Potato Viruses (V)

Island Sunset and Island Sunshine potatoes harvested in 2013

Island Sunset and Island Sunshine potatoes harvested in 2013

David Greenberg and Raymond Loo were talking about selecting potatoes for disease resistance, when this very interesting note about potato viruses came up.  I thought it was important to share.  It reminded me of our discussion with Ted Hutten about growing seedlings in mushroom compost and how that reduces fungal disease.

Raymond: There’s very few viruses in the true seed.  You can get spindle tuber and there’s two or three viruses that could be in the seed but there’s very, very few. You should always be starting with clean stuff. One thing I wanted to mention is, you were asking about how long they stay virus free.  When we took on/out Sunshine [Island Sunshine variety], and we put it through the ‘virus-freeing’ process, they get sick a lot worse than our old Sunshine that we had for a long time [kept year after year on the farm]. So, I phoned my sister Judy.  She’s in Rome right now working with biodiversity, she’s  got her Doctorate in genetics so she went and studied down in Oklahoma State back when they were just starting to genetically modify stuff.  So, we had great discussions and so I phoned her one day because it just kind of hit me that the potatoes that we have growing outside, we get rid of their immune systems when we ‘virus-free’ them. I think the viruses are naturally in the potatoes and they keep the other stuff out to a certain extent.

David: It’s like taking an antibiotic…

Raymond:  So I asked her, can you ask some of your friends if it is possible that the reason that we’re seeing, after we virus-free them, that they get sick really quickly but we’ve got potatoes here that we’ve had for twenty years that we’ve been growing year after year that have very few viruses in them- what’s going on? Why don’t we have 100% virus by now? And we don’t, so what’s keeping it out?  She came back a few days later and said yeah you’re probably right but we don’t know for sure…

What’s happening is the potatoes have reached equilibrium so there’s only so much room, we’ll say to put it very plainly but there’s only so much room on top of here for everything to be there right so if you get rid of…if you have a residual population of viruses we’ll say, or bacteria or fungi that eats viruses, it’s kinda like the idea of Elaine Ingham from Soil Foodweb…so the idea is that there are viruses in the potatoes that are acting like their immune system.


Sorting potatoes for planting in 2014

Sorting potatoes for planting in 2014

DISCUSSION WANTED: I have observed the same thing.  When I keep potatoes year after year, I find they do really well.  I’ve never compared and measured virus levels, but it would be interesting to do.  We are continuing with seed potatoes from Raymond Loo and seed from Raoul Robinson.  We will continue to select the best ones, and keep the seed year after year.  Feel free to comment and share what you are doing with your potatoes.  Does anyone have potatoes that seem to be able to resist potato viruses?  Do you keep potatoes for planting the following year?  Do you have a special variety you like?


Posted in farm mentors, potatoes, seed saving | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

How to Start a Potato Breeding Program – Farmer Style (IV)

Raymond Loo took some time out of his busy schedule to explain to David Greenberg how to start a potato breeding program.  This is a fairly technical post, with no photos.  Any farmer interested in starting a potato breeding program might be very interested in this discussion.  Please get in touch (in the winter) if you are interested in working together.

Raymond: Now some varieties are way, way, way easier to work with.  Island Sunset set seed like crazy so I think that’s one that a person should start with, to do a cross with. There’s some stuff like Shepody that doesn’t set any seed, or a Russet–Burbank.  There’s no seed in it. They’re all sterile so you’ll see balls but they’re all sterile.  There are no seeds in them.  So with some varieties there is no point.

Raymond: It takes quite a while you know like the first year you’re probably not going to get any blossoms, usually, you get just a few tubers. Second year, if you’re starting with a really small potato, quite often they don’t really bloom either, the blight comes in early enough that you don’t really get any seed from them, if you do them in a greenhouse. The other way is to do some, you know it just depends on the budget and the time and who’s going to do it but if you grew some under a floating row cover, we’ve done that before- the problem with that is controlling weeds so you’ll probably have to take it off but you can increase your temperature quite a little bit and you can bring your potato along quite a bit faster. The problem is when you take the floating cover off in a place like mine that’s so bloody windy, if you’ve been growing that potato really aggressively…

David:just to see if I understand… so you start off with seed material, let’s just say if we were doing this work, we would start it really early, plant it out, maybe get it under row cover, try to get some plants going, let’s say we get some pretty good-sized tubers, and let’s say then that we would send you tubers that you could plant out in year two that would be ready to make a seed ball potentially…

Raymond: I think what I would suggest is the second year, so the second year, we’ll say, when we’ve planted the little tubers and grown them up, at that point I would probably keep, you’d number each bag and track them, in the first year, depending on how pedigree you want to be about it you should track them right from the seed but…

David: Sounds like an awful amount of work…

Raymond: Yeah that’s a lot of work because you’re going to throw away 90% of them … Anyway but when you do save them in a little bag you have to keep track of them.  What I would suggest then is that if I got ten potatoes I’d keep two of them, I’d send you eight and you’d send them out to the other[farmers]…so then you’ve four different places with two different potatoes and we all have the same number on them. And then I grow them and I see how they perform- you might have them full of scab, I might have no scab, so then we have to sit back and say, is that site-specific or is it variety-specific and so on…I would see in November, [we could] compare all the results from all of them that we’ve had growing together.

