Spotlight: Joseph

By Nancy Polanski (nap) on November 28, 2011

This week you will meet Joseph, who is intelligent, funny and leads a most interesting and unique life as a Utah farmer. He knows a lot about seeds, and loves to share them with folks. Say hello to Joseph....


I received a suggestion from one of our members, Ella or starlight1153, to try to get an interview with Joseph. She said he's an interesting fellow, and she was absolutely right. She said “he's very, very smart. Heck of a vegetable grower and breeder. He has a great sense of humor besides his serious side. He also willing to share knowledge with folks about growing veggies.” So Joseph sent me his story...

I am Joseph.

I grew up in Cache valley Utah in a large family on a 160 acre farm, though only about 40 acres was actively farmed due to the mountains.

We grew most everything we ate except wheat. Even when we grew wheat we sent it to the mill, and then bought bread from the profits... We hunted or fished for meat, or raised chickens, turkeys, pigs, she
2011-11-28/nap/241da4ep and cows. Mostly we hired a butcher to kill and cut up the animals except for deer, elk and gamebirds, which we took care of ourselves.

My daddy had a rule that we had to eat every animal that we
shot, so more than once we dined on sparrows. It takes a lot of sparrows to feed a bunch of hungry kids. We didn't hunt mice! But kept a good outside cat to take care of those for us.

I went on a Mormon mission and then graduated from university with a chemistry degree. I went to work for a national lab doing nasty research into better ways to kill plants, animals, and people. Eventually it drove me crazy. I quit and became a monk. Today I'm farming 4 acres of vegetables. Doesn't even pay my expenses, but that doesn't matter much since I live under a vow of poverty.

I got tired of commercial vegetable varieties never growing well in my garden so I'm breeding my own strains adapted to our harsh conditions of high-altitude, radical
radiant-cooling at night, short-season, Lake Bonneville soil.
I grow and develop mostly landraces. I am growing my own varieties of cantaloupe, carrots, corn, watermelon, spinach, green beans, shelling peas, butternut squash, radish, potatoes, tomatoes, and sunroots.


 Can you explain what that means, Joseph? I am not familiar with the term Landrace.


A landrace is a foodcrop; lots of genetic diversity which tends to produce stable yields under marginal growing conditions. Landrace crops are adaptively selected for reliability in tough conditions. The arrival of new pests, new diseases, or changes in cultural practices or in the environment may harm some individuals in a landrace population, but with so much diversity many plants are likely to do well under the changing conditions.

So for inbreeding crops like tomatoes, a landrace can be thought of as many different varieties growing side by side as a group rather than as individual varieties.

For out-breeding crops like corn
 , a landrace can be thought of as a population of highly genetically diverse hybrids.
I really like landrace crops because they are so diverse that no matter what the weather or the pests are doing, there are some family types that will tend to do well. It's not like highly inbred commercial varieties in which a single fungus can take out the whole crop.


When I grow landraces I don't have to worry about keeping varieties pure... I can incorporate new genetics into my crop whenever I find anything interesting.


I grow most of my own seed for my farm. I grow seed for lots of other people as well.


 I have questions for you. First, how do you manage to run your own farm? Do you have help? And what does living under a vow of poverty mean, exactly?


One person can just manage to take care of 4 acres of garden if they work at it 60 hours per week. Five acres would be too much. I have a lady that helps me for a couple of hours on Wednesday to harvest before the farmers market. She takes vegetables home with her. I have invented my own tools to help: a tube-seeder, specially shaped hoes and a thresher. I use the best tools from the past like a wheel-hoe and an Earthway seeder. I still need to invent some simple seed processing devices for threshing, winnowing, and sorting. My brothers and sisters sometimes help with early spring planting or with frost emergencies.


I have a fluid family situation. We are all the time adopting strays. Some of them become part of the family, some of them stay for a few days or months and then we never hear from them again.


A vow of poverty is simple... I don't own anything. I ask prices low enough to barely break even with expenses. I donate excess to the food pantry. I hardly ever watch TV, or go to the movies, or buy magazines. I don't buy fancy boy-toys. I live very simply. My home cost about $1000 including the solar panels. It is com2011-11-28/nap/461f63pletely off grid. I am building a water system for it, but it's a 5 year project, so for now I get water in town.

