Spring Beginnings and Spring Endings

Hello all,


At the farm right now, everything is just beginning. Work has kicked into gear, and the late rain and late frost has made extra work for the farm crew. At the same time, I am here at the end of my undergraduate education, looking forward to graduation in just a few days.

Many things are coming to a close. Just last week we had a wonderful party out at LaFarm and it seemed like the end of an era. As a budding social historian, I would lay out the history of our modest acres at the close of its second epoch: First, there were the Jenn Bell years. A time of fighting to establish a small plot for a big future, led mainly by Jenn herself, with the support of Profs like Wilson, Kney, and others. Then came this new era. Sarah was first hired for my first summer, and has done an amazing job leading us to the point we are today. New professors like Cohen and Lawrence as well as those more tenured like Brandes, Germanoski and others have contributed greatly to linking the college and the farm. And the environmental movement on campus has been burgeoning under the leadership of my many dedicated colleagues like Alexa Gatti, Peter Todaro, Miranda Wilcha, and countless others from the class of 2016 (including, I daresay, myself at times.) And now, we stand on a precipice, gazing into the next chapter. A wellspring of undergraduate support has burst forth as those of us in the class of 2016 prepare to finally depart; I believe there will be a great presence here to fill our shoes.

At the party last week, never had this seemed more obvious. Looking out over the surrounding acres and considering our plans for the future. Peter and I being “punk’d” by Sarah with memorial speeches as we get ready to pass off our torches (luckily, Peter will have a bit of extra time here as President of LaFFCo next semester.) Talking to the many wonderful underclassmen who have made the last few years possible. Everyone talking over what they’re going to do next, here, abroad, and everywhere in between. Discussing the past, the present, and the future over delicious homemade food, much of it as local as possible. The spirit of Spring has never been better embodied in one afternoon.

This time really is the end of an era, for the farm, for me, and for the whole graduating class I’m sure. While here, I’ve toiled with the soil alongside Sarah and my many other co-workers; I’ve learned a huge amount about greenhouses, fought for one, and now LaFarm will finally be getting one; I’ve read, I’ve written, I’ve explored academic disciplines and social movements and become part of both. Peter and I started a club to make sure support for the farm continues, we’ve gone to the sustainability committee meetings to make sure our voices were heard, everyone in the Lafayette environmental community has fought tooth and nail to finally hire a sustainability coordinator, we’ve attended workshops and we’ve led them (including one coming up this Friday at NHCC) we’ve gone to countless conferences, and I’ve even presented at two of them! I have never felt more connected to a piece of land than I do to our humble acres at LaFarm. I’ve worked out there every summer since 2013, and the thought of not being there for this year is the most shocking part of graduating.

But endings are also beginnings! The beginning of the season, and the beginning of the next era for us all. The new wave of students is taking up our mantle, the farm is finally realizing some changes that have been long coming, and the sustainability coordinator is on the way for this summer (though I won’t say I’m not sour over not having one this semester, which we were promised.)
And for me, I am going to manage some land myself. A few acres in Maryland owned by some friends of mine need to brought under sustainable cultivation to help support humans and insects alike (boy am I glad I took those beekeeping classes this last semester!) And by the end of the year, I’ll be in Sicily, WWOOFing and finally visiting my family on the other side of the Atlantic.

After that, I have a few options that I’m keeping open. But all of them are only available (or even appealing!) because of the tremendous help I’ve received from everyone at Lafayette and the amazing work I’ve had the opportunity to do here. I must say, while it is bittersweet, I am happy to say I’ve come to the end of this era, because the next one is looking very appealing.

The most sincere thanks to all of you, and all of my best for the future! Working together, we can make this world better, one acre at a time.

Signing off,

Joseph Ingrao, graduating EXCEL Scholar Spring 2016

Fall Farming and Thanksgiving!

Farming is a completely different world in the Fall. Instead of the odd jobs being the last thing we get to, almost everything we do is what we would do when we had extra time during the summer: spreading straw and wood chips, cleaning up the shed, organizing the tomato trellises, and all that sort of work.