Raymond: In the third year then, I’d plant my two potatoes and at that point then I’ve got twenty potatoes- each one produces ten- and so we got together in November and said this one’s good, this one’s not, so we’ve gone from a hundred to ten, then I’m going to plant them the next year and we’ve got enough of them at that point because we’ve got four different spots to try eating some of them maybe and see how they perform again, but I should be starting a few more tubers if we’re going to perpetuate the thing, so every year you have to start a few seeds, brand new ones, every year you start- I have my ten different varieties or whatever it is that I’m growing- and then by the time that you’ve gone five years down the road, you hand them out to someone else who’s a bigger grower or whatever, we’ll probably have other people that are interested in what’s going on and say can you grow a quarter of an acre of these guys and see if they’re going to take off at the farmer’s (market?) and maybe I could do it or you…

David: And it’s not about being exclusive and small at that stage it’s just so you don’t have meetings with fifty people all going on and on and on you just have a small active group.

Raymond: Yeah I think four or five people is enough…

Raymond: So you do your hand cross and you’ve got one seed ball that comes off from that, there’s two hundred seed that comes off that ball, probably, but you do exactly the same thing next year and get two hundred again they’re not going to be the same two hundred seeds right so it’s kind of a lottery that goes on and on so we might do it the first year and see well that didn’t really produce anything that great but the next year you’ve got something that’s way better. Even if you self pollinate a potato it’s going to have two hundred different seeds.

When you take [Island] Sunshine and you take the seeds from it, just by itself, you get a whole bunch of stuff that doesn’t look anything at all like Sunshine.

David: So I think we’re getting pretty close though.  We start the seed, get the second-year seed. Start the true seed, get to the point where we have second-year tubers, send those out to everyone, people grow them in third year, get them to the fall, we compare notes, exchange, keep comparing, keep exchanging, keep on making new true seed crosses.

Raymond:  Yes, so after five years or so you would just be able to select them.

David: So where does the greenhouse [come into play?] except for starting the seed

Raymond:  To speed things up you could graft [the potatoes] on tomatoes, the problem with that is you have to have grow lights and all that sort of stuff- we don’t really have enough light here.

David: That’s what I’m interested in doing, I mean the part with starting the seed, of course, do that centrally and that’s fine but then you have something that looks good in year two and you want to get more of it

Raymond:  You want to get some seeds, so the problem is you’ve got some that look really good and it seems like they have good blight resistance.  Then you want to get it to bloom so you can get a seed ball off of it, even if it’s self-pollinating you’re still going to get something that’s got a better chance of being like its parent.

If you had two that were showing really good promise then you cross them probably you’re going to get them going and then you graft that and once you get the seed, then you graft that onto a tomato and you grow it out but the problem is that you need to have, here, you’d need to have a heated greenhouse (with high-pressure sodium lights) and yes, that’s going to cost some money.

David: Let’s say in the fall you have two varieties that look good and you want to either cross them or increase them or something…you take that, you sprout it in the fall, you take off the shoot, you graft it onto a tomato that’s growing under lights with hydroponics, they’ll take off, there’ll be lots of seed, over the winter even, and so the next spring instead of a whole year being lost you have true seed to plant.

Raymond:  You have to get it early enough that you can put your seed in dormancy for a short period of time because that’s one problem with potato seed, they need to go dormant for a little while (for like two weeks or something?) yeah well for a little while at least you can chill them for a little while and try to really shock them. The confounding thing is that the potato seed usually germinates better the second year rather than the first year so when we save the seed balls next spring you…we’ve had things ten, twelve, fourteen years old that are still germinating fine. So you have to have that time, otherwise- I tried one time, I’d saved all this seed and I tried to get them growing and none of the bloody things wouldn’t germinate, the odd one would but most of them wouldn’t, I just didn’t give them enough time.

David:  So that’s kind of the idea if you had something that looked really good and you wanted to expand it you could grow it over the winter and then just take cuttings in the spring and plant those all out

Raymond:  Yeah I mean I’ve grown sprouts…so when I had potatoes that I only had a few of and I’d had a lot of trouble with them so I would save every sprout carefully in the tray, plant the potatoes, (can’t let the sun dry them out), and then plant the sprouts and most of them will grow and then you have to watch them, closer than the potatoes.

