Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

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clothesline with clothes

I usually write about intensive vegetable gardening, which is part of a permaculture lifestyle. We maximize solar collection on our own properties when we grow our own food. Another way to maximize the sun’s energy that falls on your place is to use it to dry your laundry. Install a clothesline, buy some clothespins and you are ready to go. You will find clothesline and clothespins at most any hardware store, big box building supply store, or any store that sells useful household goods. Although the old style clothespins are nice, I prefer the ones with a spring in them.

You need something to attach the clothesline to and it better be sturdy. In the photo you see my clothesline which is stretched between two buildings. Having already had experience with clotheslines before we moved here in 1984, I welcomed the chance to use the buildings for that purpose. Alternatives would be to put up wooden or metal poles with a bar at the top to attach the lines to. Wet clothes can be heavy so it would be good to dig the holes deep for those poles and use concrete. Alternatively, there are umbrella type drying racks that only use one pole. That pole can be permanently in the ground or fit into a sleeve that is in the ground and the whole rack taken out and stored elsewhere when not in use.

Clothes can be dried inside, also. You can read about how I used our basement and attic rooms in years past to dry our clothes at Homeplace Earth. There are all sorts of drying racks to be found that you can put up inside or on your patio to hang clothes to dry. We have a terrific wooden drying rack—the largest we could find-- that is put to use year round. Besides its use for laundry, it can also be used to dry large quantities of herbs. I bunch the herbs, tying them with thread that is then tied to the dowels on the rack. Also, the screens from my solar dryers fit nicely across the dowels, useful for making sure beans and corn are thoroughly dry before storing in jars.

We use the shower rod in our bathroom for hanging shirts to dry. I’ve seen retractable clotheslines just for using in your bathroom over the tub. You could make a drying rack that is stored near the ceiling in a room and lowered on a pulley. I believe there could be a lot of uses for one of those, but they were probably more common in the days before electricity and ceiling lights. When the weather is not conducive to drying outside and I have blue jeans to dry, I use skirt hangers to hang them up inside.

I have seen modern houses that have the laundry area located near the bedrooms. Much preferred by those of us who hang our clothes outside is to have the washing machine near the back door and the clothesline close by outside. Once you no longer have use for a clothes dryer, you can take it out, leaving room for something else. I put crocks for fermenting where my clothes dryer used to be. However your household is set up, I hope you can find a way to use the sun and the air to dry your laundry. It is another way to involve yourself with the natural rhythms that are all around us.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


Go into the gardening department of any box store and you’ll find rows and rows of chemicals: fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides. How did we get to thinking that growing food was a chemical process? Gardening professionals will tell you how much nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and other minerals such as boron, calcium, and magnesium, to add to your gardens. They’ll recommend adding lime to neutralize the acidity in soil. The list of chemicals experts suggest adding will empty your wallet. It makes you wonder how plants managed to survive before humans came along. Somehow they managed to make it to the modern era without the aid of humans.

Plants with roots appeared in the evolutionary record more than 400 millions years ago during the Devonian period. It’s only during the last 300 years that humans began developing mineral supplements and fertilizers. The process for creating nitrogen by fixing atmospheric nitrogen is barely a 100 years old. For over 400 million years, plants did splendidly without our help. The length of time plants have “required” human intervention isn’t even a blip of time. There are 86,400 seconds in a day, 31,536,000 in a year. The number of years humans have been spreading large quantities of chemicals on their fields and gardens is around a hundred years. Compared to the number of years plants with roots have been around, over 400,000,000, it is like 8 seconds out of an entire year. Insignificant. Nada. Zip.

When pioneers moved into the grasslands of the Great Plains, they discovered grasses ten feet and taller, growing profusely in arid conditions to boot. These grasses had been growing for eons, without the aid of any human fertilizers or minerals.