Still, this Fall has been a very good time for getting LaFFCo fully operational. Every week we’ve had people come out to help, which has been fun as well as educational for everyone. I’ve certainly gotten plenty of experience working with new people who need a different amount of explanations for certain jobs, which has been super useful. Also the extra help has allowed us to have quite the set up for events leading up to Thanksgiving!

First of all, Sarah and some of us from LaFFCo are presenting at 1pm on Saturday for this year’s Our Beloved Community, which is a great opportunity for us to tell prospective students about the importance of food and agriculture and what Lafayette is doing to help.

More toward Thanksgiving, on this coming Thursday the 19th, LaFarm is holding a market in Farinon for students and faculty from 11-4 (more info here) and then on Friday LaFFCo is heading out to the farm to harvest the last of the food for our Thanksgiving Potluck happening on that Sunday the 22nd (more info for that here) which will be a great way to wrap up the agricultural season with all our members! I look forward to everything that’s coming up.

In addition, I’ve heard a bit about a big story in the upcoming Alumni magazine, more on that when it gets released…


Joe Ingrao, EXCEL Scholar Fall 2015

AASHE Sustainability Conference!

Hello All!

This year, I had the great opportunity of going to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)’s Sustainability Conference in Minneapolis to give a presentation! I really should have gotten to this post sooner, so that more of the people I saw at the conference may have seen it, but I’m only getting to it now.

At the conference I met and talked with a lot of really great people from all over the US and Canada, from places institutions the University of South Dakota, Portland State, Skidmore College, Allegheny College, Antioch College, the University of St. Scholastica, and other places like the US Green Building Council. I managed to chat with Professors, Students, Sustainability Officers and other administrators including some college presidents! Being able to swap ideas with others and telling people about everything we’ve done at Lafayette was one of the best opportunities I’ve had in my whole time at Lafayette.

It was especially heartening to talk to people who found our experiences at Lafayette to be great examples! The Sustainability Rally we had recently and all our efforts to get a Sustainability Coordinator were of especial interest to many students.

In addition to seeing Jessie McElwain, Eban Goodstein, Steven Mulky, and many others talk/give workshops, giving my own presentation was a great experience. I managed to get a lot of excited students and several faculty/administrators who were happy to hear about the formation of LaFarm through the funding of the CGI-U Outstanding Commitment Award. It was great talking to so many interested students right then, and the range of questions I received was interesting: people asked about everything from our crop rotation, soil conservation, cover crop and other farm management techniques, to the potential for greenhouse production in the Winter, to the way we got funding for starting the farm and employing Sarah, to how we got a sustainability rally to work at Lafayette. I felt really proud of everything we had been able to accomplish because of all the interest people had in Lafayette!

I’m very thankful that, because of my research with Prof. Cohen, I was able to go to such a fun and informative conference. I hope that in years to come, other students get such a good opportunity!

Joe Ingrao, Fall 2015 EXCEL Scholar

Community, Work, and the Bounty of the Summer Harvest

Hello Farmers!

August has rolled in and we at the farm are seeing the benefits of all the work we put into our land, enjoying our pickings and looking forward to all the great autumn harvests we know we’ll have this year. Those harvests will be going to the dining hall, to the veggie van, and we will be selling at market on campus again when classes start.

Through all my work with LaFarm, interacting with the Veggies in the Community and other farms, and all my other Lafayette work that has brought me in contact with the Easton Farmers Market, Buy Fresh Buy Local, the Easton Hunger Coalition and others, I have always been most astounded by how much food and agriculture can so easily create a sense of community. Wherever I meet farm workers, farmers, gardeners, food distributors, cooks, or anyone else whose life revolves around food, whether it is at market, them visiting LaFarm, me visiting another farm, at a kitchen or anywhere else, there is always conversation to be had, information to be exchanged, goals to accomplish, and a friendly feeling of being in this life together with a shared purpose. That is one of the main advantages of centering one’s life around such a quintessential part of the human experience, the sense of community we all share.

