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Soil Microbial Biodiversity

2 Mar

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By far one of the best events for Hello Farm Organics this winter was all about our soil. Not gonna lie, we work really hard to improve, maintain and care for our soil. Its hands-down the most important part of growing healthy, tasty, and hardy organic food. We have been blessed again this year with support from Share The Love for Japan. One of their projects is to support organic farmers in improving soil conditions. We were able to send soil samples to DGC Technologies  for testing, specifically for beneficial soil bacteria through their Soil Biodiversity Project. This is the second year we’ve been able to do this and wow, we have learned so much! In all honesty, this is still all very new for us, but it turns out its pretty new for most of the world. According to DGC’s website, they are one of the only research companies doing soil microbial biodiversity testing on a commercial scale for farmers, in the world! I also noticed they use some NASA technologies in their testing. How cool is that! Here’s how it works.

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These images show two micro plates, which are 95 bacteria cultures each (plus one control I assume) tested using the soil sample we sent. We collected soil from 20 locations in our main garden, at about 20-30cm deep, mixed it well, and mailed it to DGC Technologies in Tsukuba, Japan. The first (top) image is from our 2016 soil sample, which was concluded to be excellent soil with an average of 1.2 million active detectable beneficial bacteria, per 1g of soil. The second image is from 2017 and shows an average of 1.5 million per 1g. We have learned that healthy soil with an average between 1 and 1.3 million bacteria is ideal for producing delicious veggies. But 1.5 million is a different dimension in which compost ‘may’ not even be needed. The bacteria produces all the nutrition the plants require. So in other words, we have super amazing healthy soil! Here is a breakdown of the levels. (sorry, only Japanese)

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We have also learned that the reality is, only 1% of the bacteria in soil is currently measurable, meaning 99% of the billion + microorganism in 1g of soil is not even on our radar yet in terms of classification and identification. Its just too many! This test has been developed to measure only an average, for only beneficial bacteria, at only about 1% of the possible bacteria, in 1g of soil (over 95 trials). I’m not sure if I am explaining this correctly, or if I completely understand the process yet. I also get lost in translation with so much technical Japanese language. But being a graduate of Biological Sciences, I am super keen to learn more and decode all this fascinating information. My weary Japanese husband must feel like he is on trial with all my translation questions!

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I have to be honest, I am astonished at what we have been gifted here. In Canada (when I was last farming their in 2008), the only soil testing available to my organic farm business was a standard soil test that covered pH, micronutrients, Nitrogen, soil tilth and structure, extractable nutrients like Phosphorus and Potassium, and of course organic matter. This was all very valuable information when planning our next crops, amendments and processes to add to the garden. But learning about the living microbial biodiversity within our soil has really opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about farming.

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Because this is relatively newly available technology for farmers (and still very expensive), there is growing excitement and learning to be had around how soil microbial biodiversity can be utilized to its full potential. When we started farming here in Kyoto about 6 years ago, we had heard rumblings about the benefits of bacteria from our no-till farmer friends, the local organic movement, even conventional-growing neighbours that added interested amendments like sesame seed husks, rice husks, burnt bamboo and rice ash, etc. to their soil.  Apparently all these things promote healthy bacteria in the soil. Japan is also a culture of fermented foods, with well-known and understood knowledge of the benefits of gut bacteria and its connection to human health. So I am guessing that its a natural leap to connect this to soil bacteria as well. I mean, it makes sense to me now to imagine that a healthy biodiversity of gut bacteria, and a healthy biodiversity of soil bacteria would both reap amazing benefits. Our next step is to figure out how to keep this trajectory going, how to manage it, and how to maximize on its potential for high yielding, delicious organic vegetables.

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So how did we achieve this level of diverse beneficial bacteria in our soil? Well….

I HAVE NO IDEA!

Luck?