The most productive ecosystems on this planet, are the great rain forests along the Pacific Northwest Coast. These forests produce more biomass per acre than anywhere on earth. And they do this year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia, all without the assistance of our chemicals. From what gardening experts tell you, you would think that producing so much vegetation would quickly deplete the soil and strip it of all nutrients. Yet it never happens. The plants growing in the forest never run out of nutrients. Neither did the grasses of the Great Plains. And they fed vast herds of Bison for eons.

If these productive ecosystems can flourish for thousands of years without ever needing a drop of fertilizer, a teaspoon of pesticide, a sprinkling of herbicide, a spritz of fungicide, why can’t our gardens produce endless baskets of leafy greens, pecks of beans, and bushels of corn without chemicals? Have you ever stopped to consider that? Do our gardens and fields really need any of the bewildering array of chemicals the experts push, the box stores sell, and the chemical industry produces?

The mistake we made was treating food production as a chemical process instead of a biological process. I recently ran across a 90 minute presentation on YouTube by Dr. Elaine Ingham, Soil Microbiologist and founder of Soil Foodweb, Inc. The presentation was titled The Roots of Your Profits, and it was an eye opener.

In the presentation, Dr. Ingham explains how the sand, silt, clay, pebbles and rocks in your soil have all the minerals your plants will ever need for as long as you live and then way beyond that. There is so much nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and other minerals in your ground that your plants will never run out of them.

If you take a sample of your soil to a soil lab for testing, you’ll get a report back telling you how many macro nutrients like phosphorus and potassium, and how many micro nutrients like boron and manganese are in your soil. The report may also instruct you to add so much nitrogen, or limestone, or phosphorous, or something else. However, the lab is only measuring the soluble forms of these nutrients. In other words, the nutrient forms plants can absorb. What the reports don’t tell you is that these nutrients are in your soil in vast quantities in forms your plants can’t absorb. The thinking is that your plants have no way of using these insoluble forms. And yet they do. They know how to get to the inexhaustible store of nutrients in the ground. And how they do this is through a biological process that is as ingenious as it is amazing, and it’s a process plants have been refining for hundreds of millions of years. Through trial and error over hundreds of millions of generations, plants have become geniuses at feeding themselves.

What Dr. Elaine Ingham and other microbiologists have discovered is that plants enlist bacteria and fungi to get the nutrients they need. Plants do this by converting sunlight into thousands of varieties of sugars. Many of these sugars, they exude out their roots to feed the right mix of bacteria and fungi which will extract nutrients from the sand, silt, and clay particles in the soil. Along come organisms which feed on these bacteria and fungi, and the organisms leave behind nutrients in their wastes at the roots of plants which the plants slurp up.

Another good lecture to view, is Jeff Lowenfel’s Soil Food Web Lecture.

What plants need, is not for us to try and feed them with bags of various fertilizers and minerals. What plants need from us, is an environment where they can nourish the rich biology which will sustain them. The meddling we do by tilling, adding minerals and fertilizers, applying herbicides and pesticides, destroys the biology in the soil the plants need. As Dr. Elaine Ingham says, we have no idea minute by minute, hour by hour, what nutrients or how much water our plants need. But the plants know, and they know how to get them. Our role as gardeners is to  help them cultivate the biology they need, and in the process have healthy gardens and fields free of the fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides which do so much harm. A man and his hoe.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


The Farm

My first WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) host, Silvia, greets me with an exuberant smile and an aura of positivity as I sit waiting at a small French sandwicherie in a small town called St. Martin-de Londres. St. Martin-de-Londres is a setting of ancient stone buildings and cobbled alleyways which could have been ripped straight from the pages of The Three Musketeers and is just a short bus ride outside of Montpellier. I grab my travel backpack and my camera as I stuff the last morsel of a Panini into my mouth and I load up into Silvia’s silver mini-van.