This week I met a Cherokee man who grows naturally. After seeing his garden, there is nothing natural about how I rip the soil to shreds with my roto-tiller. I long to grow like he does. I figure that I'll continue to farm like a Roman until I can't get diesel any more. I am converting my yard to permaculture though.


I eat meat and vegetables... But I do not eat wheat, which I consider to be poisonous to humans. (It is a new food type that our bodies have not had the opportunity to adapt to since the invention of agriculture. I believe that it causes severe stress on the insulin/sugar system and ends up being stored as fat.) I have effortlessly lost 40 p2011-11-28/nap/091fb0ounds since I stopped eating wheat 18 months ago. I feel better than I have felt in years. I live in a society which is saturated with wheat, so when I'm eating with friends and family I eat what they provide.

Cooking is simple as anything.... Instead of a ham and cheese sandwich, I have ham and cheese. Instead of Spaghetti and meatballs I have meatballs in tomato sauce. I didn't just replace wheat with corn or rice though. I consider all grains to be iffy. So here I am: Breeding corn!!! And having to taste hundreds of cobs per week for evaluation. And some of them are so tasty that they just have to be eaten.


I don't miss wheat at all. I am barely prepared at all for lady Teotwawki. I'd welcome her arrival tomorrow in spite of any pain, and in spite of the loss of life and property she'd bring with her. Maybe it's just my bad judgment, but already 5 of my financial institutions have been shut down since this crisis started. And the burden of constant intrusion by government into my farm and into the lives of my family just seems like too much to bear for another year.


I lived in monasteries for 3 years. I was principal of a private high school during that time. I operated a food pantry for a number of years. We didn't do any paperwork though, or ask for any kind of ID. That's the freedom that can be had for not accepting donations from the USDA or state.

I still semi-operate an informal food pantry. Leftovers from the farmer's market often go to people that I know are suffering financially. I always have a basket of seconds on the table that are close to free, but someone has to give me a token payment so that they feel good about the transaction. Prices have been known to vary widely based on what I know about the family situation of the person across the table from me at market. I do some u-pick swaps: An hour of labor for a basket of vegetables. That seems to work OK for desperate college kids. Not enough people know about that though. More help would be nice.

My seeds are growing around the world:

Far off places like Mala2011-11-28/nap/7e2150ysia, and Pakistan, and across Europe and the USA. Particularly after disasters I forward many packets of seeds into the area. I donate seeds to the local food pantries.


One thing I am doing for my community that they don't know about, is that I am growing enough seed to provide my village with seeds for their gardens in the event that commercial sources are no longer viable. I keep multiple backup archives of my breeding programs in various locations to avoid loosing the genetics that have been carefully adapted to our local conditions.

There is a core group of us that are growing and developing varieties specially suited to our local environment.


I lived for a year among the Amish. I wasn't part of their community, but I watched and learned... For example, there is a story in Mormon mythology about a man who walked 8 miles to meet the prophet, BAREFOOT!!!! But to the Amish I was watching, walking 8 miles barefoot was just another typical day. That's the thing 2011-11-28/nap/5ca843that is saddest to me about my life currently. I don't know anybody of like-mind that lives nearby. At least with the Amish I wasn't out of place if I didn't mow the lawn twice a week and douse it with chemical poisons 5 times a year.

I am very anti-poison these days. No kind of pesticide, or herbicide is allowed into my garden. I'd rather do more labor than poison my garden.


The primary advantage I envision about growing organic, is that I am eating and breathing less poison. While the poison peddlers might claim that their products are safe, we can't really know that, and even if they degrade in the environment over time, they still have to be applied from concentrated bottles, and there are bound to be lots of errors in the process regardless of how much safety equipment is used. I never claim that my crops are free of poison. Everybody around me sprays. The county sprays for mosquitoes. The irrigation water collects poisons. So I don't spray my fields and figure that I ingest less poison than those who do. When I bottle my own food, I know what poisons I put on it. I don't know that about food from the corporation.


I understand you do CSA's. What exactly are CSA's and how do you work yours?


