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Barefoot Farmer

Barefoot Farmer - Jeff Poppen

The Barefoot Farmer (Jeff Poppen) uses his farm (Long Hungry Creek Farm) as an example in demonstrating good farming principles. The landscape and atmosphere of the 21st century is leaning away from a small farm economy, bucolic scenery, sustainable agriculture and homegrown meals. The health of ourselves and our environment can only be enhanced by a reliance on local small farms for our needs. To learn more about these principle join Jeff Poppen with his weekly column - Barefoot Farmer.

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Gardens PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Poppen   
Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Beautiful and extremely productive gardens have graced that land around my cabin for the past 16 years. They have been well documented on the Volunteer Gardener program, so many people who hadn’t been able to visit still got to enjoy them. These gardens, open to the public, are where my students learn, and where old gardeners come to learn new ideas.

Since this is the last garden I’ll get to grow here, and since it is December, let’s look at what is still growing out there. A market garden, or truck patch as it used to be called, gets replanted in late summer with fall vegetables and cover crops. We don’t want to leave the land bare, but whenever possible to always have food available.

Horseradish, spearmint and nettle are in the first perennial beds, opposite the lettuce filling up the cold frames. The barn still hosts baskets of pumpkins, which have been picked through to now just be special treats for the hogs. The hanging garlic and onions need to go inside for winter storage.

Bok Choy is the white-ribbed, dark green leafed, oriental cabbage in the first beds behind the barn. Along with the Chinese Cabbage, also called Napa, these vegetables can weigh up to five pounds each. Soups, slaws, stirfries and sauerkraut are but a few ways our customers enjoy these cabbages, which resist the worms way better than their European counterparts.

The two kinds of parsley are curly and Italian Flat-Leaf. I like the curly best, but most people like the Italian. Parsley is very good for you.

Swiss Chard is a member of the beet family. The dark skinny leaves offer a good alteration to the other greens, which are mostly in the brassica, or cabbage family. Chard has a finer texture, and doesn’t have that hint of sulfur that cabbages have.

Many of our visitors seem surprised to see celery growing here. What a wonderful plant, it’s sweet, crisp stalks bursting with flavor. We set out a thousand in the spring. After a few harvests of the outer stalks, we leave them alone during summer, only to really get production in the fall as the weather cools down.

Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach was sown August 29th, a little later than the time most fall greens are sown. The thin cotyledon leaves are hard to spot, but not so the dark green, savoyed leaves we love in our salads or slightly cooked. I planted another spinach row in late October for a March and April harvest.

A bed of sprouting broccoli is now giving us delicious heads. Nearby, two rows of parsnips are ready to dig.

A little dill still fills our weekly baskets. Arugula, Mizuna, tat soi and mei qing are unusual vegetables that continue to produce. Collards and mustard are more common, and we grow plenty of them.

By far our biggest plantings in the fall are kale, turnips and daikons. We’ve been saving seed from the flat leaf kale for 25 years or so. We also grow curly kale and Red Russian kale.

Turnips come in many colors. Scarlet Ohno, White Egg, Gold Ball and Purple Top supply red, white, yellow, and purple turnips. Radishes too, are colorful. We have red China Rose, White Daikons, Long Black Spanish, and my favorite, a green one with a bright red, sunburst color flesh. It is called Watermelon Radish, Misota red, or Red Meat, depending on where you buy the seed. Rutabagas are a yellow-fleshed root similar to turnips.

The rest is in cover crops of wheat and vetch, along with a field of barley. I guess I’ll sow these gardens back into hay crops after the winter kills back the greens. The soil is great, and will stay great in grass. Maybe I’ll get to garden here again, someday.