Down twisting roads, we drive, veering left or right as the road splits at odd intersections; past trapezoidal plots of grapevines and fields full of small, round bales of hay sitting scattered about like checker pieces in the midst of a game. Everything is glowing like amber in the Mediterranean sun. It’s hot, but a good dry heat, and the gusting wind from the opened windows of the van is playful and invigorating as it flows past my outstretched arm and open hand with a soft, invisible pressure. Silvia, with her wavy, brown hair tied back in a vibrantly colored bandana and skin as dark as rich mahogany, is one half of the two-host team that I will be staying with. Even without looking at her, you can hear that her voice is smiling. She talks in a welcoming Italian accent which spills over into her French and English, both. We talk about my misadventures in Montpellier, about my home, my travels, and about her and Stèphane’s small organic farm, La Ferme du Lamalou, where I will be volunteering and learning about organic agriculture for the next month.

As we pull into the drive, we are welcomed by two black and white border collies, tongues lolling and tails wagging, running ahead of the van as they direct us to the van’s usual resting place. The farm is a beautiful form of organized imperfection sitting at the foot of a magnificent mountain called Pic St. Loup (pronounced Peak Sahn Loo). The fields are a configuration of juxtaposed plots placed wherever they will fit in a way that is reminiscent of a simple, stained-glass window. They are bursting with life as young plants push forth through the clay soil and open their arms to the breeze and the radiant sun.

We step out of the van to be officially greeted by Lily and Diego, Silvia and Stèphane’s two border collies. Silvia asks me if I would like to walk with her to the small river which runs through the property to meet everybody else. I accept, and she points out the various plots and plants, relaying some of their names in French as the small fields meet us around the gently winding footpath. Through a tunnel of small, wild plum trees so low that you have to crouch to pass through, down a gently sloping forest pathway, Silvia leads me to the Lamalou River. When we arrive to the opening at the bank of the river, the air is noticeably refreshed by the chilly, slow-moving river. The water is clear and reflects a light aquamarine in the sun. The rivulets of water, trickling over moss covered rocks in small cascades, collects in a 10-foot deep pool big enough to do laps in; a handful of small tadpoles swimming lazily around. At the river I am greeted by Stèphane, tall and sturdy, with unruly brown hair, a full beard, baritone voice and a thick, French accent that is jovial and confident. Elior, Silvia and Stèphane’s 4 year-old son, is barefoot, blond and lightly tanned as he runs around, full of laughter and mischief. I also meet Merindah and Adam; the two other WWOOFers that I will be joining for the next couple of weeks. As we swim around and take turns plunging into the icy water from the rope swing, we share short introductions.

A Very Special Meal

After we are fully refreshed, lunch is prepared. The first question Stèphane asks me is if there is anything that I don’t eat. I honestly respond, “No. As long as it is organic and humanely raised.” He says mischievously, in his thick, French accent, “Good, because we have a very special meal for today.” Outside, on a thick, wooden-slab table under some shade trees, are bowls and platters brimming with grated beets in heaps of deep purple, yellow zucchini cut into small cubes, large, hard-crusted loaves of bread, seasoned couscous, and various homemade jams and spreads, ranging from sweet tomato jelly to spicy pepper reductions.  A platter of various goat-cheeses is presented and all is placed around a large, shallow skillet filled with tiny morsels of the special mystery. I take a healthy serving and upon my first bite I immediately recognize what it is—escargot. It is absolutely, positively…..delicious. Stèphane shares with a laugh and a smile that they are straight from the farm and collected by himself over the course of a few days; over a hundred snails, that once wore shells the size of large cherry tomatoes.

Traditional Escargot Recipe Photo

I don’t think you could ask for a more diverse table. Sitting around, conversing in a lively fashion, there is Silvia who is originally from Italy, Stèphane from Normandy in northern France, Merindah from Australia, Adam from Israel, and me from Kansas, smack dab in the middle of the United States. We talked, laughed and shared stories. At this point, there is no doubting it; this is going to be an incredible experience.

Il n’y a rien de mieux qu’une table avec de bons amis et un bon repas ! Bon appétit!