Being in this community has brought me to look back at all the work we’ve done on the farm and take even more pride in what we’ve produced. So I took the time to bring together many of the pictures I’ve taken (and a few that I’ve been in) during this work:

What we all can accomplish together is amazing. look at this harvest from just one day this summer:

From the ground work we have laid this summer, we expect harvests like this once or twice a week for the next few months, albeit with the exact types of vegetables changing a good deal over that time. Out of the rather small chunk of land we have, I definitely find this impressive, and I know that despite our struggles this is all possible because of the many, many hours of hard work that all of the people working or even just helping out once at our modest farm. So many thanks to Peter, Leslie, Miranda, Alexa, Rachel, Haley, Brandon, and all the volunteers and visitors we’ve had this summer, and of course a special thanks to Sarah, without whom none of this would happen, and Profs Lawrence, Cohen, Germanoski, Brandes, and all the others who help make the farm a part of Lafayette! I look forward to another great year as I enter my last Fall semester at Lafayette in this community of food workers.

Joe Ingrao, Summer 2015 EXCEL Scholar

Storm Recovery, One Month Later

That’s right, as I indicated earlier, we are still thinking about and working around the June 30th hail storm and will be actively for the rest of the season at least. After all, I have not had a day working at the farm this month when we didn’t say “we’re doing this because of the storm” at least once, and every conversation I’ve had with a community gardener in that same period has revolved around the phrase “after that storm we…”

Overall, I would definitely say that I am cautiously optimistic about the overall state of the farm given the amount of damage we suffered. This is because despite the amount of damage there was and the fact that we’re still dealing with it, we could be in significantly worse shape had we not dedicated ourselves so highly to storm recovery. For example, I previously said that this event could have shut down a CSA’s season. At this point, I’m confident that if we were a CSA, though we would have lost a few weeks of delivery and would have had to work out the details of potential refunds or partial refunds, we would at this time be able to resume a semi-normal delivery schedule, if with included caveats about what people are not getting due to the storm.

Take for example beans:

The amount of damage on the beans right after the storm was intimidating to say the least. Many farmers may have just taken those beans and tilled them under the soil, either trying to plant a new succession or just so they didn’t use time and energy on a lost prospect. As we said we would, we left them in the ground and tried to help them out. As can be seen, although they have been hit by the surge of Japanese Beetles that has descended on the farm since the storm, they are still producing. Some individual plants are doing much better than others, but there were more producing plants than not and we had our first harvest of beans just this Monday, July 27th (which is not extremely late for beans by any means.)

This is comparable to the performance of many of our other crops: definitely set back by the damage, but still more or less on time:

Also the plants that  were just sprouting (and thus suffered less from the hail, just on grace of not having been hit) or that we didn’t plant until just after the storm are of course also doing well:

But as I said, this is but cautious optimism. It is impossible to quantify the amount of time, energy, and labor was lost due to the storm. At this time it’s just better to look at the bright side of things; the farm isn’t looking too shabby.

Looking at the stem of the tomato from just last week, you can see how the hail damage has left permanent scars.

Looking at the stem of the tomato from just last week, you can see how the hail damage has left permanent scars.

There is one particularly crop whose damage has hit home for all of us. Our tomatoes. They are producing, and we’ve even gotten some ripe Black Cherries, Purple Cheorkee, and Yellow Perfection, but what we were most worried about happening, happened.

Yellowing and Wilting of a tomato branch most likely caused by early blight

Yellowing and Wilting of a tomato branch most likely caused by early blight

Because of the large number of hail wounds our tomatoes suffered, they became very susceptible to disease and we’ve had to go through our crop several times to clean up the Septoria and Early Tomato Blight, two fungal diseases that necessitate the cutting of dying branches by sanitized clippers. Treating these diseases is important enough to warrant it’s own later technique post, and hopefully within the next week I’ll be able to take some pictures of the process and write that up. Suffice it to say for now that we are at the very least glad that we gave our tomatoes a good amount of spacing (2 ft for a single row between each plant) because good air flow is one of the best defenses against these diseases, and that we have managed to straw mulch under them this season (protecting somewhat against weeds, which make it harder to clean up and of course reduce the room for air circulation.)

