Mar ’16 Becca Verm: Growing with Compassion

At our March 14th meeting, Becca Verm shared with us her philosophy on growing with compassion and how she applies it to her farm, business and daily life. Becca runs an urban farm, Sown & Grown, within the city limits of Houston that produces annual vegetables, as well as some perennials and fruit trees. Becca believes that when we steward our land, we are not only helping to grow nourishment for ourselves, we are helping to grow more holistic communities; and when we are growing what we would consider “rural” in our urban communities, we are actually going to be benefiting our entire population. Becca illustrated what compassion means to Sown & Grown, the compassionate urban farming methods she uses and why.

Sown & Grown is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) urban farm based out of Houston Maker Space. As a part of the CSA program, consumers buy direct from the farm. Sown & Grown provides small shares to CSA members. Part of the compassionate business model goal is to just get local produce into your home, whatever form that takes. Sown & Grown has a nursery that sells retail and wholesale and Becca also brings produce to a local farmer’s market: East End Street Market.

Becca informed us that she did not have an agricultural background, but became passionate about permaculture and biodynamic farming after exploring South America by living and working on farms. Permaculture is the idea of permanent agriculture and permanent culture based on the principles of a) take care of the earth, b) take care of people and c) fair share. The baseline principle of biodynamic farming is that all life matters – encouraging all living things to flourish and understanding what nature is already putting place. When we mess up, when things go wrong and didn’t work out the way we wanted it to, observation gives us the awareness that we might better understand and be able to move forward in a more compassionate way.

Method: Cover Cropping with Hairy Vetch
Cover crops, like vetch, are there to help improve our tilth, put nutrients back into the soil and/or create a habitat for all the species wanted on a farm, such as toads, frogs, lizards, salamanders, who keep away unwanted species, such as snails and caterpillars. Creating a habitat and using plants that have multiple benefits to the land and ecosystem is helping to prevent future issues down the road.

Method: Hugelkultur
Hugelkultur is a method of building soil by creating raised berms from leftover materials. Becca referred to her berms on the farm which she decided to construct instead of removing 1,500 lbs of concrete foundation. They have big logs in the center, surrounded by sticks and branches creating a skeleton. Then, intermeshed with that is a lot of coffee grounds and coffee chaff, piled burlap bags which gives the berms a shape and keeps them elevated with leaves and mulch. Over time, the leaves, mulch and logs are going to act like sponges for a very slow composition process. Eventually, they will turn into just soil berms that will continue to be mulched with leaves and woodchips.

Method: No-Till Soil Cultivation
As a part of the growing with compassion philosophy, Sown & Grown wants to encourage life in the most beneficial way possible. Whatever quality of soil you start out with, by digging into that soil, we are actually causing harm to the beneficial microbes that create good tilth and nutrient density. The No-Till Soil Cultivation process uses a hoe to shave off only the most top layer of soil, adding compost and covering it with burlap bags which structurally keeps the new compost from washing away, prevents excess evaporation and helps mitigate against weeds. The last step is to go through and cut slits into the burlap and plant directly in there. Becca implemented the No-Till Soil Cultivation method on a section of her farm and from November ’15 through January ’16 that section required NO additional water. Over time, organic matter will increase dramatically. After this zone is established, you will just need to come back and add compost and mulch after each season.

Method: Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
Sown & Grown does not necessarily use fresh mulch on plants. If you use fresh mulch, you can potentially burn your plants. If you are able to store mulch for about four (4) months, the mulch is greatly broken down and makes a great dressing for perennials, fruit trees and certain perennials. Woodchips, burlap, pine straw, leaves are all easily accessible for mulching. Processed mulch is available for purchase if you are not on a budget.

Method: Integrated Perennial Zones
This method involves bordering off all annual productions with perennials. Perennials are able set to set deep roots and provide good soil tilth. Therefore, if flood waters come, the mulch and perennial will have provided a better soil structure to survive. Perennials also create a habitat that is permanent for beneficial pest control. Becca suggests Moringa trees, which are native to India, but thrive in the Houston climate.

Method: Utilize Abundance
Try and become as abundant as possible on the farm by integrating local businesses’ abundances that would otherwise go to waste. Some examples include cardboard, sawdust and burlap bags.

Method: Living Soil Grows Healthy Plants
Compost is living rich soil and has beneficial nutrients to continuously mend soil. Take kitchen scraps, coffee chaff, coffee grounds and any biodegradable material. Buy seeds from reputable companies that are organic and non-GMO. When you buy good seeds and plant them in healthy soil, you are creating the strongest, most prolific plant possible.

Method: Patience
We can’t fully understand or make decisions for land, business or ourselves without taking a minute to observe, be aware and finally start to understand all the processes and factors of nature and businesses around us. By taking a moment to observe, be aware and understand, we are allowing for much more longevity instead of manipulating things they way we want them immediately.

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