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Danny Botkin, Guerilla Farmer Interview on Sept. 8, 2017

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 October Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson, Executive Director, NOFA/Mass

Danny Botkin of Laughing Dog Farm holds up a beautiful blossum

Danny: I will be talking about a series of unconventional tactics – “guerrilla gardening” you could say – which involve breaking some of the cardinal rules, like planting dates, one seed per cell, long, straight rows, homogenous crops. By challenging conventional wisdom on season, propagation, spacing, etc, we can embrace a more opportunistic and improvisational mode of growing which can be surprisingly rewarding, if not altogether linear or planful.

A lifetime of gleaning and dumpster diving taught me to salvage everything and improvise endlessly on my five acre, micro-farm.  Hence, I garden around the calendar by keeping “libraries” of plants alive  – garlic, remnant brassicas, hardy seedlings, etc, to push the seasonal envelope as far as possible. Then I shamelessly transplant into passive, high and low tunnels to harness the margins of the thermometer and calendar. Sometimes it turns out really well...

I am an unschooled permaculturalist. I borrow heavily from but probably violate heavily, as well.  I’m fascinated by all the innovative micro-producers tooling up today, and by the uber-fertile intersection between “backyard” gardens and “real farms”.

The green house at Laughing Dog Farm

I have always been a “push the limits guy”. If someone says don’t do it, I have to try. Eliot Coleman said that after Dec 15, don’t keep planting seeds. Hearing that, I just had to run home and start some seeds in my frozen hoophouse on January first.

As an avid seed saver, I like to “bunch” plant many cultivars rather than sowing single seeds in cells or directly into the field – even corn beans, squash – I plant up to 100 seeds in a pot or box. What I find is that I do so much better raising many crops in “clumps” and engineering a “proprietary” transplant, when and where and how I choose. Timing is of course essential. But even difficult to transplant beets and cucurbits, can separate and thrive after this treatment, if you prick them out surgically, with their root balls dried nearly to dust.

I switched to this bunch planting method in search of a way to plant and manage a wide diversity of plants, in tight quarters, all at once. And also because we have had such terrible depredation of field-seeded crops. For example, we grow corn seedlings to 6-7” tall, and wait for the perfect day, or a rainy weekend to “install” it. These stout corn transplants will stand up straight and tall, with no casualties. If we direct seed, we get patchy corn. We have only three acres under cultivation and I grow only 6-7 small patches of corn, so it is a viable strategy at this level. You surely couldn’t plant Iowa this way.

I treat other long season seedlings as potted house plants. We’ve suffered terribly from bean beetles, squash bugs, etc, so now we let the transplants get a lot bigger, and sometimes even give them a second transplant, before they get planted into the field. An extra month of greenhouse coddling makes a huge difference down the line.

Leeks, for years, stayed tiny “hairs” and didn’t size up. Left in a clump in a fertile pot or bucket, I watch those seedlings fatten quickly and then plant “pencils” or even “cigars” into the field.  I am famous for big leeks – 7’ tall – all I do is keep them alive. I’ll lift them out of the ground before freezing soil and re-plant them deep with an iron bar, down to their necks, in the winter greenhouse. Come spring we get “Louisville sluggers”, sometimes six feet long. It will go to seed in the spring, but I sometimes move them back outside. We end up with delicious, “out-of-season” food, plus numerous seed heads for propagating.

At the end of the season I might lift a gnarly broccoli plant, put it in a tunnel and give it compost tea. It might yet come back to give us ten or twenty little heads. We like this modest, rolling harvest, and if we get an Indian summer, we might get a half bushel extra.

Someone gave me the Christmas lima bean. They take 125-130 days to maturity, so they can easily get hit by frost. So, they get a premium spot in the hoop house. I have gotten several gallons of dry seed from ONE plant. We are always trying to exploit the niche between a garden and a small farm.

Julie: “Talk to me about no till.”