CSA is an abbreviation for "Community Supported Agriculture.” It's the current catch phrase for an arrangement where families contract with a local farmer to grow food for them.2011-11-28/nap/a1c3d3 I call it my "Weekly Basket" plan. I don't use the term CSA except online when talking with other growers. I love it because I know before I ever plant my crop that it already has a home to go to. At the beginning of each harvest day I know how many vegetables need to be picked. The baskets get whatever is in season that week. Some weeks are skimpy so I feel like I'm not giving enough. Other weeks are abundant so I feel like I'm giving more than enough to make up for the skimpy weeks. Some people pay ahead for the whole season. That really helps me because the time I need cash most is first thing in the spring. The baskets get extra perks, things like first of season crops, end of season crops, and the best of harvest. The farmer's market gets the leftovers.


Do you have any advice for somebody just getting into gardening, how they can aim for what you have achieved?


I can't remember a time when I wasn't gardening, so I don't know if I have any useful insight on starting out... But I think I have one word of advice - Walk through the garden every day with a hoe and a bucket in your 2011-11-28/nap/c500f4hands. You don't have to do any work, but if you have the proper tools, and the mood strikes you, then it would be trivial to hack out a weed, or collect an out of place rock, or pick something for supper. People routinely say things to me like, "My onions were a flop this year, they didn't do anything for me. What am I doing wrong?" The true answer that I can never say out-loud is, when was the last time you worked in your garden when it was snowing, or raining, or muddy? Never! I regularly work in the garden during inclement weather. One thing I've noticed about people that are just starting out, is they spend so much time, effort and money on infrastructure that they never quite get around to planting and caring for the plants. A raised bed looks cool, but it's a huge drain on time. Also, weed while the weeds are small. It's trivial to cut of a seedling. It's quite another thing to deal with a field full of large plants a month down the road.


Okay, Joseph, now can you tell me some things about yourself that most people don't know?2011-11-28/nap/7c70f6


I read 10,000 books before I graduated from high school. I speak Russian, English, and Spanish.


My personality type is on the border between: The Thinker and The Scientist.  (Clickable links)


I remember a 7th grade teacher marking my paper wrong for using a word that wasn't in her vocabulary. (fetid -- I just looked it up to make sure. Rolling my eyes. ) She wouldn't even open a dictionary to check on it. I have distrusted authority figures since that time.


I failed my music appreciation class in college. All I would have had to do was show up. I never had such a mind numbing experience before or since.


I'm disorganized with things. I've never learned how to keep a workspace organized. Landrace breeding works really well for me since it sure cuts down on paperwork, and pedigrees, etc.. ..2011-11-28/nap/be2442


I love growing cactus! When I was little I grew indoor cactus. These days I'm keeping them all outside. I guess I have 20 winter hardy species surviving. I really ought to plant another bed of them.


The last few winters I have been polishing rocks. I don't think I'll do that this year, since the economy is so bad and people have stopped buying luxury items like rocks. Guess I'll have to do honest work, like shovel snow.

I really enjoy being on-line, because I can converse with people who share my values. In person I tend to just listen.


Well, I have truly enjoyed listening to you today, Joseph! I'm very glad that Ella brought you into my world. You're a fascinating person. Thank you for telling me about yourself.


This has been a wonderful experience for me.  I've never known anyone like Joseph, and I hope we will remain friends now that Ella has brought us together.  Please come back next week for another interview with another special Cubits member.


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About Nancy Polanski
I live in Western New York. I'm retired, after working for 30 years in the Microbiology Labs at our county hospital. My time now is spent mostly with the Karen refugee population in Buffalo, advocating for them, teaching, helping and enjoying them. I've twice traveled to their camps in Thailand and experienced their culture. It seems they have taught me more about life than I have taught them.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
how do I get josephs seeds for my garden??? sweetpea11 Feb 20, 2014 6:23 PM 14
It was great meeting you. Zanymuse Dec 4, 2011 11:07 PM 3
Be Right Back joseph Dec 3, 2011 7:24 PM 2
Very interesting~ kaglic Dec 2, 2011 7:48 PM 0
A simple Thanks! sassafrass Nov 29, 2011 11:00 AM 1
Oh! Sharon Nov 28, 2011 12:14 PM 5

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