Read all of Russell’s adventures (and misadventures) WWOOFing in France by clicking here.

Next in the series: Learn more about Russell’s WWOOF hosts as he shares their philosophies and how they started their small, organic farm in the south of France.

Previously in the series: Journey to My First WWOOF Destination

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Zucchini plants in your garden can be generous producers, but they can also create zucchini overload. Zucchini seem to grow overnight. Are you wondering what to do with your oversized zucchini? With a few zukes growing to size every couple days, things can get crazy quickly. Pick your zucchini every other day and you will have delicate little zukes that grill up beautifully. Grow too many plants, and you will inevitably miss a few and grow some very nice baseball bats along the way. 

You’ve heard all the niceties about zucchini’s prolific nature. You can sit and watch them grow. Shut your windows and lock your doors when you visit our farm during zucchini season, or you may take home a load. That makes people happy at first. Until they have a few too many plants of their own. Then they will definitely lock their doors. You feel like your refrigerator will fill to busting with zucchini. It can reach emergency proportions.

At our farm, we have a lot of zucchini plants to supply our CSA community. We can’t always manage the every other day picking regime, but the zucchini never stop growing. They won’t let you take a vacation or a break at all. Sometimes you just can’t be there. Longer than three days, they grow tough and thick-skinned. And the ones you missed by accident, the ones hiding from you on purpose, get REALLY big. Those are the baseball bats, large enough to do damage. Even the most fastidious picker will miss a few. So, I offer to you, 13 things to do with an oversized zucchini:

1. Oversized zucchini make great farm signs or birthday cards. Carve into the skin.

2. Make zucchini-crusted pizza.

3. Play baseball. Consider a beet or turnip as a ball.

4. Zucchini bread. Of course. Freezes well too.

5. Clonking war. Just pretend!

6. Zucchini chunkin contest. Can you make a zuke shooter?


7. Make baked stuffed zucchini, as you would a stuffed pepper. It’s a stuffed zucchini boat. I got this inspiration from my cousin, Val, who grew up with this dish at home in Russia, and always a garden in the yard.

8. While you are at it, actually carve out a boat and float it downstream at the creek. Why not?? A bird will enjoy the treat.

9. Carve it like a jack-o-lantern. A zuke-a-lantern. Cut one in half long ways and hollow it out, leaving an inch of flesh and skin. Make designs in the skin. No promises about the candle. 

10. Freeze shredded zucchini in recipe size portions. Label. Four cups will squish down to a cup when defrosted, but just squish the water out and still count it as the original portion—four cups. Cut out foamy seed part in the middle. I do not bother peeling them.

11. If you can prop them up, you’ve got bowling pins.

12. Feed them to the chickens. Bust em first so the hens have access to the good stuff inside.

13. Donate them to a food pantry. They may not be tender, but they cook down fine, especially when shredded and baked, and they make a lot of food. But I’m telling you from experience, even the food bank will turn down zucchini overloads during peak season.

See another blog I wrote about zucchini overload.

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 Mother Earth News Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at Mother Earth News and House in the Woods, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to House in the Woods.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 



Snowpack is 10 percent of usual in the Cascades of Oregon. Mountains that should still be covered in snow still are bare, and wildflowers bloomed early. The newspaper reads “No Water Restrictions Yet” but I, as gardener, am concerned. I know that, once the rains stop here, they will not be back until mid September. I’ve done what I can to reduce our household water usage; I am not sure how I could cut down any further and still keep my vegetable garden alive. These are the steps I have taken over the years.

Allow the grass to go dormant in summer. It is not dead. It will come back with the fall rains and the barred rock chickens will look beautiful against the bright green grass all winter long. It is part of the natural cycle of the plant to go dormant during the long warm dry summers. Not watering the grass is the easiest thing we can do to conserve water.