We of course adopt and adapt to whatever knowledge we have gleaned over the years from our neighbours. But in all honesty, we don’t feel like experts even remotely. We are figuring things out as we go. We love experimenting. We prioritize the soil, conscientiously. But here are some ways we think MAY have contributed to this awesome and unexpected outcome. (and by the way, we did have some problems in that garden, so it was in no way perfect)

  • Compost– We add our own home made weed compost as much as possible to our soil. We also add other composts like bark and leaf compost when we can, sometimes animal manures that’s been composted, but we have really scaled-back on animal products on the farm. The bark compost bag we buy even states that a small amount incorporated in the mix will inoculate the soil with beneficial bacteria. If our weed compost heaps do not reach hot enough temperatures to kill weed seeds during the composting process, we have discovered that burying the compost deep down the centre of the bed is sufficient enough to allow our crop roots to reach the nutrients, but deep enough that the weed seed cannot outcompete. Now we are making the connection that the plant diversity in our weed compost, much like Biodynamic techniques, may offer lots of beneficial bacteria as well.

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  • Garden bed prep- For most beds we always add amendments, water, rototill, and securely cover with clear plastic at least 2-4 weeks prior to seeding. I know, this is a lot of planning, but so worth it. We have noticed a huge difference in lowered pest outbreaks like flea beetles and aphids, and less weeds. The idea is the plastic superheats the top layer of the bed, killing the pest larvae and eggs that live there, but simultaneously allows beneficial bacteria and fungi to grow deeper underground, in warm moist conditions. Once we seed or transplant into this bed, the roots of our veggie crop will quickly have access to the bacteria already setting up shop below.

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  • Crop rotation– We are diligent about not growing the same family of plants in one location for two consecutive seasons. We carefully map, record and plan what crops grow where, in a succession of completely different families. For example: a leaf crop follows a root crop, which follows a brassica crop, which follows a legume, which follows a fruit crop, etc. This ensures that nutrients, micro nutrients, and now possibly bacteria, are not depleted or starved out, and keeps the soil from getting “tired” with repeating crops.
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Zenryu is carefully planning using the garden map for each bed.

  • Companion planting– We never shy away from experimenting with plants that may grow well together. It saves space, can attract beneficial wildlife like bees and frogs, and is ideal for successional harvesting; like harvesting the quick growing lettuce before the green onions (see picture below). We’ve read and learned that many plants produce stronger, tastier fruits when planted next to a companion that has a symbiotic relationship with the other. In some cases, they even protect each other from pests, but we’ve also read that their roots intertwine and help each other access beneficial fungi and bacteria. For example; basil grows well with tomatoes, carrots grow well with tomatoes, beens with squash, etc. We’ve learned that companions still need room though. Don’t plant them too close! (this picture is a bit too close in our opinion)

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  • Green manures and grains– Similar to crop rotation, we have also learned that letting an intensely managed veggie garden rest for a season here and there is hugely beneficial. For example, the field we had tested for microbial biodiversity was an organic rice field 3 seasons prior. We firmly believe that this is critical for “resting” the soil and in turn, probably helping the bacteria flourish, too. Green manures are similar but are often grown for the sole purpose of adding nitrogen or other nutrients to the soil, and not for harvesting grains. For example: growing clover, oats, wheat, buckwheat or alfalfa, and ploughing them into the soil before they produce grains, would be considered a green manure. We are now really wondering if our year of rice played a big role in this year’s test results. What do you think?
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This is the field we recently had tested for microbial biodiversity. Three years ago, our amazing volunteers helped hand weed it when it was in organic rice production. That was the hardest crop we have EVER grown. Truth!

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This is the same field last year.

We are obviously thrilled at this amazing news that our soil rocks, but we are very much aware that we are still learning a lot. We can’t say for certain that all of these techniques are directly contributing to healthy microbial biodiversity, but given our soil test results, we now feel compelled to think that our techniques very likely contributed in some way. There’s also the sheer dumb luck of acquiring great land, clean mountain water, clean air, lots of worms, and great animal and wildlife biodiversity in this part of Kyoto. We can’t wait for spring to arrive so we can forge ahead and keep studying this fascinating micro universe under our feet.