And as the previous technique post on spraying Surround is an example of, we’ve incurred some of the financial and labor burden of spraying several of the chemicals recommended by USDA Extension Agent Tianna DuPont to all the hail damaged farms in the area. In addition to that Kaolin Clay, we’ve sprayed with fish emulsion (ground fish essentially, which has many beneficial nutrients plants need and if you spray it on a mature plant’s leaves it can be absorbed into the plant,) as well as Regalia, which is a ‘biofungicide,’ basically a chemical which helps kill bacteria and fungus. Regalia specifically causes in plants what is referred to as ‘Induced Systemic Resistance,’ which basically means it actually stimulates and strengthens a plant’s immune system, so it can better fight off bacteria and fungus. There were a few more chemicals recommended to farmers like us which we elected not to use, and even just what we did get cost us around $800- which is not an insignificant amount of money for a farmer in the wake of a storm which would have drastically reduced their income. Also considering our scale (we didn’t even spray on our full 2 acres) this would have been much much more expensive for a farmer on say, 8 acres who went to spray all the different recommended chemicals. At the moment, we’re just very thankful that what we’ve done has been as successful as it has, even if not everything is perfect. Hopefully we’ll be able to completely recover from our remaining problems by the end of summer.

In the mean time, hope everyone is doing well, and happy farming!

-Joe Ingrao, Summer 2015 EXCEL Scholar

Kaolin Clay

There aren’t many things that we spray at LaFarm. But in the wake of the storm it is more important than usual for us to do everything we can to protect our plants from any further damage. That’s why right now, when the worst of the pests are around, we’re protecting our most vulnerable crops with Kaolin Clay.

Kaolin Clay is a completely organic substance, it is in fact a finely ground clay powder. When mixed with water, Kaolin Clay can be sprayed on plants to coat them in this powder, which (with an effectiveness that surprised me) confuses pests, who confusedly find that instead of a tasty eggplant leaf, they’ve landed on a weird clay bush. This way, it doesn’t actually kill anything or disrupt the ecosystem, it just protects the plants you spray it on.

Kaolin Clay is not completely effective for all plants against all pests, but it’s definitely effective enough that we spray our squash (especially young transplants) to protect against cucumber beetles or squash bugs, our eggplant to protect against flea beetles, Colorado potato beetles or anything else that might want a munch on them, and on a few others like Brussels Sprouts.

Stirring Kaolin Clay solution with the broken handle of an old digging fork.

Stirring Kaolin Clay solution with the broken handle of an old digging fork.

To use Kaolin Clay, you first need to mix it with water. We go for the Surround brand Kaolin Clay, which calls for 3 cups of Clay to be mixed with every 1 gallon of water. We put the Clay in a bucket and then add water and stir until the Clay is mixed enough that it doesn’t stick to the bucket or whatever we use to stir. Also at this step it’s safest to wear something over your nose and mouth; although the clay is not toxic, you still don’t want powdered clay getting in your lungs.

It is most advisable to spray on days without direct sunlight. When the liquid pools on a plant, it can magnify sunlight, which can burn the plant, making it less healthy, defeating the purpose of spraying. At the same time, you do not want to spray if it’s going to rain soon. Rain can wash off the clay, especially if it’s been applied only recently.

We use a hand-pumped backpack sprayer, dumping in the mixture from the bucket once it’s ready. It’s theoretically possible to spray it from a smaller spray bottle if you only needed enough for a plant or two. Some farmers will mix fish emulsion into the clay (fish emulsion can soak into the leaves of mature plants, giving them additional nutrients) but this is not advised by the USDA. It’s important to spray every leaf of any plant you’re trying to protect, and both the tops and bottoms of each leaf. Otherwise it would be like building a wall around half of a town to protect against invasion: it won’t help when they come from the other side.