Southeast Biodynamic Association PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Poppen   
Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Southeast Biodynamic Association was formed after our first annual conference in 1987. Realizing the value of shared experiences and observations, we agreed to gather together regularly, we think we are celebrating our silver anniversary, but our accounting may be off. Harvey Lisle called us the rebels, and insisted we hold our own conference. He had been involved with biodynamics since 1950, and was referring to the independent nature of Hugh Lovel, Hugh Courtney and me, who all lived in the south. Harvey’s own open-mindedness, mirth and spirituality certainly guided our group, and he never missed a conference and the opportunity to spring forth new ideas. Hugh Lovel hosted the first nine conferences in Blairsville, Georgia. Each year Hugh Courtney would focus on one of the nine preparations and we learned hands on how to make them. There were other lectures and workshops, and we did not shy away from controversial subjects. Waldorf teachers, Anthroposophical doctors and many other students of Rudolf Steiner kept a lively flow of conversations going. From the very start we agreed on one thing, we had to be on a farm eating our own food. We understand that the bridge between thinking and activity required proper nutrition. It would do no good to offer education without biodynamic farm and food to feel the difference and inspire commitment. Every August I loaded up the pickup truck with melons tomatoes and whatever else Hugh didn’t grow, and made the trip to Georgia. Everything from the breads and beans to the meat and diary was grown on our farms, and the meals were stellar. A festival atmosphere was created, mimicking the words used in the agriculture course regarding their conference. Children playing added to the merriment, and the music and bonfires and eventually a talent show all became as important as the lectures, and the food kept getting better as our soils improved. Forming our association on the last day of our first conference, we agreed on a few principals. The Southeast Biodynamic Association was open to all and required no dues. The conference fee of $100 (which is still the same 25 years later) would be waived if need be. You become a member by attending the party. We organized it using ideas gained from the three-fold social order. On the one hand, free reign was given to spiritual ideas with no strings attached. To do this we use no money, no staff, no newsletter and no rules. On the other hand we promote biodynamics through economics, by creating profitable, model farms. For example, by our farm being Demeter certified for 12 years, the word biodynamic appeared on grocery store shelves all over Tennessee. The many interns from our farms also spread the word, and several now have their own farms and gardens and apprenticeship programs. By 1995 we are hosting the conferences here in Red Boiling Springs. Our association accepts no grants or money, with one exception. The National Biodynamic Association helps us to bring in a lecturer most years. In 2005 we hosted the National Conference, and many folks commented that it was special to be on a farm rather than at a hotel. So here were are 25 years later, celebrating our 25th Southeast Biodynamic Conference. But I think it’d actually our 26th. Were lucky we don’t have accounting to deal with. The word conference has been changed to celebration, and the 150 attending members will no doubt do their best to add to t he festivities. The feeling we have as we go into our 25th (or is it 26th?) year is more of a family reunion. For more info about the conference this weekend can be found at

Master Gardeners PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Poppen   
Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I love the people involved in the Master Gardeners Program.  Their curiosity has led them to take courses in horticulture from State University professors, and to help out in community gardening projects. I’ve lectured to master gardeners in many of Middle Tennessee.

The extension agent opened up the meeting. They were planning a field trip to Lexington to visit the labs where diseases are identified. The information in the Master Gardeners educational material stems from research on chemicals in agriculture, funded by chemical companies.

Apparently the “Volunteer Gardener” TV show gets aired in Kentucky because they all knew me. I started out by asking for questions, and was still trying to answer them three hours later. These folks came to learn.

I explain botany, microbiology and chemistry in simple examples from the garden. How a plant grows and its interaction with microbes and nutrients is a fascinating subject. Illuminating the causes for phenomenon experienced in their own gardens was deeply satisfying for all of us.

Many took notes. One lady claimed afterward to have five pages of them. These folks were craving information on how to garden organically. There seems to be much confusion about chemicals, and concern over their safety. They said a field trip to my farm would e much more to their liking.

Soil structure differs widely, depending on how we treat our ground. I can feel soil and  tell how it will grow plants. When it’s soft and silky, colloidal and crumbly, and not stuck together in clods and clumps, plants will thrive.

We stepped outside to look at the four by four gardens enclosed in boards and mulched in between by wood chips. The soil was weary from chemical use, packed and crusty, dry and lifeless. I had to look elsewhere to show them what I was talking about.

Underneath a nearby fence I dug out a clump of grass. Here we would see the beginnings of soil remediation. It was latticed with roots and had bugs and worms, but I could tell chemicals had been used.

It’s a shame, but understandable, that chemical companies fund agriculture education.  They make incredible amounts of money in return for their investment. It’s an honor to be able to teach a more natural approach to gardening, and a hopeful sign that people are so eager to learn and pursue it. The extension agent agreed with much of my talk, gave me a hat and made me an honorary extension agent for the University of Kentcky. But don’t tell Monsanto.

