Learning the hard way

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It took us years to get the garden’s fertility just so. And it took me three days to get this year’s garden planted. But here it sits: untouched and rotting on the ground because we cannot eat a bite of it.

I have been putting off writing this post for a long time. Partly because it’s a hell of a bummer of a topic and partly because I was still doing research. The research is done and it’s time to face the facts: we have to abandon the vegetable garden.

Why? The short answer is that the ground is contaminated with the eggs of Ascaris worms from the pigs. We are ideal hosts for them, as are the chickens and the Boll Weevil cat. Parasites like these are why you are warned against composting dog and cat feces.

What we have learned here is that pig farming and gardening should never ever be combined. This is common knowledge in tropical and third-world areas, but totally unknown to us temperate North Americans.

Here’s the long answer:

The latest pigs had large roundworms. This is pretty common in modern domestic pigs. The breeder we use usually worms the piglets before we get them. Either one or both of our piglets evaded him on worming day or we already had Ascaris ova in our soil (from previous pigs or passing cats, who love to use the garden as a litter box). We wormed them and thought nothing more of it, as it did not affect their meat.

In pigs, roundworms are called Ascaris suum and in humans they are Ascaris lumbricoides. However, these worms are “indistinguishable morphologically” [1] and are now theorized (though not proven) to be the same species.[2] The ability of A. suum to infect humans was proven last year in a case study by the CDC. [2]

Ascaris eggs cannot be killed by freezing temperatures.[3] Bleach cannot kill them, either.[4] This means that there is no chemical we could drench the soil with that would not also kill us and the wildlife. They often survive microwaving and irradiation. They have been repeatedly proven to live 5 years in the soil – even after desiccation – and one study I read showed that the eggs were still viable after 15 years.[5]

Temperatures of 122 degrees for a minimum of 2 hours can kill them.[6] Soil solarization can (but does not always) raise the temperature of the soil to 140 degrees.[7] However, it only affects the top 6 inches of soil and we have eggs at least 2 feet down thanks to the holes the pigs dug – and likely rainwater and earthworms have carried them farther down yet.[8] [9]

So we don’t really have any realistic options for removing the eggs from our soil. (An unrealistic option would be to excavate the site and replace the soil entirely. However, that would be massively cost-prohibitive and unless we sent the soil to a hazardous materials dump site – which is even more costly – we would be passing the problem along to someone else because any facility that accepted the soil would screen it and resell it as fill to another customer.)

I am not convinced that microscopic ova cannot leach upwards into clean raised bed soil, but I might consider installing raised beds to grow ornamentals or plants whose edible parts have no contact with the soil, though this would limit our options to peas and corn. Anything else sits in or on the ground. Matt has suggested his pet crop, wheat. I think this might be a viable option so long as we are careful during planting and harvest about dust (eggs can become airborne and be breathed in[10]) and do not use the straw in the chicken coop.

Our best bet is to move the food growing operation to the front yard and hope that the ground there has not already been contaminated via compost, my boots, and my tools. Over the former vegetable garden we would be best off to grow grass or “pave” the area by putting in hardscaping and/or a structure such as a pergola or greenhouse.

Please learn from our mistake. Keep pigs well away from sites where edibles are being grown and do not use pig manure to fertilize crops. Rotating pigs and vegetables, as we have done for the past several years, is a terrible idea.

— Amanda

[1] Miller, Leigh Ann, et al. “Cross-Transmission of Ascaris Infection from Pigs to Humans at an Organic Farm-Coastal Maine, 2012.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (https://cste.confex.com/cste/2013/webprogram/Paper1636.html)

[2] Leles D, Gardner SL, Reinhard K, Iñiguez A, Araujo A. “Are Ascaris lumbricoides and Ascaris suum a single species?” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22348306 )

[3] Selendy, Janine M. H., ed. Water and Sanitation Related Diseases and the Environment: Challenges, Interventions, and Preventative Measures. John Wiley & Sons, Oct 7, 2011.

[4] Brownell, Sarah A. and Nelson, Kara L. “Inactivation of Single-Celled Ascaris suum Eggs by Low-Pressure UV Radiation” Appl. Environ. Microbiol. March 2006 vol. 72 no. 3 2178-2184 (http://aem.asm.org/content/72/3/2178 ) [NOTE: This is just one of many scientific articles I read in which sodium hypochlorite is mentioned as being used to remove the outer layers of the eggs to hasten embryonation.)

[5] “Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption; Current Good Manufacturing Practice and Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human Food; Draft Qualitative Risk Assessment of Risk of Activity/Food Combinations for Activities (Outside the Farm Definition) Conducted in a Facility Co-Located on a Farm; Availability; Proposed Rules.” Department of Health and Human Services Food and Drug Administration 21 CFR Parts 1, 16, 106, Et al. (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-01-16/pdf/2013-00123.pdf )

[6] “Bio-intensive Approach to Small-scale Household Food Production.” International Institute for Rural Reconstruction. (http://collections.infocollections.org/ukedu/uk/d/Jii06be/3.5.html )

[7] Stapleton, J.J.; Wilen, C.A.; Molinar, R. H. “Soil Solarization or Gardens & Landscapes: Integrated Pest Management for Home Gardeners and Landscape Professionals” UC Statewide IPM Program,

University of California, Davis. http://ucanr.edu/sites/Solarization/files/114635.pdf )

[8] Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., et al. “Soil Transmitted Helminth Infections: The Nature, Causes and Burden of the Condition” Disease Control Priorities Project. (http://www.dcp2.org/file/19/ )

[9] Kraglund, H O; Grønvold, J; Roepstorff, A; Rawat, H. “Interactions between the nematode parasite of pigs, Ascarissuum, and the earthworm Aporrectodea longa.” Acta Vet Scand. 1998;39(4):453-60. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9926459)

[10] Weintraub, N.D., Skye. The Parasite Menace: A Complete Guide to the Prevention, Treatment and Elimination of Parasitic Infection. Woodland Publishing.