Water the vegetable garden wisely. I have been using sweat hoses in my raised garden beds for seventeen years—the same hoses. They run off a long tube that follows the fence line and each bed has a shut off valve so I can control them individually. When a bed is harvested, I turn off the water.  The system was recommended by a neighbor who installed local irrigation lines and it is simple. I lay the hoses down when I plant the seeds. When the plants are big enough, I mulch the bed with straw, which keeps the water where it belongs, on the soil, not on the plants or the dormant grass. When the grass around the garden is a dry as the grass in the middle of the front yard, but the vegetables are thriving, I know I have done it right.

Choose ornamental plants carefully. If you are not producing food, you are not receiving much—if any—water in my yard.  Once established, the perennial bed in the front yard is not watered. Nor are the shrubs or trees that surround the house and provide deep shade in the heat of summer. As much as I love some of the thirsty bloomers, I cannot afford the water.

Timing can help. Every year, I dance on the edge of the planting line, pushing the potatoes further back in the spring. My goal is to get them in the ground as soon as I can without destroying the soil structure, so that they can grow off of the spring rains. My goal is to water the potato beds two or three times in early July and then turn off their water. I’ve come close.

Reuse household water. In other words, greywater. We use our dishwater, hauled in five gallon buckets, to water small fruits; our laundry water, pumped up from the basement, to water some foundation plantings around the picnic table, and the outdoor shower water to keep a flower bed alive. The plants we water in this way are drought tolerant, but cannot survive all summer on their own resources. Law and common sense suggests that you should not pour greywater on a head of lettuce you plan to eat for dinner, but it makes total sense to use it on flower beds and fruit trees.

To read more about the Twenty First Street Urban Homestead, check out my blog at 21st Street Urban Homestead. To see more of Julia Lont’s amazing artwork, go to her website and Blue Camas Press.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Demanding Lawns

There she is, needy, lush and green. Each weekend demanding that you pay attention to her, lest she grow wild. For those of you in drier areas, perhaps the city has limited water and she just lies there now dry, brittle and useless. Either way our lawns control us. Saturdays that could be spent harvesting berries and fresh greens are instead consumed in the toil of pushing a machine. Unless you are an avid yogi, baseball player or picnicker, lawns are a bit passé. And yet, we as a nation spend over $26 billion per year on lawns. How might we redesign our spaces to create edible abundance?

Not only are our lawns expensive and time consuming, they also are insatiably thirsty. According to the Los Angeles Municipal Water District, the average lawn requires the equivalent of 84 inches of rain per year. For much of the nation, that exceeds what nature brings. In drier areas such as California, where I reside, that disparity is striking. Dry brown hills surround green oases of lawns in the urban areas. The average Californian uses up to 130 gallons of water per day, of which half goes to the garden outside. If you are ready to transform your lawn and your outdoor living space, read on.

Step 1: Lawn Removal

The first step is to properly remove the unwanted lawn. Many permaculturalists claim that one can simply lay cardboard and mulch on top of an existing lawn and that this will eventually smother it. However, in my experience installing over fifty gardens, it is best to be thorough when breaking with a stubborn lawn.

Start by removing the grass the old-fashioned way, pick and shovel. Dig down 8-10 inches will to loosen a row of grass tops; first by picking and second by prying with the shovel. Then come back through and beat the grass loose of the dirt to retain as much top soil as possible.

Move on to the next row until you have separated the grass material from the soil. The grass can then be fed to the chickens who will enjoy the treat. Do not add this grass to your compost. This process is extremely laborious and I recommend hosting a garden work party. All who help will learn hands on experience and create good will with friends.As an incentive, rotate on consecutive Saturdays to others yards to help transform multiple gardens. This can be the new version of a barn raising.

After the lawn has been dug out, go back through and rake the soil back to level. Take care to go over any edges a second time as root sprouts near the edges of the planting area are likely to creep through the mulch layer and cause problems if not dealt with before hand.