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Snow, Greenhouse, Miso

1 Mar

Gosh we learn so much, every single day. There is certainly never a dull moment at Hello Farm Organics. Here are some highlights from the past 3 months.

In the autumn, we scored big with some beautiful veggies and fungi. It was our best year for daikon radish varieties and turnip. We were especially carful about preparing the beds 2 to 4 weeks before seeding, which we now know if absolutely necessary in our organic garden. We add all soil amendments, water and rototill the beds before covering them with clear plastic. This allows the top layer of the bed to superheat, killing pest insect larvae and eggs, as well as some weed seed. Trust us, it gets too hot to touch some days! But this treatment also supports beneficial bacteria and fungi to establish themselves in the warm humid conditions deeper underground, giving seedlings tons of nutrition as they grow.

Although there was tons of snow, that didn’t stop the Nappa cabbage and baby salad mix from growing strong under extra hoops and floating row cover, and of course in the greenhouses. We never heat our greenhouses and rely on passive solar heating, tunnels with floating row cover and plastic to hold the heat overnight. We also strategically place lots of large water containers inside the greenhouse. Having standing water in a greenhouse can help moderate the climate inside by slowly releasing heat overnight, and then cooling the hot greenhouse during the day. Its a win-win.

Unfortunately, the deer were getting very aggressive at destroying our fencing to reach our veggies. We had record amounts of snow this year making it hard for deer to find food. They were so hungry, the even started digging up plastic row cover to reach the daikon radish underground, like a wild boar might do. Crazy! They ate 100% of our kale, cabbage, broccoli and chicory. The snowman is meant to scare them. Didn’t work. And yes, that is a sling shot.

We decided to do a little professional development at The Little Farm Thailand this winter. It was a wonderful sharing and learning experience for us. We learned about raising chickens, goats, and ducks, and a bit about organic fruit production like bananas, papaya and pineapple. As you can see, they have lots of animal friends on the farm helping us out.

Unfortunately, when we returned to Japan we discovered one of our greenhouses had collapsed under the record-breaking amount of snow in our area. Many of our neighbours also lost their greenhouses. We’ve since learned that older greenhouses tend to collapse first because of algae growing on the roof plastic, which snow clings to, rather than sliding off, like on new plastic. In the pictures, you can see how we had to crawl under the collapsed snow-filled centre of the greenhouse to harvest some of our baby salad mix. Unfortunately, we cannot save this greenhouse as its structural integrity is completely compromised. But we will salvage valuable metal poles and likely keep the walls as a barrier agains wildlife. Roof’s gotta go!

A highlight for us was learning how to make miso with our good friend Jun Hoshino-sensei. It took 10 adults, 6 kids, 3 hours, 25Kg cooked soy beans, 25Kg koji (fermented rice), and 5Kg salt to make 50Kg of miso. OMG it was already tasting good even though it needs a minimum of 8 months to ferment!!! Honestly, learning together offer the best memory-makers.

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Is Coming…

29 Nov

We are so ready for the winter! We feel so blessed to have had another fruitful and successful growing season. We managed to dodge the typhoons, earthquakes, flooding and land slides this year! There is no shortage of challenges though, with a peek in the flee beetle and cutworm populations, not to mention a rogue monkey! But overall, its been a great season.

We’ve acquired a bit more land nearby to expand again next year, 2017. This land will also give our main gardens a much-needed break. We plan to seed cover crops and green manures like oats, buckwheat and possibly wheat to encourage the soil to recover from the intensive vegetable production over the past 5 years. Certainly some clover in the mix, too.

With two full-time farmers on the loose at Hello Farm Organics, plus amazing regular volunteers through the WWOOF Japan network, its no wonder our gardens felt more under control than ever. Blessings!!!!

Pictures say more than words:

We save over 30 varieties of heritage tomato seeds now. This is Isis Candy Cherry.

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Our Veggie Box program grew this year. We hope to continue developing this program next summer.