Fall Crops PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Poppen   
Tuesday, August 21, 2012

By mid-August I have changed my box of seeds. The last of the summer crops are planted, and it’s time for the fall ones. Although a  few rows and beds of cabbage and lettuce are in to make transplants, I patiently wait until August 15 before I go crazy.

The onion field brings fond memories. 50 bushels of large yellow bulbs grew here, many of which are hanging in the barn. Onions must like hot dry weather to cure, because we had very little rotten ones.

After bush hogging the weeds, a bucket of buckwheat gets two double handfuls of crimson clover mixed in it. Then I look in my box of brassica seed, and I choose Rutabega. I pace the length of the field and back, tossing the mixture of three very different species high into the air.

A restful is slowly released as my arm arches through the air. The seeds scatter beneath the sky and fall a few inches apart in a 20 foot wide swath. Four gallons of seed take me down  the field and back, an area of about ¼ acre.

Buckwheat is a fast growing, summer cover crop. In a month it will be two foot tall and full of white flowers. Bees love it, and buckwheat brings in lots of other insects, too. Lime in the soil is made more accessible for the next crop after buckwheat has been grown.

Crimson Clover is a winter cover crop. It is very slow to grow at first and can get taken over by weeds if sown alone. Buckwheat acts as a nurse crop for crimson clover, shading out the weeds and allowing it to get established. As a legume, it adds nitrogen to the soil.

The handful of Rutabega seed is just one of the many kinds of Brassuca family members who love the fall. Frost kills the buckwheat, and the Brassicas take over the field until winter. All along the clover hides underneath the leaf canopy. Awaiting March and April to grow and bloom in its bright red glory.

Long Black Spanish radish is the Brassica that goes into the lower half of the old onion field. I then pull the chisel plow with the spike-tooth harrows behind to cover up the seed. I wanted to follow with a cultipacker, but didn’t get to.

The next fields were where the potatoes grew, and they get the same treatment. Bok Choy, Michihili Cabbage and Calabras sprouting broccoli are in one spot, and collards are in the lower side. Another field has mustard on one side and kale on the other.

An old corn patch is slated for turnips and diakons, but we got interrupted by cattle escapees. Running them out of a field of winter squash was saddening, but planting Red Russian and Siberean Kale cheered me back up. A gentle rain fell last night to tuck the newly planted seeds in their new homes. Good things will happen in these beds under the covers of beneficial, soil improving cover crops.

The Garden Changes Unpredictably PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Poppen   
Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The garden changes unpredictably. I wanted to mow seven rows of drought-stricken cucumbers and beans, but save the nearby straightneck squash. By the time we got onions and potatoes up and I had the bushhog ready, the cucumbers and beans had arrived and the squash got mowed.

With the Purcell garden putting out squash at the rate of 20 or more bushels a week, we didn’t need this older planting. Old lettuce beds have new plantings of beans and cucumbers for fall. Beets are in the cave and squash is in their old spot. A potato field is in kale, along with buckwheat, after a thorough subsoiling and composting.

Fall plantings of greens are started in late July. Lettuce, Chinese Cabbage, Bok Choy, and broccoli go in rows, to be later transplanted a foot apart in beds. Turnips get planted in mid-August, probably in the corn field.

As soon as a crop is done, the garden gets a cover crop pf buckwheat, or another vegetable. There is no sense in letting it grow up in weeds. By mid-August through September, we’ll be planting crimson clover for a winter cover crop. We use a nurse crop of buckwheat and daikon to help the clover get established.

A beautiful field now is the June planting of pepper, eggplant and sweet potato. Weed-free, soft soil greets your feet as you admire bright red peppers or dark purple eggplants. The sea of vines guarantees several tons of sweet potatoes in a few months.

Small flower patches grace the edges of the garden. Zinnias, cosmos and sunflowers bring color to the green carpet, waving joyfully above it all. Fragrant herbs, like sweet basil and sill, delight our noses.

An early melon or three were quite lovely, and have us looking for more. The whole melon field has received and is blooming again. Maybe the drought didn’t kill them, but just delayed the main harvest.

Celery, chard and parsley patiently await cooler weather. They are alive and edible, but will really thrive in fall. Nearby, the climbing beans have wrapped around their bamboo poles and are reaching gracefully but in vain for the sky.

Tomatoes and cucumbers are anxious to be put up in jars. It all comes together, the exploding burst of summer’s abundance. Whatever is going on, it will be different tomorrow.

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