Landscaping Suburban Driveway 

Step 2: Earth Works and Cardboarding

If your lawn happens to be on any sort of slope, now is your opportunity to create on-contour “swales” that will catch and hold rain long enough for the to be edibles to soak up. (Note: my next blog will be on “swales and earthworks” at the end of June.)

If no slope is involved the next step will be to lay cardboard. Cardboard serves several purposes in installing a new food forest.  It reduces weeds and retains moisture. As an area that was just a healthy lawn the possibility for lawn to resprout is probable. The cardboard helps to reduce weed penetration by up to 90 per cent.  I like to collect the large cardboard from appliance and bicycle stores, as the larger sizes are easy to install and readily available.

Before installing the cardboard, broadcast ½-inch of compost on top of the bare soil. Use ½-inch metal irrigation stakes to secure the four corners of each cardboard as you “Tile in” the whole area to be planted.

Step 3: Planting Your Food Forest

What is a food forest?  There are several ways in which a food forest differs from a conventional orchard. A food forest involves a diversity of crops. If your goal is to have a large, uniform apple harvest for example, then one type would suffice.

However, if your goal is to have home grown apples for as much of the season as possible, the harvest can be extended by planting several varieties, each with their own harvest time. A food forest has multiple layers which are able to coexist. Rather than have just the main fruit tree crop, a food forest is designed to have an upper story (large fruit trees), and secondary upper-story (dwarf fruit trees) a shrub layer (berry bushes) an herb layer (leafy greens and veggies) and a ground cover layer (strawberries and low herbs). In this way, one creates a dynamic polyculture that has diverse crops in production. This makes sense if our intention is to grow for our own community.

A food forest also plants the fringes. The gaps between production plants are great areas for nitrogen fixing beans and peas. These plants feed the soil and create a living mulch. The marginal areas can be planted in flowers and pollinator attracting native plants, serving as magnates that attract beneficial insects into the garden.

Arrange your largest fruit trees into your new space. These get planted first and will act as the structure of the lower areas. Cut a circle out for each tree through the cardboard and dig your holes, amending each hole with compost. Next plant your shrubs in the same manner. Each fruit tree basin can be then planted with annuals such as squash, arugula and carrots.

Sustainable Suburban Landscaping 

Step 4: Irrigate and Mulch

After planting, run drip irrigation throughout the planting.  Drip irrigation saves water as it targets direct to each plant. Finally, mulch with wood chips 4 inches on top and around the entire area that was recently a lawn. Be sure to not pile mulch up around the trunk of each tree.

This design approach works whether you live in Alpine, Mediterranean, Desert or Tropics. Choose plants that work in your bioregion and enjoy the fruits of your labor.


Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future.

There have been a lot of changes at Barking Moon Farm over the past seven years, but Josh Cohen is convinced – well, maybe not convinced… let’s say hopeful – that everything is finally on track and headed in a very good direction. Although that’s not to say the farm hasn’t been successful during its first seven years of operation. It’s more a matter of reshaping things and staying true to the dreams of everyone involved.

In 2006 Josh and his wife, Melissa Matthewson, bought their property in Oregon’s Josephine County. It’s a picturesque spot, sitting at 1,800 feet where the Applegate Valley begins to lift into the northern end of the Siskiyou Mountains. Josh admits it may not be the best production land in the area, but it’s beautiful, and it’s the place where their kids were born. It’s home. And it’s the place where Josh and Melissa took on the challenge of organic farming.

Josh was coming to farming from ecology and landscaping work. Melissa had just finished graduate work studying sustainable agriculture. And both had completed an internship at another Applegate Valley organic farm. In other words, they had a good idea of what they were getting into, but that didn’t make things easy.

“I think just starting with nothing and having nothing to improve was the hardest thing we faced,” Josh said. “That nothingness. Trying to go a long ways with some spit and a paper clip, basically. And also just learning this site. Even though we had interned less than fifteen miles away, it’s totally different at this elevation. A world different. It’s almost like a zone colder here than the fields we lease just six miles down the road. That’s one thing about the Siskiyous… it’s really diverse in every way possible.”

