build them at the end of a bed and change the locations each year, The juice that drains out goes straight into the soil I'll be growing veges in next year.

I'm definitely going to do some experiments based on this podcast

Aloha! As Chris has seen on his last visit to the Big Island I grow orchids and tropicals. This type of farming uses no soil as all the plants can grow in rock or on trees or just about any surface except dirt! Although it is a water intensive endeavor most of the water falls out of the Hawaii sky. I have no heating or cooling in my greenhouses and fuel consumption is virtually nothing.
I am in formative stages of hydroponics and algaculture. I am exploring the efficiency. Exxon bought out one of the largest developers of algae production for $600mil a few years ago. Certainly Hawaii and algae are well suited. To give you a peek here is a brief study from MIT, Mission 2015 Biodiversity

One very interesting project I was following is the Sahara Farm Project utilizing sea water for greenhouse food production and energy. Is it viable? Certainly we need to move into that technology more than we need to move resources into discovering the next new iScam!

Always … always … always … profit is the key. Why would we spend taxpayer funds on government projects that produce 75 kilos of cucumbers at a cost of $20 per cucumber? Viability per acre is what we must seek. Who used to talk about market efficiency all the time? I think he was on Oprah once a long time ago!

For someone in farming or any business to tell me they gross $100k per acre without telling me the net per acre is like saying I gross $1bil per acre! May as well say $1tril! Here at my farm I gross $88k per acre, but my net depends on many factors. If you are a farmer then you know there is no such thing as a 9-5 day and a 40hr work week! If you are doing that then you must be a cotton farmer in Mississippi getting a USDA subsidy! Or you're growing pot and poppies!!! Without getting into the esthetics of family farming where we are all one with the Earth it comes down to dollars and cents! At the end of the day did you make a profit? 

Net could vary widely depending on whether you sell to Whole Foods Hollywood or you're at a Farmers Market. I can sell a single orchid blossom for $0.03 on island or export it to California and get $0.22 per blossom at Tommy Bahamas in Laguna Beach. Exporting to California is a huge markup! I can sell one 40in deluxe orchid spray to Ralph Lauren in NYC for $3 each or sell them on the island for $1.15 each. Same with overhead. If I buy in bulk online from greenhouse suppliers in Oregon I get a better price than buying local. If you import compost then that eats into profitability on top of sustainability. Part of my cost efficiency is the lack of energy costs. Year round I have no heaters or coolers in my greenhouses. I need no tractors or vehicles. Compare that to McLellans in Half Moon Bay, Ca that has over 50 acres of orchid greenhouses all heated and cooled. With catchment and open shade growing I hardly pay anything for water costs. My biggest cost is labor. I run on a 33% profit margin for exports and a 21% for local sales. Averaging I net around $24k per acre. Now if I add in my time and if my time is worth $50/hr with time and half for overtime then it is more like a net of $8k. Is a farmer worth $50/hr? At this point I am not sure a Congressman or CEO of Goldman Sachs is worth minimum wage based on what they produce that actually benefits mankind in even a minimal criteria. I don't know what should we pay people who destroyed the global Middle Class? Hmmmm ‚Ķ maybe what the world needs now is more farmers and a lot less lawyers and bankers!

Many mahalos to the Kaisers for your dedication. To farm is not an easy life. Way too many city dwellers take farmers for granted and overall I think McDonalds workers should get $15/hr minimum wage when farm workers do! Between government and incorporated vultures family farming is one step away from being an endangered lifestyle. The same as the US small business sector. In the end you have to diversify and innovate to survive!

 

The mulch I added originally had a lot of chicken manure in it.  There was also quite a bit of human urine added to the pile. I also added well aged horse manure and about 1/4 the recommended amount of Epsoma fertilizer directly to the soil maybe a month ago. Hopefully that will be plenty of nitrogen to aid the final decomposition without robbing the soil.

My rule of thumb has been to only add finished compost to the growing beds and to use raw mulch in the pathways. The mulch will decompose and tie up nitrogen in the walkways where that is not an issue, but will eventually add to the total organic matter content of the garden.
Hopefully in a follow-up interview we can drill down into the inputs they use to keep their system going. 

Chris

[quote]Truthfully, there's nothing like experience, but even with that I am struggling with the drought we are experiencing.  On April 22 we received 0.06" of rain which evaporated as soon as it hit the ground.  Since then, two full months later, we've only had one other rain 'event' which was 0.22" on May 19.  We are now short by some 7.8 inches of normal precipitation over the past two months.[/quote]

I know you are only a few hundred miles away, but still in the same time zone.  I thought for a bit I had missed something.  It is only slightly over a month since April 22.  Does that change your calculations?