After spraying, most pests will be confused by the clay and not eat your plants. That is especially important if you have hail- and flea beetle-damaged crops like our eggplant, or if you’re about to transplant 50 zucchini when you’ve noticed some cucumber beetles around the farm.

Happy Farming!

-Joe Ingrao, Summer 2015 EXCEL Scholar

Cover Cropping

This post comes at a very good time as the National Working Group on Cover Crops and Soil Health recently released a top ten list of ways to improve soil health. So, since these are some of the things we’re doing out at LaFarm, it makes sense to share some basics about cover cropping.

Last year we covered a 40'x40' plot with sun hemp. Sun hemp fixes nitrogen in the soil, can be used as cloth, and is very effective at shading out weeds (also you cannot smoke it.)

Last year we covered a 40’x40′ plot with sun hemp. Sun hemp fixes nitrogen in the soil, can be used as cloth, and is very effective at shading out weeds (also you cannot smoke it.)

Cover cropping is the act of purposefully planting a non-food crop on your land for one of a few reasons. You can use leguminous cover crops to increase nitrogen in the soil (or a whole host of other crops to increase organic matter or specific micro-nutrients) to protect a plot, bed, or field from weeds before or after you’ve used it for food in a season, to mark permanent walking paths between permanent beds, or even sow a crop that doesn’t grow tall under a food crop to shade out weeds so you don’t need to weed under your taller plants.

One of the main differences between cover cropping and just growing buckwheat, sun hemp, or any of the other numerous plants commonly used as cover is that generally you’re not planning on using the product of the crop, but instead are planning on tilling it under before the next season or composting it to increase soil fertility-though that’s not necessarily the case. You can grow oats as a cover, hand-harvest the oats and then still till under the crop. Likewise we could have harvested the sun hemp we grew as cover last year to use as fiber for clothes and left the leguminous nitrogen nodules in the ground for this season. But the main goal with cover cropping is the soil health benefits, not the produce of the crop.

As I’ve mentioned previously we had to pull a whole row of potatoes after the storm on June 30th. Because there’s a good deal of growing time left, we decided to cover crop it with cowpeas and buckwheat. We chose these because cowpeas fix nitrogen in the soil, and the buckwheat will live for longer into the winter, keeping protection on the bed, but both will die before next season, so we can till them under for increased soil nitrogen and organic matter. This handy guide by the USDA is a great quick reference for what kind of cover crop you may need.

We started by tilling the bed, and then getting out our Earthways Broadcast Seeder. When broadcast seeding, you can spread by hand, it just takes a lot of time on any significant scale. We filled the seeder with the cowpea and buckwheat seeds, and then walked it across the newly tilled row. With cover crops, soil compaction over the seed is actually desirable (unlike with vegetables where it is to be absolutely avoided.) After just one pass with the seeder, we used a soil rake to cover all the seed. It was that simple! And since we’re not harvesting this crop for food, we don’t need to pay any more attention to the bed really (except for some optional hand weeding if weeds start getting too big before the peas or wheat get established.)

This was just on on a single row. At the farm, we’ve also cover cropped all our permanent pathways with crimson clover, which doesn’t grow very tall, shades out most weeds, and marks the areas we can walk on, and we’ve covered whole plots with buckwheat, Sudan grass, sun hemp and other crops. For that, you just till the whole plot, broadcast seed until you see seed over most of the area of the plot, and then step all over it and/or rake it into the ground. Some farmers tie wooden boards to their feet to help step on the whole area faster.

Hope this helps some diversified growers out there!

-Joe Ingrao, Summer 2015 EXCEL Scholar

Natural Disasters, Resiliency, and Agriculture

Hey Farmers,

The storm now weeks past brings to light a lot of issues that are becoming increasingly salient for people around the globe. As an educational establishment, standing with one foot in agriculture and the other in academia, we at LaFarm study the broader food and agriculture system and its interconnectedness with human society as well as the rest of the world beyond humans. Therefore, it is necessary to discuss the ripple effect of non-human events (natural disasters, even small ones) through this indelible network of human and non-human processes.