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Book Review: The Urban Farm Handbook by Annette Cottrell and Joshua McNichols

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This is one of those great books that got us excited all over again to be doing what we’re already doing. Everything in this book is accessible: it all sounds alluring and simple and it’s all described with great enthusiasm.

It’s arranged seasonally and each chapter has recipes; some for whole meals, some for artisan breads and cheeses. They are all easy and doable and drool-worthy. Each chapter within the seasons has “opportunities for change”: a run down of the varying shades of self-sufficiency and/or sustainability that are available to you for said chapter. Dairy for instance. For a start you could buy organic milk. If you want to do more you can look for organic and/or unhomogenized and/or unpasteurized milk from a local farmer. If that’s not good enough for you you could raise your own dairy goats. As the authors say, “You might think of these as ‘different levels of crazy.’ Choose the level that suits your personality.”

Infectious enthusiasm is one key element in a how-to book. The other element I look for in books about the lifestyle I already lead is “Aha” moments. Sentences or ideas that make me grab my pencil and take furious notes or say – out loud – “Damn, why didn’t I think of that years ago?!” In this book one of the “Aha” moments was the “produce eating plan”, a marvelously analytical chart in which you determine your family’s food needs for an entire year – and what seasons you eat it in! I really wish I had made a chart like this before I started planting. Instead I have spent years determining how much of what to grow (and how much land to till for it) based on trial and error. Seed catalogs sometimes include charts that tell you average yields for their seeds, but that still doesn’t help if you don’t have a realistic idea of how much you will consume.

A uniquely Pacific Northwestern topic covered in this book is sun. We’ve all got shade problems on this side of the Cascades, haven’t we? Many books advocate (and for good reason) using short-season crops in the PNW to deal with our cool and wet weather, but I hadn’t yet run across a book that detailed the sun requirements for edibles – in fact, I didn’t even know that there were different sun requirements! I assumed (and you know my favorite saying . . .) that they all needed full sun. I’m pleased to be proven wrong this time.

“Aha” moment #3: a brilliantly simple way to get started on crop rotation. “A good rule to plant by is ‘leaf to fruit to root to legume’.” After they explain their rationale I am left holding my head and chanting, “I’m an idiot. I’m an idiot.” The best advice is the kind that seems self-evident after you’ve heard it – but that you couldn’t figure out on your own.

Living food is covered in this book, too. And I must say that this book had the most accurate description I’ve read so far of slaughter: unflinching without being dramatic. So many books skirt around what really happens, saying that birds “may flap some” after beheading, or that shot pigs “kick”. (Dial that up a few notches, kids. Way up.) But Cottrell and McNichols do keep their coverage of the death issue respectful. Also, they have lots of great information on the various available methods of getting good meat or getting animals transformed into meat – something I don’t think a whole lot of folks are intuitively aware of.

Finally, I would like to note that, yes, Joshua McNichols is the same Joshua McNichols you know and love from our local NPR affiliate KUOW.

—Amanda

Free-flowing frozen veggies

Last year I froze a lot of carrots and peas. I made two big mistakes: 1) I grew the wrong kind of carrots for freezing. If you will be eating your carrots fresh or canned I wholeheartedly recommend the ‘Sugarsnax’ (hybrid) variety I grew last year. They are very orange and very sweet and stayed pretty darn crunchy when pickled. However, they do not have strong tops and therefore cannot be pulled – they must be forked or dug out of the ground – and they lose their snap altogether when frozen, reemerging flaccid and mushy. 2) I cut corners and dumped all my blanched veggies into bags before freezing.

What’s wrong with that? Well, even though I had done my darndest to dry the veggies before pouring them into freezer bags, they were still pretty damp. When they froze they formed ginormous, solid clumps. Every time I wanted a cup of peas for tater tot casserole or a handful of carrots for stew I had to at least partially thaw they whole bag in order to bust off a chunk. (This constant thawing and re-freezing can’t have helped the mushiness problem).

This year I not only grew a variety of carrot that is more highly recommended for freezing (‘Red-Cored Chantenay’) but I am taking the time to go through the extra steps to make free-flowing frozen veggies like the kind you get at the grocery store, so that I can pour off however much I need without thawing the whole bag. (The other option would have been to freeze smaller quantities, but I opted not to because the quantity I need varies widely.)

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Step one: Wash, chop, and blanch. A good food preservation book will give recommendations for how long to steam or boil your veggies. (I personally am quite fond of The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest and Stocking Up.) I like to blanch the veggies in a colander instead of pouring them right into the water and then fishing them out with a slotted spoon.

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After boiling or steaming, plunge the veggies into ice water.

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Step two: dry. Roll the veggies in a clean tea towel and press or squeeze lightly.

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Step three: freeze. Distribute the veggies on a baking sheet (I use an old jelly-roll pan so that the peas don’t roll right off. My pan is kind of gross so I line it with waxed paper.) so that they are not touching each other, and leave in the freezer for 1/2 to 1 hour or as long as it takes for them to be frozen.

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Step four: bag. Gently dislodge the frozen veggies from the pan and pour them into freezer bags or other freezer-safe containers.

— Amanda