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Left side= 100% loss to flea beetles. Right side= 100% successful harvest. You win some, you lose some!

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Share The Love Japan continues to be some of our recurring customers and supporters. Many hands make light work.

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Cilantro (aka Coriander) (called Pakchi in Japan)

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Some of our garden helpers doing their job. Thanks, guys!

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Colourful veggie mixes is one of our signature things now…

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Nadia from Australia helped us plant 0ver 1000 bulb onions. Yet another amazing volunteer.

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We now also sell at this charming veggie shop called Soil Annex, a branch of our main distributors; www.on-the-slope.com

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Black, white, red inside, red outside- all daikon radish! And some carrots.

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Greenhouse full of baby salad mix.

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Koshin Daikon; white skin but fuchsia pink on the inside.

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Ava with some Shogoin Daikon. So fun to grow!

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Welcoming Change

11 Sep

The one constant in life is change. Since spring, we’ve grown our customer base to include stores in Kyushu, Tokyo, and Osaka. We now sell at the local michinoeki (local farm store) as well. We feel so blessed that we’ve been able to expand this year. This is in part due to being better organized and experienced growing in Japan, but also because we now have two full-time farmers working the land! Ava has decided to take a sabbatical from teaching for a while to concentrate on developing the farm. To that end, we are also now ready to expand our veggie box program. Some of you may have noticed we did not advertise our box program this spring. This was because we were too overwhelmed with maintaining the garden and keeping our current customers happy. But now, with two farmers, we feel much better prepared to grow in other ways as well.

Here are some highlights from this season so far:

  • We are expending our food box program and general sales markets, including the local farmer’s market store. Please tell your friends who may be organic and heirloom vegetable enthusiasts. Thanks!

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This is an example of one of our food boxes from September, 2016. (beets, swiss chard, acorn squash, UFO zucchini, colourful potatoes, Genovese basil, mixed sweet peppers, mixed heritage tomatoes, hot peppers, mixed eggplant, baby salad mix, lemon basil, Japanese sweet peppers)14102437_671469483000812_4569010224098244907_nWe’ve had to create labels to inform our new customers about who we are. These packages of colourful sweet peppers were sold at Woody Keihoku, our local farmer’s market store.

  • We’ve continued experimenting with more heritage varieties of vegetables this year including Japanese heritage spinach, a few new tomato varieties, Japanese piman peppers, makuwa musk melon, several baby salad mix varieties, dry beans, Japanese native mint, white okra, a Japanese Blue Hubbard winter squash, and sweet potatoes.

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This is Japanese heritage spinach seed. Very interesting shape, no?

  • We’ve had our volunteer roster filled for the entire season, months in advance. We feel so lucky to constantly be blessed with great help through WWOOF Japan.

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Some of our awesome volunteers. We love you!
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  • We will have our first Girl Scouts group visit us this September, from Kobe, to enjoy a farm tour and garden project and program, such as planting seeds and seedlings.
  • We had a bumper crop of sweet peppers.
  • We are now both full-time farmers. Yeah!

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Ava and Zenryu, the main farmers.

  • We will be exploring some new green manures (cover crops for soil improvement and crop rotation) such as buckwheat (soba), winter wheat, and clover.
  • We are considering adding another tambo (rice field-turned garden) to our garden roster for the spring of 2017. This is mainly to give our primary garden a break from the intensive vegetable production it has given us for the past 5 years. It is important to rest land using green manures or cover crops on a 4 or 5 year rotation if possible.
  • Like always we’ve added more varieties of self-collected seed to our list, including 6 varieties of peppers, 5 varieties of string and dry beans, more tomatoes, 4 kinds of basil, bulb and green onion, 4 varieties of lettuce and white okra.

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Some of the seeds we have saved this year.

Like always, thank you so much to all our awesome customers. We could not survive without your business and support. Nor could we afford to both be working full-time on the farm. Big changes! Big adventure! As one of our amazing WWOOFers once told us, “no risk, no fun!”