David:  That’s something we could do in the greenhouse, have a heating table

Raymond:  It’ll increase exponentially from what you’d get from one or two potatoes.

David:  And that could be useful…

Raymond:  Yeah , yeah if you’ve got one or two that look promising- if you had blight, heavy, heavy blight and only two survived and everything else is dead but you only have those two potatoes and they taste good and look good and then you can really increase your, your…so instead of having these two potatoes and you cut these potatoes really carefully, you sprout them first and you get ten sprouts…

David: If you sprout them in December and moved those sprouts into a bigger container and take the cuttings off the sprout you could end up with two hundred plants…

Raymond: Yeah you could even do it with a little bit of tissue culture basically.

David:  So that’s the basic idea, it’s safe to assume that we’d learn more tricks as we go but that’s enough of an accurate explanation of it if we’re explaining it for why we need a greenhouse, and it really is important that we have that greenhouse.

Raymond:  Yeah it is and, otherwise, that would be my downfall- I would have a hard time in April and May when I’m trying to get everything ready to go to have enough time to start enough potato seeds to make a difference, like that’s the problem.  I could start a hundred seeds but the chances of getting something good out of a hundred seeds is pretty small. You want to start 1,000 seeds or 2,000 seeds or 10,000. It’s like the lottery…

David:  The more tickets you buy, the better your chance to win…

Raymond:  The way I used to start my potatoes is starting them in the peat trays the same way as you do with lettuce and separate them back out of it. One of the problems with growing potatoes in a [seedling tray]…you can get them out but sometimes they’re too weak to pull the whole plug out.

David:  Okay, we also do soil blocks,  that might be really good, too. We have a 20-blocker, so we can do a lot…

Posted in farm mentors, potatoes, seed saving | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Starting a Disease Resistance Selection Program (III)

Raymond Loo, April 2012

Raymond Loo, April 2012

Growing potatoes organically is a challenge because late blight will destroy the plant and negatively affect the quality of the potato.  Conventional growers use fungicides to control blight.  Our question: is it possible to select or breed potatoes that are resistant to this disease?  Here is part of a discussion Raymond Loo, an organic farmer in PEI who’s family selected two blight resistant potatoes in the 1990s, had with David and Jen Greenberg.  Both Raymond and the Greenbergs have been influenced in their thinking by Raoul Robinson, who was able to breed a disease resistant potato in Kenya.  Raoul wrote a book, available for free on-line, called Return to Resistance.  Raoul sent us a bag of true potato seed, which we grew out in 2012.  We also got a few tubers to try from Raymond.  This was the start of our potato selection program.  It continued in 2013, and we plan to select again in 2014.

Raymond: Potatoes are really well protected against blight themselves for the first while, and then as they mature they start losing their resistance.

If you challenge [spray blight on] your potatoes really early in their life cycle, right after they emerge from the soil, you’re probably not going to see that big of a response.  Wait until they get established.  By this time they have a little bit of potato growing down in the soil.  If at that point the plants start to succumb, and you see differences, you can pick out the ones that lasted the longest, and grow another generation from the tubers they produced.

David: The blight starts about mid-August?

Raymond: Yes, by mid-august it’s usually bad in PEI, for the last few years.  Now last summer you could not have designed a worse blight year if you tried.

There were two factors that increased the incidence of blight:

1)    “It rained and rained and rained and rained.”

2)    The volunteer potatoes didn’t get killed over the winter.  ‘Volunteer’ potatoes are tubers that were missed in the previous year’s harvest.  If the winter is not cold enough, the potatoes left in the ground by accident will sprout and grow into a new plant.  “There were volunteer potatoes everywhere because they hadn’t been frozen hard enough to kill them [over the winter], so it was just fields full of them.  But this year [2012] we don’t have anyways close to the amount of volunteers because there was lots of frost, and no snow, so it froze hard enough to pretty well wipe them [the volunteers] out. So we’re starting back off with a clean [slate].”

“We hope that we’ll have a longer season this year so hopefully we can get to the middle of August and by that time we’ll have potatoes.  Two years ago, the 8th of July there was blight.”

Raymond recommended that we should aim for a short-season variety to reduce losses from late blight.   He also thinks short season selections are useful in a world with a less predictable climate.

Raymond: The later season varieties generally have more disease resistance in them, because that’s how come they last and survive longer; that’s what Raoul Robinson was saying. The long season varieties have more resistance in general.  But not always.  Russet Burbank is not very resistant and it’s a really late variety, and Shepody is a really late variety and it’s not resistant at all, so it’s not always that way.

