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Question of the Week



Permalink What are some good corn varieties for producing tortillas and tamales that I can grow in Northern California?

Answer: Any grain corn variety can be used to make nixtamal (the whole corn that has been soaked in slacked lime). Most varieties used to make nixtamal are equally good for tortillas or tamales with the difference being how it is ground and prepared. Flint and popcorn varieties have more structure and are thought to hold up better to the soaking process, making them superior for making tortillas and tamales. Dent varieties are thought to be less suited to tortillas and tamales because of a more neutral flavor.

The "best" varieties for these application are subjective because regional, cultural, and climate differences across the Americas have determined the varieties traditionally used to make nixtamal , and, in North America, hominy. The color you want in the end product, as well as your markets, are also important in determining variety.

Since flour corn has not traditionally been grown in northern California, climate is the biggest factor in choosing the varieties you experiment with. In San Mateo, you have a large frost-free window of over 300 days each year, but the average high temperature is only in the mid 80s. Short-season varieties (95 days or less) like Painted Mountain, Mandan Bride, Hickory King White, Leaming’s Yellow, and Oaxacan Green might be good choices to take advantage of the warmest three months of your season.

According to author and cook William Rubel, Floriani Red Flint corn has been grown successfully in Northern California. Also, a hybrid variety called Pioneer 33Y74, known for its high yields, is used for making polenta and is grown successfully in California.
For additional information, consult the book Beautiful Corn: America’s Original Grain from Seed to Plate, by Anthony Boutard, New Society Publishers (2012). This book offers a historical look at the cultivation and use of corn in the Americas. It offers some insight on varieties best suited to a particular use.

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Permalink I would like to start raising sheep. What are some things to consider when choosing ewes?

Answer: When considering going into the sheep business, decide first what type of product you wish to market. If you wish to primarily sell wool, Rambouillet, Targhee, and Icelandic would be a few breeds to consider. There are more than 200 breeds of sheep to choose from. You can check around with neighbors and people you meet at grazing conferences, farmers markets, sheep conferences, etc.

If you would like to market both wool and meat, Rambouillet, Targhee and Polypay ewes bred to Texel, Hampshire or Suffolk rams would be a good start. This gives you a terminal crossbred lamb that grows well and is thick and meaty. The nice thing about Polypay ewes or with ewes that have one-quarter Finn in them is that you will get close to a 200% lambing percentage. This is very important for a farm flock. You need to be able to sell as many lambs as you can. The downside is that you will have to raise some bum lambs, since some of your ewes will give you triplets and even quads. In general, a ewe will only be able to raise twins successfully. However, there are labor-savings ways to raise bums.

When buying ewes, there are a few options. First, you can purchase ewe lambs that have not lambed yet. This has the least amount of risk associated with it. However, as with everything, there are some negative aspects. You will have to lamb out sheep that have never lambed before and there can be problems with new, inexperienced mothers that you will have to overcome. Additionally, some ewe lambs may not conceive. It is best to have them undergo an ultrasound before you buy. Ewe lambs will usually give you singles, especially if they lamb out at one year of age. You must adjust your budget accordingly. However, ewe lambs should give you five to six years of production.

You can also buy young ewes that have lambed before. They can be two to six years of age. You can buy young two- to three-year old ewes and be reasonably sure of a lamb crop that is relatively free of production problems. Alternatively, you can purchase five- and six-year old ewes at a less expensive price. Some of these older ewes will have problems with insufficient milk, mastitis, ketosis, etc. You will also not get as many productive years out of these ewes compared to two- and three-year-olds. However, in today's market, these older ewes will be significantly less costly. Ask the seller for production records of the ewes for sale. Beginning sheep producers do best when initially buying ewes that have a production history of 175% or better lambing percentage.

Regardless of the age of ewes that you buy, make sure you or some other experienced sheep person goes through the sale animals checking for udder soundness. This is often referred to as "bagging" the ewes. Check for any udder abnormality, such as hard lumps, heaviness, swelling, or pendulous udders. Ewes with questionable udders should not be purchased. Ewes that lamb with mastitis are not worth paying for no matter how good they have been in the past.

You should also check for common sheep diseases when examining the prospective ewes. Is there coughing? Is there foot rot or has there been in the past? Sheep foot rot is a very contagious and expensive disease to cure. Is there any bottle jaw in the flock?

ATTRA offers many resources related to sheep production that can provide you with further guidance. See the list at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/livestock/livestock.html#sheep_goat.

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Permalink I would like to start a small-scale vertical urban farm that produces mushrooms in an old factory building. How important is floor drainage in this type of enterprise?