That said, the whole question of compost is of great importance to me.  I just can't figure out how to generate enough to meet my needs.  If the Kaisers and Fortier are buying theirs from offsite, that answers a lot of questions.  I have a free source of cow manure which is great,  and I build heaps of manure, grass clippings and last fall's leaves, layered with soil from the site.  This has worked well in the past, but the beds require ongoing additions of aged compost and mulch.  This is all labor intensive and seems to be contrary to the notion of permaculture.  

I have found that cardboard is a terrific mulch for trees and shrubs, particularly when I heap straw/chicken manure on top.  The manure composts as the cardboard breaks down.  I apply this in the summer after the daffodils have died back.  By the following spring it is humus through which the daffodils emerge, thus beginning the cycle again.

Also, this year I'm more intensively using comfrey around the trees to create "chop and drop" mulch as well as nutrient additions.  I would urge caution with comfrey.  Last year I used chopped comfrey leaves as mulch in my garden beds.  To my surprise new plants sprouted from the chopped leaves.  I can see how comfrey can become quite invasive if not handled carefully.

Doug

Somewhere near the inner city, but on a good ten acres of uncontaminated soil, put such a garden. The deal is you can come and work the garden according to plan, and use your hours to bid on the produce… but the first hour is spent in public (out loud) Bible reading and private (silent) prayer.
After that, the rule is monastic: talk only as necessary, sung hymns the only music.
Point being, the poor can work the garden and profit from it, while still working jobs like crazy when they can get them.
Just a thought…

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By Carolina dandelion, I am guessing you mean the very toxic. Mountain dandelion. People should be aware: not all dandelions are edible.

You are very right that the profit is an important part of the equation. To get the profit up for small operations, I strongly suggest reading ‚ÄúThe Incredible Secret Money Machine II‚ÄĚ by Don Lancaster. It used to be a paperback book; if you prefer that format, you can find it on Amazon.com.
However, part of max profit is minimum expense: you can read it for free on Don Lancaster’s website, or download it in PDF:
http://www.tinaja.com/ismm01.shtml

Thank you for your kind words. I wanted to reply to a few questions and comments, in this case, regarding insecticides: You've probably heard of the pesticide treadmill… The idea is that pesticides/insecticides kill indiscriminately, which means they kill beneficial insects, some pollinators, and, of course, pest insects. If you think about the life cycles of beneficial insects (often predatory insects) versus pest insects (the prey), it's a lot like cheetahs, lions, bobcats, and tigers (predators) versus rabbits, cockroaches, mice, and rats (pests/prey) - predators have very long gestation rates with very few young, pests/prey have very quick gestation rates with huge numbers of young, meaning if you use a pesticide that kills both beneficials and pests, guess which ones come back fastest? The pests! Hence, as soon as you begin to use a pesticide (even an organic one), you've created a situation where pests will repopulate your fields much more rapidly than the beneficials/predators will, and so you'll NEED more pesticides… hence the pesticide treadmill.
Also a comment on leaving roots in the ground: For a long time we did NOT leave roots in the ground because it interferes with the transplanting of the next crop, or, more specifically, when we're rapidly transplanting by hand, it's highly likely that fingers will jab into an old, woody stem hidden beneath the new layer of compost and the person might get a sliver of something up under the fingernail - a very unpleasant experience. Despite this hesitancy, we've instituted a number of innovations (not gloves and trowels, they slow us down) which has helped us to leave roots in the ground and transplant the next crop without injury. Employee morale is always important!

Great discussions, and lots of excellent wisdom and experience out there!
I'll share with you a bit about our compost use, however, I also want to begin with the notion that importing material makes any farming system unsustainable‚Ķ A soil scientist at UC Davis once said cities are like Human CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), we send in tons of food, antibiotics, energy and nutrients, and the result is waste and pollution. As a civilization, we've begun to improve our capture and diversion of aluminum, glass, plastic, paper, etc., from the waste stream to recycling and reuse, but what about our nitrogen and carbon waste? Ideally, all nutrients that cycle through our various human uses can be recaptured for reuse or upcycling, rather than recycling (as per William McDonough and Michael Braungart's book, Cradle to Cradle). Food scraps, yard clippings and other biological waste that is not composted create nitrogen, methane and carbon pollution (among others) which affects our atmosphere and oceans.