This storm was not actually too huge. It’s definitely not the biggest storm that’s hit this area in the few years I’ve been here (as we should not forget hurricanes Sandy and Irene.) And yet the damage it did to us was devastating. As I said in my last post, this storm could have easily ended a young farmer’s career. The localized hail and wind damage alone took a good percentage of our overall yield away, and the cost of dealing with the ramifications is high enough to make a farm dip far into the red.

So consider farms at our scale. Very small, very local. Other such farmers could sell to a local market, run a CSA with a few dozen shares maybe, or a combination of both. Even a minor natural disaster, one where no person was too seriously injured, maybe one downed power line or already is having a huge effect on these people. The farm gets hit hard, the farmer and their family is out of a job, and could lose the land. CSA members may get a refund, or maybe the farmer can’t even get that money back to them. Thousands of dollars are lost or turned into debt, and a lot of families’ economic situations are complicated. A market gardener loses supply and the market doesn’t make them money any more, they lose customer loyalty and even if they somehow make it back to the market next year, they now have a harder time competing. Think about this happening to an area that’s close to a food desert. Imagine the families buying fresh vegetables from the market on SNAP benefits, or who rely on their local urban farm who might not be able to get produce from anywhere else around. So there’s hits in the health and stability of families as well.

Now think about the problem scaled up. Imagine a mid-scale producer being hit with a bad storm or an awful flood. If they sell wholescale to the local hospital or school, there’s going to be a lot of economic disruption for years to come, not to mention the potential for a food shortage. And then a large farm being hit with a bad hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or drought (I’m thinking out west right now.) The potential ramifications will have effects on thousands of people easily.

So given that storms and other natural disasters are going to get worse from here on out, what can help the food system become more resilient against the potential of natural disasters? Well, a lot of things:

  1. Local food networks. Say you’re the administrator of a hospital, looking at where to source your food. If you buy all of your food cheap from mono-croppers halfway across the country, and any one of the few farms you source from gets hit, that’s potentially catastrophic. But, if you source from 20 different farms within 100 or 200 miles of the hospital in any given direction, than one single event can’t completely disrupt your food supply.
  2. Grassroots support organizations. With farmers helping each other, CSA members who are willing to come help after a storm or flood, a co-op designed to support its member farms, or a myriad of other possible formal or informal partnerships, every producer benefits in their time of need.
  3. More diversified growers. If you run an just orchard, a hail storm can destroy a whole year’s crop, if you grow only annual vegetables, a bad flood could wipe away your whole farm. But only the worst flood could carry away an established nut or fruit tree and hail can’t annihilate forage crops grown in the understory of a food forest.
  4. Better policy support for small, diversified farmers. Large mono-croppers can get some form of crop insurance, but diversified growers cannot. There’s plenty of subsidies for conventional corn growers, but not so much as an assistance program for diversified organic growers. We need policies in this country (and in other countries as well) that can support the sort of system we need to be sustainable.

In addition with the slow plodding push for that sort of change, already started by others, individual farmers can prepare themselves in several ways:

  1. Educate yourself about how to deal with damage due to natural disasters. Look for webinars, ask your USDA extension agent, or learn from other farmers.
  2. Form partnerships with other farmers. Tool lending libraries, co-ops, and even just friendships with other farmers in your area will help you and them be prepared with both the knowledge and skills necessary for when disaster strikes. In addition, if everyone helps each other become established, everyone will already be in a better place when something does happen.
  3. Educate your customers about agriculture’s relationship with natural disasters, and society in general. This will make everyone a better ecological citizen, who may be more likely to be understanding and not need a refund for part of a CSA share lost to drought, or pay extra for your remaining produce at the stand after a storm.

There’s a lot of work to be done to make our food system sustainable in the face of a climate-change stricken world