Early Spring Newsletter

It is meteorological spring and astronomical spring is not far off.  The days are getting longer faster. The sun is higher and warmer even if the air is cold. It is warm enough to melt the ice even when the air temperature is 20ºF . Birds are starting to sing in the morning. The swans are moving around. Believe it or not, winter is coming to an end.

The best thing is that we seem to be moving into a wetter weather pattern.  A lot of the moisture in the snow will run off since the ground is still frozen.  Looking at the soil temperature plots at the UofM’s St. Paul Campus, the soil below 20 inches is thawed. Above 20 inches it was thawing, but the past few days have pushed it below freezing again. If the soil thaws before the snow melts, some of the moisture will soak in and help recharge the subsoil. Even the runoff will help refill the rivers, lakes, and marshes. The National Weather Service is not predicting flooding in Delano this spring.

I fired up the greenhouse last week. The water heater that I use for a heat source does not do very well with the high humidity and being shut off for 8 months out of the year. Corrosion and mice are big problems. Mice are the worst. This unit has a ‘sealed’ combustion chamber, except the inlet air vents are just exactly mouse sized holes. Needless to say, they have filled the inlet air vents with milkweed fuzz, water heater insulation, etc. So now it is working with an unsealed combustion chamber.

The heater is big enough to keep the greenhouse at least 40ºF when the outside temperature is 20º F ( the normal high is 39º and the normal low is 20º at this time of year). When it is below zero in the morning it is a little touch and go. I have turned the heater up all the way and am putting two layers of row cover over the onion flats to keep them from freezing.  Elliot Coleman claims that he can keep things from freezing at -15º F in an unheated hoophouse with two layers of row cover. I wonder what I’m doing wrong…  Actually, I think he is full of it.


This year I’m seeding about 60,000 onions. Germination rates are typically 70% so the actual number of plants will probably be 25% more than last year. The big increases are in cippolini and shallots. They both store very well and we always run out long before they start to go bad.

There are also some great storage varieties. Dakota Tears ( from Prairie Road Organic Seeds) and Redwing keep very well. The Dakota Tears are all gone, but they were rock hard right to the very end. Some of the reds are getting a little soft. Some drying out is to be expected, they were harvested 6 months ago.

Seeds are mostly on hand. Another order, of hybrid tomato and pepper seed, should arrive today.  I’m hedging my bets on the saved seed a little bit. It is unlikely that all my big red tomatoes had crossed with the cherries and produced a bunch of junk, but it will be interesting to see if there is a noticeable difference between the seeds that have had a chance to become a little adapted to our conditions. Speaking of saved seeds, the kale and cabbage plants in the root cellar are looking a little sad.  I’m sure that they will survive to produce seed, but it would be nice to set them outside on nice days to get them some sun and fresh air.  That’s unlikely to happen since the crates full of damp dirt are very heavy.

Mary is involved with the Delano Food Council and is busy planning for this summer’s Downtown (Delano) Farmers Market. It is a great little market, right by the river, with grass, shade, a cafe, etc. I’m going to be selling vegetable transplants at the first two markets in late May. If you are interested in garden plants, send me an email and I’ll send you my variety list.  I’ll be offering a 10% discount to our CSA members.

Big news on the CSA front – FruitShare prices are in. Prices are about 11% higher than last year due to uncertainty in how the weather will affect production.  Most of the farmers that Everett is working with were reluctant to commit to prices at this point. It must be really hard to have one crop and count on it.

One project that I am getting involved in this year is the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Labeling effort.  You know that GMOs are not allowed in organic production. But beyond that, I’m suspicious of chemicals and technology in our food. I grew up in an era when DDT was perfectly safe and there were no geese.  Or Eagles. Or hawks, etc. Randomly changing the genetic make up of our food plants is also supposed to be perfectly safe.