Fabula is a long season potato, but it has good resistance.  And Satina is another relatively long season variety.  It’s not really long — probably 100 to 120 day variety — but it starts to produce potatoes after about 65 days.  You can start killing some at any point you have to and you still have some potatoes. But as far as stressing them goes, I would probably not worry about putting extra stress on them by spraying them with inoculant or anything like that. Especially when you only have 450 potatoes to work with, you might just wipe them all out!

David: We have seed from Raoul Robinson

Raymond: Varieties that he’s selected?

David: He did a 20-way cross.

Raymond: Ok, a 20-way cross.  So he’s been crossing them for a while. There should be a bunch of resistance in them that’s for sure.  Do you have much more seed than what you planted?

David: He gave me probably an ounce and a half?  A packet of seeds.Roulseed

Raymond: That’s an awful pile of seeds in there. They’ll keep for a long time.  I don’t know how old his seed is, but we had seed that was 10 years old and still fine.

David: It seems that producing 100,000 seedlings is the beginning.

Raymond: Yes.

True potato seedlings from Raoul Robinson's seed

True potato seedlings from Raoul Robinson’s seed

David Greenberg and Kate Babcock planting out potato seedlings into soil blocks, May 2012.

David Greenberg and Kate Babcock planting out potato seedlings into soil blocks, April 23 2012.

David: Start the seedlings. You grow them out.  Most of them will die, and then you have the mini-tubers.  You store the mini-tubers over the winter and plant them back.

Mini-tubers from Raoul's seed, October 2012

Mini-tubers from Raoul’s seed, October 2012

Raymond: Yes.

David: Can we do that first screening at one farm?

Raymond: I think so.  I think that’s the way to try and do it.

David: Let’s say we have a three-acre field.  We do; we have a three and a half acre field.  It’s far away.  It’s not really set up to do it, but we could donate that to the cause.  And we’re an hour out of Halifax, so we could get graduate students and volunteers and people in our network to transplant them out even by hand.  We could probably get 50 people to show up for a day.

Raymond:  Yeah, and that would do it.

David: And everyone does 2000 seedlings in a day or two, over a weekend. We could get an awful lot done. Or we could get a transplanter going. Could we grow them on 36” centers with, 5 or 6” between each plant?

Raymond:  That would be close enough. That’s what I did.  I went about 6” apart when I was doing ’em, because you only have to identify the potato.  As long as you can tell which plant the potatoes came from. That’s all you need to do.

David: That’s what we need.  Then let’s say we save 5% of that harvest, so we have 5,000 mini-tubers to plant out the next year.

Raymond:  Uh huh. I’d be doubtful if you’d end up even with 5%.  More than 1% but less than 5%.

David: At that point, do you scatter those first-generation tubers around to other farms, or do you continue on the first farm? When do we distribute the material to other farmers?

Raymond:  If you can spread them around, I’d say the second generation would be the best point.  Because really all you’re doing is keeping one tuber, probably – one or two tubers from the first generation.  At least that’s the way I do it. I don’t know. It works, but maybe other people have better suggestions.

I would sooner take 100 tubers and plant them.  I can do that, I can do that myself.  I can make sure I can have enough time to do that.

What I would like to do would be to come over [to your location] at least one weekend throughout the summer and see what’s going on and probably another weekend in the fall and see how things are going.  We’re not that far away.  And help on the day I’m there.  We could make it work.

David: To do 100,000 seedlings, we’d need labour and materials.

Raymond:  Uh huh.

David: We’d probably need a transplanter.  We don’t have a transplanter right now, but for 100,000 seedlings, we either need a huge group of people or a transplanter.

Raymond: Yes! And then you’d have to figure which block size, when you start them.  Our transplanter wouldn’t work for them; it would break the stems.  The way ours works, you lay it down and it catches the leaves, the stem, and it takes it down. The plug of soil is hanging down.  And it comes down like this into the ground with two packing wheels back behind.  You’d need to have one of them ones where you actually set the plug in.

David: An old style? Like an old New Holland style?

Raymond:  Yeah.  Maybe something like that.  I just know this one won’t work for potatoes, because the stems would break, and you’d end up with all kinds of problems.

….next post: more on disease

Posted in farm mentors, potatoes, seed saving | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Loo Family Potato Selections (II)

Gerrit and Evert Loo in PEI spent years breeding potatoes for organic production.  They wanted a blight-resistant potato that people would enjoy eating. Raymond Loo, Gerrit’s son, took some time in April 2012 to explain the process of developing the potatoes to David and Jen Greenberg.  We are interested in continuing the work to further develop blight-resistant potatoes.  It was a fascinating story about a farmer plant breeding initiative that yielded two cultivars of potatoes with blight resistance: Island Sunshine and Island Sunset.  The story shows a real desire in the Loo family to spend a lot of time and effort creating something simply because it helps out fellow farmers.