Answer: There is a lot of interest in urban mushroom farms that include indoor production. Many of these farms are utilizing local resources for their growing substrate and are also creating value-added by-products from the mushroom production that particularly can be utilized in crop production. Indoor mushroom production requires creating and maintaining certain environments specific to the varieties being cultivated. An indoor mushroom farm requires a dark, temperature-controlled room for the mushrooms to grow. A separate, smaller, temperature-controlled room with humidity control for sterilizing the substrate is often used in commercial production.

Temperature, moisture/humidity, and oxygen levels must be monitored not only for the production of the mushrooms but also to prevent any possible contamination. Unfavorable conditions in indoor mushroom production can create unwanted odors, bacteria, and mold that can not only harm fungus health, but also compromise the health of farm workers and others who may be in the building.

Sterilization is a key component of indoor mushroom production. Home-scale and commercial sterilization systems can be purchased but can also be homemade. These systems are generally made up of an autoclave that holds in the environmental conditions. Steam is often utilized to sterilize the mushroom substrate, which would require a boiler system. Water is also needed for controlling the moisture levels as well as washing/cleaning equipment and infrastructure used in the production, harvesting, and packaging of the product.

While an old factory building may be an ideal location for starting an indoor urban mushroom farm, the absence of drainage is going to create several obstacles. This is not just an issue for production purposes, but more importantly, it will most likely be a food-safety issue as indoor commercial operations may be required to have proper drainage. The specifics depend on local zoning and food-production regulations and it is recommended that you contact your local health inspector as well as the state department of agriculture for further information. It is also important to discuss the specifics of the operation with the building owner and/or manager so that none of the structural integrity of the building is jeopardized.

For more information on mushroom production, see ATTRA publication Mushroom Cultivation and Marketing, available at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=77.

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Permalink I would like to start a small-scale vertical urban farm that produces mushrooms in an old factory building. How important is floor drainage in this type of enterprise?

Answer: There is a lot of interest in urban mushroom farms that include indoor production. Many of these farms are utilizing local resources for their growing substrate and are also creating value-added by-products from the mushroom production that particularly can be utilized in crop production. Indoor mushroom production requires creating and maintaining certain environments specific to the varieties being cultivated. An indoor mushroom farm requires a dark, temperature-controlled room for the mushrooms to grow. A separate, smaller, temperature-controlled room with humidity control for sterilizing the substrate is often used in commercial production.

Temperature, moisture/humidity, and oxygen levels must be monitored not only for the production of the mushrooms but also to prevent any possible contamination. Unfavorable conditions in indoor mushroom production can create unwanted odors, bacteria, and mold that can not only harm fungus health, but can also compromise the health of farm workers and others who may be in the building.

Sterilization is a key component of indoor mushroom production. Home-scale and commercial sterilization systems can be purchased but can also be homemade. These systems are generally made up of an autoclave that holds in the environmental conditions. Steam is often utilized to sterilize the mushroom substrate, which would require a boiler system. Water is also needed for controlling the moisture levels as well as washing/cleaning equipment and infrastructure used in the production, harvesting, and packaging of the product.

While an old factory building may be an ideal location for starting an indoor urban mushroom farm, the absence of drainage is going to create several obstacles. This is not just an issue for production purposes, but more importantly, it will most likely be a food-safety issue as indoor commercial operations may be required to have proper drainage. The specifics depend on local zoning and food-production regulations and it is recommended that you contact your local health inspector as well as the state department of agriculture for further information. It is also important to discuss the specifics of the operation with the building owner and/or manager so that none of the structural integrity of the building is jeopardized.

For more information on mushroom production, see ATTRA publication Mushroom Cultivation and Marketing, available at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=77.

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Permalink I’ve seen peat humus in some potting mix recipes. What is it, and where can I find it?

Answer: Peat humus is a common potting soil ingredient used for soil enrichment. Unlike Sphagnum peat, which comes from Sphagnum moss and is partially decomposed, peat humus is derived from Hypnum moss and is fully decomposed. Peat humus is also referred to as black peat or Michigan peat. It is dark brown to black in color and its water-holding capacity is low. Despite this characteristic, peat humus is quite heavier than most other peat mosses. Other characteristics of peat humus include a pH between 4 and 8 and it also contains a small amount of nitrogen, usually between 2.5 and 3 percent. I am unaware of any other peats containing nitrogen.

There are two types of peat humus: amorphous and granular. Amorphous peat humus has very little structure and is highly acidic. Although it is found in the greenhouse/nursery, garden, and landscape industry, it does not make for a very practical soil component. Granular peat humus contains humates and has a structure that allows for good air and water movement. It tends to do better for potting mixes and in improving sandy soils.

Peat humus is usually available through garden supply centers. If you are unable to locate it for your potting mix, you may want to consider adding perlite and/or vermiculite instead.

For more information on making your own potting mixes, see the ATTRA publication Potting Mixes for Certified Organic Production, available at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/viewhtml.php?id=47.

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