As always, the trouble is that the safety testing ( and the approval process ) is pretty weak. Long term GMO safety tests usually last for 90 days and are run by the chemical company that produces the product. The companies also prohibit  use of the seeds for research, making it hard for anyone whose school or institution depends on chemical companies for funding, to verify those results.  The real long term feeding studies that have been done, and the rise in food related allergies do not make me feel any better about GMOs. I think that a sensible first step is to label food that contains GMOs.

I don’t want to eat them and should be able to find out if the ‘natural’ crackers are made with GMO corn or soy products. This seems like a perfect argument for conservatives and libertarians. The lack of knowledge is causing a breakdown in the free flow of information that is required for a free market to function. If there is no market for a product or it is unsafe, it should disappear.

It is interesting, when I talk to student groups I ask them questions. How many of you eat an organic food diet. A few raise their hands. How many of you eat Genetically Modified food ? Even fewer raise their hands.  What are the rest of you eating ? About 80% of the corn and soy used in conventional ( and probably natural ) food is GMO. How may of you have food allergies ? Typically 10% or so raise their hands. When I was a kid there was maybe one kid in our class (or 800 or so ) who was lactose intolerant. It is not hard to find statistics on the increase in food allergies back up my anecdotal observations.  What happened ?

Industry arguments against GMO labeling are:

It costs too much

Everyone knows that the box costs more than the corn flakes in it.  Farmers get about 5% of the retail processed food dollar, so roughly speaking, a $5 box of corn flakes has about 25¢ of corn in it ( Farmers Union claims 13¢ ) . If the cost of producing non GMO caused the price of corn to double (unlikely), the price on a box of corn flakes should go up 25¢.  Something tells me it is not the cost of the corn that is driving the price of cornflakes.

Labeling would be easy. Any product that contains any commodity crop could safely be assumed to contain GMOs since 75% or corn and 90+% of soybeans are GMO. The next time they print a new batch of corn flake boxes they could just add ‘Now with MORE GMOs!’ to the graphics.  I’d even bet that they could get activists to label all the packaged food in grocery stores for free.

We need to feed the world

This sounds good, but has been basically hogwash for 40 years. Most of the world’s poor are subsistence farmers who feed themselves. Besides, no one sits down to a big plate of corn and soybeans for supper. These crops are industrial inputs or livestock feed.

A related argument is that GMOs produce better and they use less chemicals. More baloney. GMO crops don’t yield better than their conventionally bred counterparts and they don’t use less pesticides and herbicides. Actually they have created resistant weeds and pests that require more applications and more toxic chemicals. Long term studies of organic crops show that they produce as well as GMOs  in most years and better in drought conditions.  GMOs were widely accepted because they were an easy way to make the fields look better. Farmers everywhere look at  their neighbors fields and say, ‘That’s a nice looking crop’ or tsk-tsk over the weeds that show up in the row.  It’s cultural.

No negative health effects.

It is hard to find problems if you don’t look. Most of the safety studies were done by the chemical companies promoting the GMOs and they were only done for 90 days or so. Longer term studies are not so sanguine about the health effects. Your immune system reacts to novel proteins. GMOs obviously contain novel proteins. Why wouldn’t your immune system react to them ? Allergies ? Hmm.

No market

This is a big one. They say that if GMOs were labeled, no one would by them. Well, duh. Right now, no one believes that they are eating GMOs, and they don’t want to. Surveys report that something like 90% of people want GMOs labeled.

It seems reasonable that it would be a problem for processed food makers if labeling GMOs means that no one wants to eat them and there wouldn’t be any market for products that contain GMOs. But that is the way the ‘free’ market is supposed to work.  Theoretically,  markets work best went the buyer has enough information to make informed buying decisions. Funny, but the corporate captains of industry can be against transparency in the marketplace. They may have reached a point where profit is the most important thing to them. That is a problem. If the buyers don’t want a product, why make it ?

I don’t want to eat GMOs in my natural crackers. Let me know and let me decide..

Visit www.righttoknowmn.org and stay informed on this issue.

Rant off.