I’ve grown both Island Sunshine and Island Sunset potatoes.  Island Sunshine is very yellow inside.  Island Sunset is red on the outside.  I remember they were great potatoes for blight resistance.  You don’t see them much anymore.

Raymond: I can’t register Island Sunset anymore because it has already been grown too much.  I’d never be able to get breeders rights on it – and I don’t want to.   But I don’t want anyone to take it and call it theirs.  I think it has been out long enough that you couldn’t do that.  It has been fingerprinted.  You have to really keep it from somebody grabbing it and fingerprinting it and saying ‘this is our potato’.  You have to fingerprint it first.  Island Sunset is fingerprinted.  It’s expensive.  You have to send it away to the States.  Island Sunshine we have the breeders rights on, but it’s done now.  Next year’s the last year.  There’s nobody really growing them anymore.

Jen: Why not?

Raymond: A lot of it has to do with the agent we ended up getting.  (Long story about that) We got a letter from Monsanto back in early 90s.  They wanted to take the genes out that were making it resistant to blight and put them into other potatoes.  There was a letter on the table and Dad saying “Now how in the heck did these fellas know about us?”  But they did.  So anyway, that was the catalyst for him to get breeder’s rights.  At the time he realized we would have lost all control of the potatoes.  They would do whatever they wanted with them and they wouldn’t be of any benefit to organic farmers.

Breeders rights is quite a path.  By the time you do your three years and your three different test plot sites to get your data to register them and you fingerprint them and then you get your agent…  Dad and his twin brother (they developed the potato together) went and had a meeting with Cavendish about it.  The Cavendish fellas were interested in them (Island Sunshine potatoes).  Dad asked him how it would work.  They said we (the Loo family) would get the royalties after they (Cavendish) took off all the expenses.  But they wouldn’t give Dad an accounting of the expenses.  So Dad was asking lots of questions and uncle Evert was stubborn.  I’m sure Evert was asking questions too.  So the Cavendish guy got up and said, ‘Look.  I gotta get back to St John.  I’m going to walk out of this room and give you five minutes.’  So they ripped up the agreement.  Evert said, I gotta go home and feed the cats.  And that was the end of that.

Cavendish tried one more time, inviting Dad and Evert to St John.  But that didn’t go anywhere.

They tried a Dutch farmer co-op, AgriCo, and that was good for the first three years, but it got bought out by Parkland Seeds in Alberta.  They were only interested in promoting Dutch potatoes.  Not our potatoes.

Parkland Seeds stopped developing seed.  So all of a sudden there’s very little Island Sunshine available… anywhere.  I’ve got a little here, but of course it is not certified seed because I’m not a seed grower.  I’m going to plant these.  There’s only a couple of trays here.

Only a couple of trays

Only a couple of trays

We also discussed a variety called Bluebell.

Raymond: When you peel them [Bluebell]…when you go to cook them… they’re greying fairly quickly.  They will go grey in the pot so the restaurants don’t really like them that well- nobody really likes them- because they’re grey, unless you put a little bit of citrus or vinegar or something in the water to keep them from going grey.

David: How are they with disease?

Raymond: Good! That was a variety that Dad got in the early 90s, so it’d be twenty some years now, maybe even late 80s…and we’ve been growing them over and over and over again and they produce like anything. You’ll get the odd one that’ll have mosaic or something but you can just rogue them out and just try not to save seed from them. [Rogueing is pulling individual plants out of a field because they are inferior].

Blight wise… Early blight we haven’t really had any problems with any of these.  We tested some varieties, put them out and just don’t do anything to them at all so you want 80% of them to get sick and be gone in the first year because you don’t want to bother doing all the work keeping track of them because they’re not going to be any good anyway, and then your early blight generally causes some leaf damage and stuff but I’ve never had much of a problem with early blight to cause us a great deal of difficulty, it’s the late blight that causes the real mess.

David: …which isn’t so late anymore

Raymond: Well no, no no no no, it can come in July! And it’s just that it’s, it’s, it’s…bad.

….Next post: Disease resistance

Posted in farm mentors, growing vegetables, potatoes, seed saving | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Farmers as Plant Breeders (I)

I think it’s important for there to be some farmers doing crop breeding.  The development of agriculture as we know it for millennia was done by farmers and it’s really only in the last relatively short time that the farmers have completely, basically, taken a step back from that and it’s been taken over by researchers at universities and by private companies.

                                                                                  — Raymond Loo   April 11, 2012

Raymond and David Greenberg, April 11, 2012

Raymond and David Greenberg, April 11, 2012

Years ago I went to visit Raymond Loo at Springwillow Farm.  I think I was doing an organic certification inspection.  I remember seeing Raymond in a potato field behind the old farmhouse with another organic grower.  It was very striking that some of the rows of potatoes were healthy and robust, and others were darkened and diseased.  Right beside each other.  Most people growing potatoes have fairly uniform plants.  Raymond did not.  He had different varieties growing side by side, and he was keen to dig them up and show them to me.