Ganbarimasho! We can do it!

Spring Awakens Early

12 Mar

So long winter! Climate change is really showing itself this year with such warm days in mid-winter. We have experienced the warmest winter yet in our 5 years here in Keihoku, Kyoto. Although this picture shows a wintery Keihoku landscape, the total snowfall was also very low.

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On the one hand, warmer weather means we can get started in the garden earlier than usual, but it also means that pests like cutworms get an advantage. Deeper frost and lower temperatures can help alleviate some of the pest pressures on our crops but eliminating some of their larvae and eggs. But we are anticipating a challenging spring given the warmer weather, which means higher survival rates of a variety of insects. Our game plan is to use increasingly more floating row cover to protect our young plants.

Seedlings have begun sprouting under our full-spectrum grow lights with eggplant and peppers being the first to germinate in February.

In early March we also seeded 22 varieties of heritage tomatoes, along with parsley, basil, kale and head lettuce. The cooler weather crops will get a head start this year with warmer days.

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In fact, it has been so warm, that we spotted amphibian action already! These are Japanese fire belly newts (Cynops pyrrhogaster) , win the salamander family. These babies were found under some rotting logs in our garden.

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This year, we will once again offer our weekly organic food box program to families wishing to receive veggies directly from the farm. We will start the program in June. Families can purchase weekly, bi-weekly or monthly, depending on their needs. There is no long-term commitment required, keeping the box program flexible for traveling families over the summer holidays. Simply contact us one week prior to your desired deliver date and we will reserve you a spot. Please visit our Facebook Page at Hello Farm Organics for more regular updates on our organic veggie box program.

 

Thank you, On The Slope!

27 May

IMG_0122Here is a fantastic article written about our partners and primary distributors, On The Slope (Sakanotochu). They were featured in the online journal, Cultivated Days. It is beautifully written and really highlights their innumerable strengths as an organization, worldly vision, sustainability projects, and relentless commitment. We are honoured to be partners with, and supported by them. Ganbatte Nippon!

http://www.cultivateddays.com/article/slope

As you will read, On The Slope have planted many seeds for the future of food security in Japan.

Thank you, On The Slope!

2015 Veggie Box Program

20 May

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Dear new and returning Hello Farm Organics customers,

We are delighted to announce that our 2015 Veggie Box Program is ready to start on June 1st.

This year, we are offering a medium-sized, mixed veggie box for 3000 yen. Each box will contain about 8 to 12 different vegetables. The veggies are chosen and harvested by us and will come in quantities that reflect seasonal availability. Based on customer feedback, our box can supplement the diet of two adults for about a week. If you have a bigger family, we can put the equivalent of two boxes worth of veggies into one larger box for the same shipping fee.

We will continue using the Japan Post refrigerated delivery service as it is the cheapest we can find in our rural area. Shipping prices depend on where you live.

  • Kansai deliveries are 1200 yen
  • Kanto deliveries are 1400 yen
  • Others, please inquire.

Deliveries will continue to arrive on Monday evenings, after 8pm.

Our box program is designed for flexibility. Some customers reserve weekly, while others buy once per month and skip July while they are away on holidays. The choice is yours. We recommend reserving the dates you want well in advance (a month ahead is advised) to ensure availability, as we have limited space. We reserve on a first come, first serve basis, with a minimum one week’s notice.

Our first deliveries will start on Monday, June 1st, then continue every Monday after that until December, or when the snow is too deep to dig out veggies!

Payment options will include money transfers at your bank’s ATM or by mail. We will email you instructions when we confirm your order reservation.

If you are not already doing so, please following us on Facebook at Hello Farm Organics for frequent updates and photos. We sometimes advertise sales for those interested in bulk orders. For example, last year we sold slightly imperfect tomatoes at a discount for juicing and canning. Please contact us with questions and reservations. Tell a friend who may also be interested in our veggie box program. We would appreciate it! We look forward to hearing from you and sharing our vegetables.

Happy eating!

Ava and Zenryu

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