By contrast, one way to define a farmer is: someone who is in the business of exporting nutrients off of their property. A farmer can not export nutrients off of their property forever, they will deplete the nutrients and minerals at the very least (unless they have periodic floods or volcanic fallout). In other words, importing compost onto a farm is helping to make that farm, and the community they feed, sustainable. It's all about creating closed loop nutrient cycles. Pollution is just a nutrient stream that is open ended (not a closed loop).

All of our food we grow is sold within a 10 mile radius of our farm, and our purchased compost comes to us from 10 miles away and is composted material from our municipal curbside pick-up (certified for organic use). We purchase about 60% of the compost we use, we produce the other 40% (plant-based compost) from the leftover detritus after harvest. A compost blanket does wonders to speed the composting process and reduce moisture and nutrient loss. However, compost is not the only tool in our tool box, hence why we love to refer to the USDA's four basic principles of better soil management which we condense into three: 1) disturb the soil as little as possible (ie: no-till); 2) keep a diversity of living plants in the ground as often as possible (photosynthesis is the major source of food for beneficial soil microbes); and 3) keep the soil covered and protected as much as possible (mulch, mulch, mulch… to maintain a healthier climate and conditions for the beneficial soil organisms and to reduce evaporation and the volatilization of nutrients). Tillage-based farming is the complete opposite of these three principles of better soil management.

The Rodale Institute just completed a 30 year trial of various tillage techniques to see their effects on soil organic matter (SOM). After 30 years, their trial with high organic inputs and low-intensive tillage did the best, bringing their SOM from 2.1% to 2.6% (over 30 years). By contrast, our no-till approach brought our SOM from 2.4% to over 8% in just 5 years - and this was from deep testing (9-12 inches) where we never applied compost. Tillage has been the driving factor behind the loss of almost two-thirds of planetary soil carbon, most of it lost in the last century. We can't solve the problem of the degradation of our SOM and the loss of soil carbon by using tillage‚Ķ you can't use the same tools and thinking to solve the problem as created the problem in the first place!

Quercus bicolor, you nailed it on the carrots, radishes and cutting lettuces - those do need to be direct seeded. We also direct seed our beans, peas and occasionally cilantro and arugula because with these crops we need tens of thousands of plants for our 120 member CSA, and transplanting just doesn't make sense with those quantities. Our direct-sown seeds we sow into a prepared, freshly composted bed (nice warm, black earth to speed germination). For the beans and peas, we pre-soak the seeds for 48-72 hours and sow when germination has begun (the seeds are swollen and the little tails begin to stick out). After sowing (for all of these seeds), we cover the bed with a roll of burlap - this shades the soil keeping the moisture up and the temperature swings down which enhances germination and reduces water use. Once germination is complete, we pull off the burlap for reuse and cover the bed with a light duty frost blanket to continue to provide an ideal habitat (and reduced evaporation) as well as pest exclusion for the young seedlings.
For the seeds we sow in the nursery for transplanting, we use standard 6-packs with about 1.25" x 1.5" x 1.75" deep planting cells. These offer far larger root balls than Speedling trays or other 100 cell type trays. The larger root balls mean larger, more vigorous transplants with more time in the nursery and less time in the fields. The benefits to using transplants includes (but is not limited to): 1) less time in the fields and so less available to pests and diseases; 2) less time in the fields and so more sequential crops per year; 3) the plants' most vulnerable stage is in the protected nursery; 4) 100% bed cover with healthy, harvestable plants in the fields (even if you only have 70% germination in the nursery); and 5) a second dose of nutrients (one at sowing and second at transplanting) which reduces the need for "side-dressing" with fertilizers half-way through growth. Tim, our nursery manager sows roughly 5-8,000 seeds by hand (one seed per cell, no wasted time on thinning later) for one day every week. One of my farm crew can transplant about 4,000 plants in an 8 hour day by hand (not counting bed prep and watering them in afterwards) while talking, laughing, and having fun (employee morale is key)!

Great questions! As I've mentioned a couple of times now, employee morale is the key to any undertaking, and we love our awesome farm crew! We have almost a dozen people working anywhere from 5 hours a week to 40 hours a week (nobody works more than a 40 hour week here on the farm). All of our employees have as many hours per week as they want with complete flexibility in their schedules. We pay between $12 and $16 per hour to all of our employees (we wish we could do more). Most of our employees are permanent, year-round employees (ie: with job security). By comparison, our neighbor farmers in the county pay between $9 and $11 per hour (or do work trades) and their employees work 55 to 65 hour weeks and then are let go in the autumn with no prospects for local farm employment until spring.
As noted, our gross (not profit) is up to $100,000 per crop acre per year, and most of that is returned to our permanent employees! If you add in the dramatic benefits to our soil organic matter and carbon sequestration, it's a win, win, win situation.