I had assumed that if you have a pest or disease, it will hit the whole crop in roughly the same way.  This was the first time I could really see a difference between a number of varieties’ ability to withstand blight.  It gave me hope that some plants could be selected to withstand disease.  I had no idea there was such a range in resistance.

I also remember Raymond showing me his dad’s thornless raspberries and his huge nut trees.  This was not the typical ultra-neat PEI farm.  It was a place of discovery, with something new around every corner.  I found it kind of magical.  Raymond had an irrepressible joviality.  He was into it.

Obviously this farm family was going beyond just producing crops and livestock.  They were not satisfied to passively buy seeds and accept the varieties available.  They were seeking better varieties with useful traits for farmers.

When the Island Sunshine potato was released for sale, a potato bred and selected by Raymond’s father Gerrit and his twin brother Evert, I bought them and planted them.  I also planted Island Sunset, another Loo effort, when it was available.  They were great varieties and we saved seed from them.  Island Sunset in particular was interesting because it was so good at producing potatoes!  I was harvesting them at the end of the summer, and I noticed a string of little bright red spuds were still forming.  Even though it was the end of the season, the plants didn’t want to stop making potatoes!


In April 2012 David and I went back to Springwillow Farm to visit Raymond.  He agreed to take time out of his busy schedule to help us learn potato selection and breeding.  We recorded the discussion and would like to share some of it in several blog posts. I wrote these posts 10 months ago, but I waited until now to publish them because I was so devastated by the news in September 2013 that Raymond had passed away.  The next few posts are about the Loo family’s potato selections and disease resistance.


Special thanks to Erica Fraser, Meg Harris, Jeana MacLeod, MJ Sakurai, and Emma at the Ecology Action Centre for transcribing the interviews!

Posted in farm mentors, potatoes, seed saving | Leave a comment

Barrel Washer Assembly Instructions

Issac Villeneuve built this barrel washer in the winter of 2012 while Bruce and I took pictures and helped (or got in the way).

This was done as part of the Heliotrust farm efficiency project.  Barrel washers make cleaning root crops so much easier and do a much better job than hand and brush washing.  The hope is that people with metal working skills can build a sturdy and effective washer for a lot less than commercially available models.  There is more about the root crop washers here as well as an update.

The instructions below are a work in progress.  I don’t think they are complete enough to guide someone without questions coming up unless you have the experience to work thing out as you go along.   I’ll make myself available by phone and email to help however I can.  As soon as I find more time, I hope to add a materials and cut list.

One other thing.  The washer is built high enough off the ground to allow a rolling table to slide underneath it for easy unloading.  I have not built the table yet.  When its done, I’ll post pictures and plans.


Begin by cutting out metal end pieces.  These are 30 inch circles of ¼” plate steel.  Isaac made a simple metal torch jig to make this job easier. DSC_0070

Grind the cut edges smooth

Mark the centre on each end piece using the hub shaft as a template

Cut out centre hole on both end plates and grind edges smoothendplatehole

Using a hammer and anvil, release tension along the edges of the end-plates.  This will make the plates less cupped.trueingendplate

Tack weld the hub shafts into the holes in the end-plates, trying to get them as close to 90 degrees to the plates as possibleWelding in spindle

Tack weld on the plate rims, rolling the rim into position a bit at a time on the floor.  Once the rim is tacked on, weld it on permanently.welding on rim

Weld the hub shaft supports into place. Take care to square up the shafts.adding ribs

Cut a slot 3/4 of the way though the bottom  “support foot” at the point the upright member will attach.

Bend the support foot at the cut and weld the cut closed.  This gives the foot a curve to it, making it less likely to rock on uneven floors.cut in base welded

Attach the foot to the upright 2×2leg base

Square up the frame and weld on the diagonal bracesBracing

Attach the wood slats to the end pieces.  Put some on and then measure to be sure you are putting them on evenly.  Use 5/8” bolts with large washers, one on each end, as spacers between the slats.  To keep the end plates even, we used chain and a binder to pull the plates in.barrel making

keeping it trueOnce half the wood is on, begin building the door by making the door support straps.  These are formed using the completed side of the barrel as a guide.  Hammer them into shape and check against the barrel until they fit the curve of the barrel.door strap Door Completed Barrel

Once the straps are finished, mount the slats onto them and then weld on hinges.  We made hinges out of a half-inch bolt and half-inch nut with the threads drilled out, welded to a small piece of flat stock.hinges 2

low cost hingeWeld on the hasp and spin-on nut closure to the other side of the door.hinges 4

hinges5Mount the bearings onto the barrel and then attach the bearings to the frame.pillow block install

Weld on a shelf for the gear reducer with bolt holes, and bolt it on.gear box shelf

Fabricate a mounting base for the motor. We built a slotted unit  that allows the motor to hang, keeping the belt tight without adjustments.  There are other ways of tensioning the motor including mounting it on a hinged plate.motor bracket

Mount the pulleys on the motor and gearbox.

gear box

Mount the v-belt

Mount the cogs and chain between the gearbox and the barrel

Thread the half-inch pipe with small holes drilled in it for water to steam out onto the produce being washed.  Insert though the barrel, capping off on the gearbox end and mounting an elbow, valve and female hose thread adaptor on the other end.