But start they did. In fact, Josh says they were able to hit the ground running because they were contributing to a cooperative CSA comprised of a group of Siskiyou farms. By only having to contribute rather than manage their own CSA, Josh and Melissa were able to test their property and their infrastructure and figure out what they needed to do moving forward.

Their first year of farming, they planted about an acre of land, which sounds small, but when one considers they both were working full-time off the farm while they tried to remodel a house that had been abandoned for a couple years, an acre was plenty. “We should have bulldozed the house,” said Josh, “but we were stubborn, and now it’s still a work in progress. We also had our first child that year.” That’s a lot for one year, but they made it through.

By their second year they were near two acres in production and had begun selling at farmers markets and to a few local restaurants. Josh was farming full-time, while Melissa helped with the farming and worked as an extension agent for Oregon State University’s Small Farms Program. Good progress was being made, and when – four or five years into this adventure – Josh and Melissa saw what they thought were some good opportunities to grow and get into wholesale, they made the leap and expanded to a dozen acres of vegetable production. That’s the point where things began to unravel.

“The market was there, but we just weren’t ready for it,” explains Josh. “The interesting thing was that we knew by mid-season that it wasn’t working, but we couldn’t really figure out why until we looked back on it retrospectively at the end of the season. We needed a better land base. We didn’t have the infrastructure. We were selling our best produce too cheaply, which just didn’t make sense. All that contributed to make it a very hard year, but it was one of our biggest learning years, so I’m grateful for that experience. I don’t think we could have gotten to where we are now without that. But at that point, it was a matter of going back and finding the sweet spot where everything had been working previously.”

As it turned out, finding the sweet spot entailed much more than reducing their acreage and getting out of wholesale. It also meant rethinking priorities and just being honest about their life goals.
After giving farming a real shot for nearly five years, Melissa had come to terms with the fact that she didn’t really want to farm. Farming was Josh’s dream. Josh says it was always that way, from their first backyard garden. She loved living on the farm, being a part of it and close enough to touch it, but her real passion was writing. A thing she always had done on the side, but never a pursuit she had truly given herself to. It was time to do that. So Melissa enrolled in a master’s writing program, and Josh took full control of the farming.

The first thing he did was cut his acreage in half. From twelve acres down to six. Then he winnowed out all of the wholesalers and decided to concentrate on direct to consumer sales through farmers markets and his winter CSA, while continuing to participate in the cooperative CSA and maintaining his restaurant accounts. The turn-around was stunning.

“I thought that scaling back to about half the acreage that our sales might be a little bit less,” explained Josh, “but I believed our net would be a little higher, or at least proportionally higher. It turned out that by being really efficient on a small space, our sales were higher than the year before – on half the acreage – and our net was just through the roof. We finally figured out how to make money within our little business. Which is key, because I want to do this every year.”

If you’re having trouble keeping track of the timeline for this turn-around, the big year was last year, 2013. And now in 2014, Barking Moon is up another thirty percent just by repeating the same processes it instituted last year. With the success he’s having, Josh is considering shrinking even more while trying to further refine his efficiencies. But there’s got to be a point where that just doesn’t work anymore, and he admits that he’s still trying to find the balance. The point where size and efficiency combine to yield the maximum return.

In the meantime, he now has more revenue to pay his employees, which means he’s able to keep a higher quality year-round staff. And that translates into more time for him to spend with his family and more money to pay for family needs.

Click here to read Part 2 of this profile.

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.

(Top photo) Josh Cohen, owner of Barking Moon Farm, which is located near the town of Applegate in Southern Oregon.

(Second photo) Josh and Melissa's farm is nestled in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains.

(Bottom photo) A Barking Moon intern from Rogue Farm Corps checks her laptop while taking a break.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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