You paint a pretty nifty picture, how all the pieces fit together in your farm ecosystem.  Everything makes sense, but there's no way I'd have sorted any of this out by myself.
I'm guessing a substantial amount of your margin comes by selling direct to consumer rather than via a store.  It makes sense to do this because you can use your ultra quality as a selling point.  As a produce buyer, I'd definitely prefer to know where my produce comes from.  I can't tell just by looking at some vegetable how it was treated, or where it grew, what soil it was in, or what was sprayed on it, etc.

I'd love to do a blind taste test with your products.  Conventional, general organic, and yours.  Especially juiced.  I find there is a big difference in juice quality when using better vegetables.

I do find myself asking Kaimu's question: net margins.   Is this my ticket to Farmer Easy Street?  Or do you give all your money to employees?  This is a bit personal so I understand you might be reluctant to answer.  Roughly speaking, I'd like to know if its possible to make a reasonable living out of 3 acres.

Quick check shows some farm land in your area for about $200k/acre.  Unless you have cash to buy, that's (perhaps) $3k/month in payments for 30 years.

Possible to make payments + receive a reasonable income + pay employees + water/compost/seed costs?

SingingFrogsFarm, Thank you for taking the time to clarify some of our queries. The flashbulb moment for me this time was reading your third post. I have got in the habit of sowing seeds into trays, pricking out seedlings into 6 packs and then planting out. The pricking out phase is quite time consuming.  Sowing direct into 6 packs makes sense even if you only get 70% germination as you say - unused seed mix can be recycled and the labor saving is significant.
Thanks again for the valuable insights.

I'm amazed at how psyched everyone is!  No-till gardening rocks!  We raked and raked and raked our little hearts out this past fall and early spring and almost all of my fields are mulched.  It makes such a difference.  In some places I use cardboard first then cover it with mulching material.  My favorite material is leaf litter.  With the cardboard in place it should minimize the effect of sucking out nutrients while the mulching material decomposes.  Worms and little roaches love the cardboard.
It's hard to describe the number of worms in my gardens.  In February I planted potatoes about 4 or 5 inches down,  and I could not believe the worms!  You could see multiple, multiple worm holes along the walls of the trench I dug  and of course lots of worms.

In over 4 years, I've only sprayed one time for an aphid infestation on my Chinese long beans and I used Dr. Bronner's lavender soap, a little vegetable oil, and water.  Sprayed twice and aphids gone.

I notice my zucchini lasts a lot longer when mulched and the yellowing fungus, so common in squashes, is practically non-existent.

Chopping and dropping is the way to go, then top off the bed with more compost, plant and mulch.  It's a magical formula for healthy, nutritious, and pest free plants.

 

 

Until this year, I did the same thing:  only mulched between the rows on the walkways.  This is the first year I've mulched my beds and the walkways, and it's a huge difference. The weeds are way, way down, holding much more moisture, and the plants are loving it.
The zucchini has not gotten all moldy and yellow, they are holding up a lot longer than usual.

This is incredibly inspiring. The biggest revelation for me was not pulling up the harvested plants, but rather cutting them off at or slightly below ground level so that the roots remain there to work their magic, and then planting a new crop right on top of them (over a layer of compost) the same day. Just wow. On so many levels. 

Excellent podcast!  Very inspiring.  I'm currently reading some books on permaculture and this was super interesting.

[quote=SingingFrogsFarm]

We purchase about 60% of the compost we use, we produce the other 40% (plant-based compost) from the leftover detritus after harvest.[/quote]

I'd like to know what you think of the approach of John Jeavons up in Willits. http://www.johnjeavons.info/

I attended a demo day a couple of years ago and was impressed by his growing 60% of his crops for his soil, though some, like sunflowers, are dual purpose. He imports no compost, has NO insect damage without using pesticides. Every pound of food he takes out produces 12 lbs of top soil, the inverse of standard industrialized agriculture. And with 1/8th the water. His approach can feed a person a vegan diet with 1/4 acre, instead of the 40 acres it takes for American carniovers. He quips: "Don't grow food; grow soil!"

Thanks for the interview‚Ķ great work!