Please send feedback and pictures!

Posted in efficiency, farm mentors, growing vegetables, potatoes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Modified Hanley Hoop Houses in the Maritimes

It is great to see how farmers are using the Modified Hanley Hoop Houses to extend the growing season so that we can grow more food locally and replace imported food.  At Abundant Acres, the hoop houses are an inexpensive way to increase our produce-selling season by about 12 weeks in the spring and fall.  Also, it allows us to have the hot season crops earlier and later in the season than we used to.  This affects profitability for the farmer, and the customers love it.

Here are a few photos of Modified Hanley Hoop Houses used on other farms in the Maritimes.  Everyone is making their own modifications and sharing them.  This sharing and innovation is what it’s all about!

Below are photos from Dave’s Produce Packs in Hampton NB, Nature’s Route Farm in Point de Bute NB, Horse and Garden Farm in Brooklyn NS, Wysmykal Farm near Amherst NS, and Heart Beet Organic Farm in PEI.  Multi Shelter Solutions, a greenhouse company in Ontario, has used the design and is selling hoop house kits all over the Maritimes and in Ontario.

Dave’s Produce Packs is a large operation in Hampton NB serving over 400 customers weekly.  They put up 5 hoop houses in 2012 and more this year.DPP2012

They are also selling hoop houses to other people because they generated so much interest in 2012.  Dave Wolpin wrote about it and posted photos on his Facebook page April 22: “We did our first hoop house installation and the customer was unbelievably happy. I think we’re onto a new business: providing the tools and teaching people how to grow their own food year round. Order yours today by contacting ME! $1550 for a 48 footer and $50 for every six feet after that (96 footer would be $1950).”  DPPApril22

This farm has really used the hoop houses to extend their production season.  They even experimented with leaving one up all winter.  We didn’t recommend that, but Dave Wolpin likes to push the envelope.  DPPNov22:12

On Nov 22 last year: “The red kale is beautiful and will provide fresh greens all winter once we put a hoop house over it.”

On December 25 last year they were still picking and selling kale from the hoop houses.  DPPDec25:12

DPPDec25:12aIn the spring they put up more hoop houses for this production year.  These photos are from April 16 2013.DPPApril19DPPApril16

Further north, near Sackville NB, Nature’s Route Farm has been pushing the envelope too.  They have close to 400 weekly customers as well and serve two farmers’ markets in Sackville and Dieppe.  They tried longer (more than 100 feet) modified hoop houses and at first it didn’t work.  But it looks like they’ve got things figured out.  NRFApril29



In PEI, Heart Beet Organics built a hoop house in 2012.  They love it for serving their farm market stand in Charlottetown. The hoop house is over on the right of the photo below.HO2012

Here they are picking kale for the January 12 Farmer’s Market.


They feel the hoop house makes a big difference.  HOJan11a

Wysmykal Farm put up their first hoop house this spring.  Here are two photos from March 26.


Good luck everyone and feel free to post comments and questions.

Posted in Hanley Hoop House | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Root Crop Washer update

There was a lot of response to the root crop washer post!  We have still not completed the DIY plans for a few reasons.  First of all, it turns out that producing plans clear and complete enough to build a machine from scratch is no small task.  We are not giving up on doing it, it just is going to take some extra time, which we don’t have now that the production season is upon us.  Another reason we have not rushed to finish the plans is that Isaac Villeneuve and another metal fabricator, William Fancy, want to build and sell these washers.  Isaac is offering the original design for $1200 plus HST and William is selling his for $2000 plus HST.

Both washers are priced very, very reasonably.  Unless someone was to build a washer out of scrap metal and used components, it would cost around six hundred dollars to build Isaac’s version and considerably more to build William’s.

The original machine, designed and built by Isaac Villeneuve, was used here on the farm, then at Waxwing Farm, and then at Pleasant Hill Farm.  While it was at Pleasant Hill Farm, Cindy and David asked their friend William Fancy to build one for them.  It is the deluxe version with added safety features and a tray underneath to funnel the water away.newrootwasherWilliam also made one for Waxwing farm.