We have 20 years of sheet mulching the land with goat waste (barn bedding, compost, etc). I use a lot of heavily saturated, low grade hay managed with a wagon and pitch fork. The fresh stuff can snuff out weeds or sod like magic. I use it for clearing and prepping land, and for covering winter garlic beds, overlaying the area with an inch of dense “poopy mulch”. The mulch is dusted with lime and then a final layer of rotted hay (that we purchase by the truck load and weather here on site) is applied.

I am a compulsive habitat builder. I build vertically with black locust. I build trellises, arbors and pergolas. I built a 26’ fence with locust lumber, with no exact idea of its use. Since then we’ve rotated pole beans, clematis, tomatoes, and more. The fence is a permanent structure. Each season we now figure out what wants to be there.

What we do here applies perfectly to urban gardens. Everything is about space and efficiency, and about staying nimble and flexible. When my 3 acres ran out, I looked to the sky. Right now, I am looking at some Roma beans that are 15 feet up, growing up a wall, out of an old bunny hutch area. Will Bonsall once told me that nobody really knows the genetic potential of these plants; sometimes stuff that is supposed to go only 6 feet tall will actually grow 20 feet high if given the chance.

Hence we have a jungle of kiwis, pawpaws, golden raspberries and figs, turmeric and ginger; a nine foot tall fig tree that has fat figs. They don’t bring in much profit, but they are a big draw.

I just turned 60. I was a teacher, a social worker, a professional hacky sack player.  I translated that into farming and working with young people. Now I am looking for successors for the future. I have a daughter who is 19, loves the good food, but no way is going to take over this farm. We have mentored about 90 WWOOFers and apprentices over two decades. I have high hopes that we can eventually find some younger farmers and offer them a worthy sweat equity opportunity.

I feel pretty tenuous in this world that we live in. It this point, I have no other goal than to make my farm more functional and beautiful and feed the people I know and love. My life is totally extemporaneous;  I just want to stay peaceful. We live on land that was the “Renaissance Community, the Brotherhood of the Spirit”. Some of the houses have bizarre angles, terrible insulation and no central heating. I moved here in 2002 and blithely started buying trees and bushes. To this day I have not gotten my permaculture certification. But I am constantly learning. I was a hitchhiker – gleaning what life could teach me. My life now is about managing and maintaining. I inch forward. It is the nature of the beast. I try to keep a long view and don’t get too excited if most of what I intend to do is not done. I have a little savings. My wife earns some cash as a nurse. Our house is paid for. It is a great privilege we have to be farming here.

Julie – “Please talk to me about your fertility.”

Danny – “We are not technically organic because the goats eat waste from the grocery store.  I use zero fertilizer, no sprays, and am always looking for natural methods. I am a huge believer in inoculants. The goat poop is very high in carbon, so the compost is much more pre-mixed and quick to break down. A lot of manures are more dense and anaerobic. After years of pulling weeds, we discovered that thick mulch precludes weeding, watering and even fertilizer applications, because it creates fertility naturally, over time. The devil is in keeping it going. I used to get limitless mulch by helping a farmer clear the field of wet hay. But mulch has become expensive. And who has the ability to see the long term results? Most people want results in the first year. Last year I spent a thousand bucks on mulch! Worth every cent.

We so love our exotic crops, our amazing peaches, pears, Asian pears and heirloom tomatoes. But the highest value crop here is the apprentices who come and get inspired and then go off. My goal is to do well by these folks who come around for learning, affection,  inspiration and direction... 

Julie: “How did you get into farming?”

Danny: “When I was 15, I was a very straight suburban boy. I got to bike across America. The leader lived off the grid in an orchard in Putney, VT - peace, love and revolution. I lived and worked in schools for many years. Today it is a crazy world. I feel all bets are off. I raised a kid. I have been married twice. My life is complete. At this point anything else is gravy.”

Ed. Note – You can catch Danny Botkin at the NOFA/Mass Winter Conference on Saturday, January 13 at Worcester State University where he will be educating and perhaps a little pontificating.


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