Cindy posted the following notice to the Westnovasmallfarm list-serve on December 17 2012, encouraging others to order root crop washers from William:

Hi Everybody,
My friend William Fancy is a machinist extraordinaire and part time farmer. He looked at the barrel washer that David Greenberg so kindly lent us,suggested a bunch of smart modifications , and said he could build them for about $2000 + HST. They will not have a belt, will have an enclosed motor, be built to the height requested, and be built with NS Hemlock. They will also be painted to retard rust, and have a chain tightener for the chain that goes to the sprocket. They can also be built with a trough underneath to catch the dirty water, with a 4 inch nipple that you can put a sewer pipe on, to direct the water away to where it can be used, instead of turning your washing station into a mudhole.
Problem is, he would like to build them over Christmas and New Year’s.. and he would LOVE to build 6 at a time. Any takers? I will vouch for the skill of his work. He has built other things for us.
You can call William to discuss this at 902-685-3990 during the day, and at 902-685-2335 in the evenings. Tell him Cindy emailed you. He built us a brilliant compost spreader, and a wood furnace for our 30 by 96 Harnois. He is practically the world authority on concrete pumps- has had to go to the Bahamas to fix them sometimes, and he repairs all the pole saws for NS power. I am not on the take, but I am buying one too.He just wants to build a bunch at once.
Pleasant Hill Farm

d and I root washer

Isaac teaching David how to build the root crop washer, January 2012

If anyone reading this wants to build a washer themselves, please contact us.  We do have a rough draft of the building instructions that we would share with extra information given over the phone as needed.

William Fancy is in Lunenburg County Nova Scotia, and Isaac Villeneuve is in Carleton County New Brunswick.  Isaac’s phone number is 506-276-1015 or his cell is 207-533-5755.

Posted in efficiency, farm mentors, growing vegetables | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Salt Marsh Hay update

This post is an update on the original Salt Marsh Hay post.  We are excited for four main reasons.

1) Salt marsh hay is a way to harvest nutrients from the ocean and recycle them through livestock and manure back to the land.  No fertilizer is required to grow it.

2)  Salt marsh hay makes excellent, weed-free mulch.

3) Livestock fed salt marsh hay commands a special premium in the marketplace.  For example, see the post by Joseph Smith on Salty Livestock.

4) Results from the hay sample we sent to the lab are encouraging.

We sent a sample of the salt marsh hay to the Nova Scotia Agriculture lab in Truro.  The results show that the hay has low protein, but relatively high feed value.  Last week  Misty Croney came by to discuss our Nutrient Management Plan for the farm, and she also included an interpretation of the salt marsh hay results.

The crude protein was 7.49% on a dry matter basis, which is quite low.  Above 16% is considered to be excellent.  Personally, I prefer to be working with lower protein feeds, which makes the system less ‘hot’.  A high protein will lead to maximum production, maximum excretion, and potentially high leakage and waste of nitrogen.  I’m sure others would argue that unless you feed excellent quality feed, you are wasting your time and resources.  I would argue that seeking an optimum protein level for the animal in question leads to less waste and fewer health issues.  I don’t know if the salt marsh hay is at an optimum protein level or not, but it would be interesting to find out.  Misty thought that if we fed it along with a good, high protein legume hay, it would make a great feed.  She also said that if we want a higher protein result, it would be good to cut the salt marsh hay earlier.  We would like to find a balance between cutting the hay earlier (before 22 August) to get a little higher protein, but not too early (after mid-July), which might disturb nesting Nelson’s sparrows.

Misty also said the salt hay has excellent energy value; good levels of magnesium, copper, and manganese; but low levels of phosphorous, potassium, and zinc; and average levels of calcium.

When we fed dry salt hay to the cows and sheep, they ate it right up after a short period of getting used to it.  Today when we fed the hay, and the cows and sheep ate it right up with no hesitation.

We will continue to harvest and feed salt hay to livestock, as well as use it for mulch on the garlic.  I would love to hear from others who are using salt marsh hay!

Salt hay to cows

Salt hay to sheep


Curious hens


Posted in efficiency, nutrient cycling, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Hoop House Video

At this point in the year, we are thinking a lot about getting the production season going.  In March, that means starting seedlings, and putting up modified hanley hoop houses.  Since ours were left up all winter, with the plastic wrapped tightly at the top to avoid rodent problems, we just had to pull the plastic down over the hoops and tighten the ropes.

Hoop houses over the winter

Hoop houses over the winter

Hoop houses in early spring

Hoop houses in early spring

We made a video showing how to move a modified hanley hoop house.  This includes taking one down, and putting it up again.  We hope you find it useful.

For anyone with a modified hanley hoop house, how is it working for you?

Posted in efficiency, growing vegetables, Hanley Hoop House, season extension | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments