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What Weeds?

March 13, 2011

When I first accepted the task of growing vegetables in the Washington County area one of the first things I thought about was how to deal with the weeds.  Weeds are a serious issue on a farm, for unlike a garden you cannot simply go through and pull the weeds out here and there, not when you’re growing an acre of mixed spring vegetables, and especially not in the fall when that number will probably get bumped up to 5 acres.  Instead, farmers have relied on a number of techniques, some of them mechanical such as the ordinary garden hoe or a tractor-mounted tined cultivator that drags a number of small curved pieces of metal through the ground, while others have relied on “chemical amateurism” in the form of toxic herbicides designed to kill certain species of plants, or in the case of broad-spectrum herbicides, all plants.  Others have relied on more exotic methods of weed control, such as flame-weeders on the organic side of the spectrum, or GE crops engineered to withstand certain types of patented herbicides.  Farmers have been battling unwanted plants since the dawn of agriculture, when hoes were made out of bones or wood, and that fight still continues today.

Oddly enough, I seem to be exempt from that fight.

A row of growing lettuce, some bahia grass-sprouting here and there, but nothing compared to what unfertilized rows look like. Larger shoots are from existing bahia grass roots I neglected to remove.

For some time now I’ve remarked to Jason at how odd it was that there were no weeds growing on the field.  He seemed confident, and still is confident, that the Bermuda would exact it’s revenge when the weather is warmer and breaks the dormancy of the green carpet that lies sleeping under the soil.  Still, this wasn’t enough for me, and it wasn’t until Wednesday that it really bothered me, when I was using my stirrup hoe to weed a section of the field that had been assaulted by nutgrass and bahia grass.  Meanwhile, other parts of the field had only a few weeds here and there, and some parts were absolutely barren.  Something was going on.

This row had been unintentionally neglected in the chaos of trying to juggle everything on the farm. Notice how not only are the weeds more prevalent, but seed germination from the crop itself was actually quite spotty. Hmm...

It wasn’t too much of a mystery though, for the moment I noticed that something was up I instantly recalled the works of Dr. William Albrecht.  From the 1930s on to the 1970s, this University of Missouri soil scientist published a number of papers, later known as the Albrecht Papers, that all focused on the subject of soil.  However, Albrecht was not your average soil scientist, he took the unconventional approach, the organic one, and argued the health of humans and animals was tied to the health of the plant, which as tied to the health of the soil, which was dependent on not only the proper amount of minerals, but also on the soil biology, the bacteria, which Albrecht saw in one of his papers as a massive factory beneath our feet that uses carbon and other elements in the soil to create water-soluble minerals, plant food, the alternative to the chemical fertilizers that were catching on when he first started writing the papers.  In addition, and here’s the real kicker, Albrecht saw the timeless problem of dealing with weeds as merely an indicator of soil health.  Weeds seemed to flourish in soils that were lacking something, some sort of essential mineral, whereas soils that offered a complete and balanced ratio of plant nutrients were capable of delivering a healthy yield of crops with virtually no weeds whatsoever.  Tests were done, plots were planted with identical species of plants, one fertilized and one not, the non-fertilized ones had poor crops and were covered in weeds while the fertilized ones had weed seeds scattered all over the soil…that never germinated.  The crop delivered a good yield.

Let me type isolate that and type it out again for you.  Weeds don’t grow in healthy soil.

I first heard about that idea from a book titled “Eco-Farm”, written by the founder of the Acres USA magazine, Charles Walters, who was influenced heavily by his personal meetings with Albrecht and thus put a lot of his material in the book.  Later on, I heard this idea from a few others, including an organic corn farmer in Iowa who had a cocky smile that must have driven his neighbors nuts, and for good reason, for not only did he claim to have the greenest corn in the area, but he also claimed to have no weeds.

Well, incidentally enough, I might just be in that same situation myself, sans cocky smile.  You see, the land I’ve been using for the spring veggie field at one point had two rotations of free-range chickens on it, which are kept in a netted in area and moved around the pasture.  As a consequence, manure is heavily concentrated in areas where the chickens have moved through, and very fertile.  Even so, something must’ve still been missing, because in areas where I disced yet never rowed-up I noticed that the grasses and weeds had more or less re-established themselves with little difficulty, and once again in some areas of the field the weeds were actually doing pretty well, more or less.  Something still wasn’t right.

The areas that were most devoid of weeds were, consequently, the areas that were also sprayed with a dose of fish-emulsion fertilizer.  What I like about fish emulsion is that, as a liquid sprayed over the plant as a fine-mist, it acts as an instant source of fertility because it soaks into the leaves and delivers nutrients more directly.  Even so, some of the fertilizer still touches the soil and is absorbed into the ground.  Now, something I hadn’t thought about, is that even though most fish emulsion fertilizers have a NPK (nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium) reading of 4-1-1, what they don’t tell you about is that the stuff probably also has a lot of trace minerals inside it.  Stuff like calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, boron, manganese, etc.  Many times it’s the trace nutrients that are short in the soil, for the simple fact that no one ever bothers to add these nutrients back the soil, most farmers only care about nitrogen to make their crops big, but with growth deficiencies caused by a lack of some particular trace nutrient.  Well, fish emulsion is ground up fish, so naturally it’s going to contain a lot more than NPK, it’s going to contain a sample of everything in the entire ocean, hopefully not mercury though.

Anyhow, areas that were sprayed with the fish emulsion had fewer weeds than areas that weren’t.  The areas that weren’t sprayed wound up like that simply because I rotate my spraying, I don’t spray all at once, so the weedy areas simply haven’t been hit yet.

Adding on to that idea, and this is what’s really exciting, is the fact that areas with an application of emulsion plus 1/4″ of farm-generated compost, tickle-tilled in, had absolutely no weeds whatsoever, none, the only thing growing was the crop.  There’s no way that compost could have acted as a mulch, because the top layer is paper-thin, any determined weed could grow through that.  Instead, nothing, just lettuces and radishes.

Very few rows had compost applied due to a feared shortage, yet the results were magnificent. This isn't a mulch, this is 1/4" of compost lightly tilled in. Only the radishes and a few pre-existing shoots of bahia grass can be seen. No weed seed germination whatosever, despite germination in other areas of the field.

For me, it’s huge that something so simple could go unnoticed for so long, almost a crime, but it makes good sense.  It wasn’t until the 19th century that the miracle of manure was demystified through the work of scientists who were able to deconstruct this steaming pile of digested grass into a concentrated solid of nitrogen extracted from a multi-acre area of pasture.  Unfortunately, they forgot about the other nutrients, anywhere from 30 to 90 according to who you ask.  So, synthetic fertilizers were made according to this reductionist view of plant nutrition, the NPK school, and this knowledge was further disseminated to the farmers and their children through the extension service and the land grant university.  Yet despite this fact, many A&M schools, including Texas A&M, know about those other nutrients.  My horticulture professor clearly brought up the fact that plants need trace minerals, he cited that there were somewhere around 30 as I remember it, and if you obtain a soil test from A&M they’ll analyze not only the NPK but also the calcium, magnesium, iron, etc.  Even so, thanks to inertia, our first experiment with better living through chemistry resulted in short-term success coupled with long-term failure, a sudden boost in yields accompanied by the slow and steady destruction of the soil by wiping out the soil biology that held everything together, through chemicals that were supposedly pretty harmless, resulting in a chemical dependency that requires greater amounts of fertilizers and pesticides with greater concentrations and greater hazards, which would only further increase the rate at which we destroyed the ground beneath our feet.  The chemical treadmill, if you will.  It is the school of thought that the modern agricultural college is built upon, including Texas A&M, a school of thought that promotes liquid fertilizer and regular applications of pesticides/herbicides as the way the modern farmer, the successful farmer, conducts business.

It never had to be that way, nor does it have to be that way today.  Chickens on pasture, followed by applications of compost tea and fish emulsion, that’s all it took.  Healthy plants, no bugs, no weeds.  That’s all it took to crack their foundation, not by some earthquake, but through an incredibly simple truth.  That tells you how strong such a foundation really is.

Well, hey, I have my plan worked out.  I’m not going to fuss that much over weeds, and I’m not going to fuss that much over bugs.  Let’s fire up that soil factory and crank out some veg.  In the meantime, I plan on purchasing a copy of all of Albrecht’s papers and doing some homework.

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First Harvest

March 8, 2011

It was roughly 3 months ago that the ground which had been designated to my supervision was bare, covered in dormant winter grass and chicken manure, land designated as “marginal” by the ag experts who saw it fit that vegetable production should be left to the Central Valley of California, or lands south of San Antonio in the Texas winter garden.  Land, which should have been vigorously sprayed with noxious herbicides and artificial fertilizers, for the sake of a vague concept of optimumness.

This was the first to come out of the ground, radishes that may have had a little extra help from doses of liquid fish emulsion or compost tea, yet had never been touched by a single artificial fertilizer spray, nor a single pesticide or herbicide, organic or artificial.  The tops had a few holes where rogue cucumber beetles had feasted on their leaves, but the roots were untouched, as close to perfection as I had ever seen in a radish, made all the more real by the soil that still clung to their roots.  It took only 28 days for these radishes to grow from seed to fully-grown.  I was tempted to wait, but any longer and they may develop unsavory peppery flavors and become “pithy”.

The first harvest is as much an important event to the farmer as the first dollar is to the businessman.  While both are certainly motivated by the pursuit of profit, the modern day chemical-free, small, local farmer is motivated by even higher concepts considered intangible to most people, concepts such as faith in the local rural community and its economy, the pride that comes with hard work, the integrity of the environment and the ecosystem on which you perform your work, and various other values that are a little harder to wrap around for those not engaged in this line of work.

What makes this moment all the more important to me is the fact that there are those who thought it couldn’t be done, and still those who are skeptical.  Support was virtually unanimous amongst those in my circle of friends, and for that I am thankful, yet outside that circle I was just a 20 year old kid, now 21, who rebelled against society and took up the pursuit of growing vegetables to make a “living” and prove the “establishment” wrong, however the hell he was going to do that.  I haven’t proven myself yet, there’s still a ways to go, but what matters is that this step helps me stand just a little taller, and talk a little firmer, whenever I tell strangers that I left one of the largest colleges of agriculture in the country because I knew that something wasn’t right, while at the same time there were things that were very wrong, and I wanted to do something to change that.  A week later there will be another round of radishes to harvest, and after that another round, 150 bunches of radishes every single week, destined to arrive on someone’s plate somewhere within the vicinity of this little farm in Washington County, and before long more chemical free vegetables will be harvested that were grown completely free of the influence of companies like Monsanto, Cargill, ADM, and just about every other big ag corporation, and it’s that sort of thing that makes the experts’ skin crawl.

For those who are curious, this is a special heirloom type of radish called French Breakfast, also known as the D’avignon Radish.  What sets it apart from other radishes, other than the shape, is that it’s way more mild, and can be grown in hotter conditions than other radishes without losing flavor, yet it still matures in a record fast 28 days.  This radish is not a recommended radish for Texas according to the A&M vegetable guide.

Come summer I’ll be harvesting yet another heirloom not recommended by A&M, the Arkansas Traveler tomato.  An heirloom that 100 years ago dominated the south’s tomato industry, and thrived in temperatures that today only modern heat-set tomatoes could perform in.  It hasn’t even been 6 months yet, I’m just getting started.

The Other World

March 2, 2011

It’s only been a few days now since I turned 21, an affair that is almost always guaranteed to be a monumentally raucous affair complete with tons of cheap booze, a visit to a bar (or two…sometimes five), and a one night stand with someone of the opposite sex.  90% of it is forgotten following the subsequent death of the neurons responsible for remembering the event following the high concentrations of alcohol within the bloodstream.

I, on the other hand, remember everything.  I didn’t have any alcohol in my bloodstream that day, let alone high concentrations of it.  The inescapable fact is that the vegetables under my care are as dependent on me the day on my birthday and after my birthday as they are on the days before my birthday.  As you can imagine, it tends to turn away many prospective young farmers, but I seem to get along just well.

This doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a good birthday though, I actually found it to be one of the best thus far.  Work was relatively easy this day, and Jason was nice enough to pause me from my chores for a moment to take me out for lunch at a place in Chappel Hill, one that I’m certain must be the best restaurant in all of Washington County (although there are many yet that I’m convinced I must try) and perhaps even a potential customer in the future, since they seem fairly open to the idea of homegrown food.  Yet the highlight of my day may have been reflecting on the coincidental irony that occurred later in the afternoon.

I found out the day before that some students from A&M were scheduled to visit for a class on local food, taught by none other than my old Vegetable Lab partner, Nathaniel Proctor.  The reunion was nice, not just with him but with another friend I hadn’t seen in a while, but the best part was the fact that opposite of me were 15 people roughly my age, maybe younger, maybe older, who may or may not be interested in working on a farm in the future.  Meanwhile, here I was, just turned 21, covered in dirt, sweat, and pride, there was my 1.25 acres in vegetables over there, wholly managed by me, while in another paddock a field was being prepared for summer veggies, which would also be wholly managed by yours truly.  I can’t help but wonder if any of them questioned where they were at the moment, stuck in what was an entirely different, and potentially unsatisfying, world apart from my world, or perhaps they hadn’t noticed it.

I did.  I was fully aware of the fact that it was very likely at one point that I would be the 16th Aggie in the crowd, undoubtedly stressed out of my mind, yet I wasn’t.  What sets me apart goes a long way back to a point where struck off on a path different from the one I was expected to follow, yet I would still be heading for the same destination were it not for, I don’t know, something.  I’m honestly at a loss right now to find out why we’re worlds apart.  Perhaps it was my own will and self-determination that sets me apart, especially now that I’ve reached the point of 60 hour work weeks and rising, yet that’s vanity to assume that you have the drive to work harder than others.  I don’t know, perhaps I’ll wait and see, after a few more harvests, when I’ve hopefully grown wiser after seeing the sun rise and fall and observing the life cycles of countless many species of plants at a level of detail that few really seem to car about, let alone know about.

In addition to this ironic coincidence, I also found it a somewhat ironic coincidence that on that same day I used the tractor and disc plow to open up more areas of land for the summer crop.  I still remember my first time driving that tractor with the plow behind me, and remarking at how much it felt like some sort of warm coming-of-age ritual that Midwestern farm boys used to differentiate the men from the boys.  Using the plow on that particular time, as the sun was about to set, seemed to make the event official.

Meanwhile, I’ll reserve the celebratory aids (fine alcohol) for an even better celebration that I anticipate to come in as little as two weeks.  The radishes have continued to swell in size, to the point now where I can clearly envision the point where they’ll be harvested and prepared for a destination on someone’s table.  The first harvest is coming up, what lies beyond is something my imagination can only visually picture in a random blurry assortment of every color in the rainbow, the yellows potentially being some sort of scallop squash.

True Leaves

February 24, 2011

An event of true horticultural significance has occurred today.  The first planting of radishes (in addition to the lettuces and kale) have grown their first set of “true leaves”.

Basically, in horticultural terminology, the first set of leaves that you find whenever a seedling emerges from the ground are cotyledons.  Don’t ask me what that term actually means, I forgot, all I know is that it’s the term given to the first two.  The seedling is born with these leaves, encased within the seed along with a stem and a starter pack of nutrients to help it climb upwards through the soil until it is able to photosynthesize and produce it’s own energy.

I consider this to be a major stepping stone as a vegetable grower since to me it represents that point where the growth of the plant seems to take off like there’s no tomorrow, where all of a sudden it just shoots forth into the sky with roots plunging into the earth, and before you know it it’s harvest time.  At the same time, I never actually thin out my seedlings until they reach this stage, maybe longer, for I’ve always felt that you have to wait for the seedlings to show off their strength by displaying some of their first true leaves before you’ll know which will be the strongest and which will succumb to the elements.

In much the same way, I too am just beginning to grow my first true leaves.

I had to lay down on my side to take that picture with the angle that it’s at.  Shortly after, I felt compelled to touch the raised soil the radish was growing on, to feel it.  It felt good, looked good…it was real, all of this was real.  Even now, a month later, I still have a hard time taking things fully for granted and am amazed at just where exactly I am in life.  I still have a long ways to go, and yet I have that oh so special blessing of being exactly where I need to be at the right time.  I don’t own a farm, that’s okay, that’ll come later, right now what I have is the satisfaction of knowing that these are my crops that I’m growing in this soil that I’m feeling, soil that belongs to a wonderful farm.  While Jason does pay for the seeds, and the fuel, and the tractors, and the equipment, I do plant them, grow them, send them off to their new homes to sit on a table so lovingly prepared, they are in a sense my botanical children.  Yes, these are your crops John, you are a farmer, and my what beautiful crops they will be, even after suffering under the strain of those freezes.  My roots are in the ground now, I’m where I want to be, now it’s time to grow, show your true leaves, show your strength.

I thought I might talk a little bit about Brenham, namely how hip and awesome it’s become.  Contrary to popular belief I haven’t had to wait until forever before I felt welcomed into town, I feel like I’ve already done that in about a month.  Makes sense though, I’m not just some desk jockey after all, I’m the young man you can see on Hwy 105 every day, moving around the sprinklers or some other something of a rather.  In addition to getting to know the folks at the United Methodist Church, I also met a kindred spirit at a TOFGA conference back in January who lives in Brenham, goes by the name of William, and happens to be on the bookface friend list.  He might read this, so I guess I should be nice (jerkface).

I’ve discovered, much to my delight and surprise, that Brenham is actually quite a bit more progressive than College Station is.  When I say progressive I don’t mean liberal, for Brenham is actually still a very down to earth community, yet at the same time they’re very hip to new ideas, including good food, and incidentally enough the local coffee house has a vacant lot that may be home to a community garden pretty soon from the looks of that bookface group I’ve been added to.  Honestly, I thought I was going to leave most of the “agtivism” behind me whenever I moved down here, but from the looks of it I may have found a receptive crowd.  I’m feeling pretty energetic about this, since Brenham still has so much to gain despite it doing pretty well from it’s tourism industry.  What it needs is something that the youth of Brenham and the rural parts of Central Texas can grab on to, some sense of opportunity purpose to draw them in, and to achieve that end I see a rural renaissance taking place starting with local farms laying the foundation of a strong rural economy.  I see good things happening to this little town, and I’m glad I picked it.

The Earth Speaks

February 16, 2011

This past week has been an eventful one, indeed probably the most tiring one I’ve spent on the farm yet.  Thankfully, I anticipate this day being a slow one, so I decided that the first half of the day could be spent resting, more or less.

The freeze, and all the misery that it entailed, has long since departed, and the weather forecast now seems to indicate that not only will be safe from another freeze for a while, but that we’ll thrive under these 70 degree conditions, which is precisely what has gone on at the farm.  The past few days have seen the reawakening of the seeds I planted before the freeze, who seem to have easily defied this cold spell and have responded to the temperatures with a sudden burst of green.  Like Thoreau, I have made the Earth speak, without the legumes though, a better profit can be made from this mass of gourmet vegetables.

I must confess, though I don’t quite savor the consumption of radishes, I do enjoy growing them.  Compared to all the other vegetables, the radishes seem to be the most eager to break through the soil, and the most eager to mature in as little as 30 days and end up on someone’s plate, what farmer doesn’t like that?  Then there’s the nomenclature associated with the radish, from the latin word Radix or “root”.  It shares this root word with the term “radical”, for someone who is radical is someone who defies the status quo and conventional wisdom to advocate change at or near the very heart of the issue.  So when I think of the radish, I think of this almost revolutionary vegetable who wastes no time deploy from the farmer’s fields onto the table of his or her customer, a sort of culinary stormtrooper who breaks through the first line of industrial agriculture.  My, what a thought.

The lettuces and radishes weren’t the only ones to germinate though, shortly after the cauliflower, cabbage, and brocolli transplants began to emerge from their chambers of peat, ready to replace their fallen comrades on the field, who had fallen after the first freeze blew right through their ranks and seemed to kill them down to the root, if not further down.  Pretty soon the whole field will be alive and teeming with life, life which no doubt will distract drivers on Hwy 105, possibly more than the bluebonnets from which Brenham’s tourism industry derives it’s strength and power.  As much as I like bluebonnets, I hope that one day Brenham might be known for something more.  It can keep flowers, that’s fine, I value their utility as leguminous plants, but remember that the only thing keeping this land, and indeed this entire country, from being so much more beautiful, is something as simple and as complex as a narrow mind, or more appropriately tens of millions of narrow minds.  As much of a pessimist as I may be, commenting on the failures of industrial society with a critical point of view, the fact is that so much can be done with so little of a change.  Indeed, one of the more amusing aspects about this small town is that even here, a rural town with a feed store located in its center, people are awfully curious about what this wayward wind from the High Plains is up to, curious and receptive.  I’m still not quite fully in love with Brenham yet, but one day I will be, knowing that a rural renaissance is about as possible now as it ever has been, and is growing more possible by the day, and pretty soon abstract ideas about rural community and localized economies will grow whole and bear fruition.

Back on the farm, the first compost pile I started has more or less finished decomposing after about a month’s worth of turning it every week.  It’s not quite fully there, the woodchips are still intact, but they have turned a nice shade of earthy brown, and the manure inside has apparently vanished as the pile now reeks of some sort of earthy perfume rather than chicken crap.  I’m not exaggerating when I use the term “perfume” as the center of the pile really carries this earthy smell, to the point where it almost overwhelms you with an odor that acknowledges that is done, and that you should return this spirit as quickly to the earth as possible, to start the circle anew.  It’s a time consuming process, labor intensive too, since it basically entails me loading it onto the bucket of the tractor with the pitch fork, dumping it on the rows, and then raking it out so that only a thin layer is deposited on the ground.  I still have to till it, and since the tractor tiller is too big I’ll probably have to use the human-propelled model.  So be it.  For all the labor that entails, it’s very much worth it to see the pale tan sand indigenous to this area be converted to a much richer brown color.  It seems fitting that any task related to the stewardship of some patch of earth should exhaust the performer of that task, and in my case that is especially true.

All of this excitement has certainly tacked on many more hours to my job.  At one point I could get away with a 5 hour day pretty easily, but with all the activity going on the field entrusted to my care seems to want my attention from dawn til dusk, except for days like today at least, but that will probably change pretty quickly.  Even so, I’m still contemplating expansion to another part of the farm for the summer crop, and in anticipating of many more customers.  The more I’ve thought about the situation I am in, the more I’ve come to appreciate the gravity of it all, and the more I feel a need to thank Jason for an opportunity unlike any other.  After realizing the land, equipment, and general resources at my disposal, the more I came to grasp the idea that the only thing holding me back from achieving a status parallel to “master farmer” and knocking down old ideas and notions…is my own mind, more specifically my will, and my own human strength.  Once I can conquer that, then momentum will do the rest.

I’ve noticed that my muscles have grown noticeably larger in the past month, and that previously energy intensive tasks have grown easier over a surprisingly short period of time.

A cold reckoning…in Mexico

February 13, 2011

If you’ve been keeping up to date with my blog, then you may have remembered those two entries I posted on the freeze that came by in early February, the one that killed all of my unprepared plants and set me back by a few weeks.  Looking back, I’m thankful that my first crop failure was a comparatively mild one in comparison with other growers in my area, and with farmers up north who lost entire buildings to the relentless barrage of snow.  What I hadn’t expected though was the damage this freeze further down south, in Mexico.

As it turns out the freeze didn’t lose very much steam as it migrated south and eventually crossed the border, destroying records set back in 1957.  Back then, these parts of Mexico were probably a little more different than they are now.  Thanks to NAFTA, Mexico is now the United States own personal winter garden.

The result wasn’t a good one, early reports predict that anywhere from 80%-100% of Mexico’s vegetable crop has been destroyed (http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/303583), and as a consequence the price of vegetables has shot through the roof.  This is beyond terrible.  The mind cannot begin to fathom what it would look like to see millions of acres of lettuce and tomatoes blasted by freeze, limp and laying across the cold ground.  The economic losses for those involved in this industry will no doubt be severe, but the damage won’t be evident until it hits closer to home, whenever American consumers realize that there is a shortage of that which we took for granted so easily: the tomato.

Moments like these illustrate the need for that vague term we throw around called “food security”, the idea that putting all your eggs in one basket is not a good idea.  Of course, growing vegetables elsewhere would do us no good since we really can’t grow tomatoes in the middle of winter in any part of the United States, but this illustrates a very important point in global agriculture, that a crop failure in a single growing area doesn’t produce ripples any longer, it produces tidal waves.

A sound and feasible solution to the fix we are in would be to recognize the value of localized crop production, even on land considered “marginal” by the experts, which would do so much more than merely reduce the likelihood of crop failures turning into tidal waves, but for now the message conveyed by this agriculture disaster is very clear, we need to decentralize.

The consequences of such failures go well beyond economic damage and extend into the realm of social unrest.  In addition to this freeze killing off all these vegetables, it also destroyed an estimated 16% of Mexico’s corn crop.  Vegetables are a luxury, corn is the staple of Mexico.  This couldn’t come at a worse moment, a time where one US official described the ongoing battle between drug cartels and the government as “an insurgency”, while other experts are comparing the economic conditions in Mexico to that of Egypt and saying that the two look a little similar.

Meanwhile, here in the states, at least 14% of the population is incapable of purchasing food using their own income, and must depend on federal food assistance (food stamps) as a consequence.  In many Middle Eastern countries, the government subsidizes the cost of fuel, food, and many other amenities, and some have even gone as far as giving away these amenities for free, no strings attached, as a means of downplaying the tension building up within segments of the population who feel oppressed, not by leadership, but by the economic conditions within their countries.  Without these subsidies, many would be unable to afford these basic amenities and would undoubtly revolt, much like what happened in Tunisia, which was actually started whenever an unemployed street merchant was told that he couldn’t sell vegetables without a permit and had his cart taken away, self-immolation followed shortly after.  We are seeing cases of self-immolation in many other countries in the Middle East, including Iraq, where protests are erupting over the lack of basic services and the widespread poverty that inevitably develops after you country is conquered.

I got a little off track there it looks, a natural side effect produced by the fact that apathy is still much higher than it should be.  The point is, just because the unrest seems to be contained in the Middle East and appears to only happen within countries governed by oppressive regimes doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen here.  These people aren’t just trying to free themselves from political oppression, but from economic oppression as well, the type of oppression where you can’t afford the basic necessities of life, where the necessity of change becomes more self-evident than it ever has been before and it becomes clearer now more than ever that you need to join your brothers and sisters out there in the streets outside your home, and you have to do something.

How many more hungry families and disenfranchised youth does our own country require before people start chanting in Washington DC?

Zen Farming

February 9, 2011

Another freeze, another day where I keep myself locked indoors either at my overpriced apartment or at the local coffee house, in this case it’s the local coffee house, I needed some air.  Much as I’d love to do some work today and brave the elements, with those 20 mph wind gusts that make you realize just how naked your face is, I made an executive decision and decided that there really isn’t much I can do on a day like this.  I probably shouldn’t so much as touch the seedlings right now, and moving the transplants outdoors to water them would be a very bad idea.  The only task that really comes to mind is moving those clumps of grass away from the lower end of the field, very stubborn clumps of grass that refused to let go of the soil they were attached to, which can only really be effectively removed with a pitchfork AFTER you’ve thoroughly pulverized the ground with the rototiller, which has been done already at least.  I’ll let them remain for the time being, especially since they’re doing such a swell job of shielding the ground from the elements.

The last freeze, as you may recall, destroyed all of my work.  What it didn’t do though is harm the below ground portions of the plants.  An autopsy (me pulling a seedling out of the ground) revealed that while the fragile leaves were utterly destroyed, the root system showed no injury whatsoever.  Even so, the damage above ground was so severe that recovery was unrealistic, so I started over.

Still, keeping this in mind, I got to work immediately after the freeze and began seeding Sunday, after I had tilled the ground Saturday and completely revised the planting plans to accommodate some new ideas.  The seedlings that germinated just before the last killer freeze had actually endured a very brief and mild freeze before hand, and still showed pleasant results…some of them.  The lettuce, swiss chard, radishes, spinach, they all showed excellent germination, while the beets and carrots were a disappointment, despite the carrots being F1 hybrids and possessing “hybrid vigor”.  Keeping this in mind, only certain varieties were seeded before the freeze, and they were seeded with the intention of them NOT germinating in the middle of the freeze, so some of them were seeded late.  The theory was, as long as they were under the ground, shielded from the harsh cold and chilling winds, they would do alright.  I’ll see soon enough if my theory is correct.  If not, so be it, I’ll plant more, and at least I didn’t plant any carrots or beets yet.

I have a good feeling that what I’m demonstrating here is agreeable with Wendell Berry’s requirement that farmers know the land well.  The vast majority of farms, by the grace of psuedo-science and techno-wizardy, now look very much like the farm down the road, and the farm further down the road, and the other farm located even further down the road.  Locally adapted livestock breeds, plant varieties and, more importantly, regionally-specific knowledge, have been supplanted with a one-size-fits-all agriculture.  It’s a bad idea whenever you tell the farm with the flat open property and the farm with the hilly property to both plant row crops.  The steeper the grade on a piece of ground, the more likely erosion will occur, and the more necessary it becomes to keep something perennial on that ground to prevent your livelihood’s foundation from literally eroding away.  If you have hilly land, you should plant an orchard, or leave the grass there and graze livestock on it.

Likewise, I am beginning to learn myself what works and what doesn’t, a lesson that no land-grant college can ever effectively teach to it’s students, and indeed very few farmers save for the masters can effectively communicate this lesson to their apprentices.  The most effective way to learn this lesson is to learn it yourself with the assistance of Nature/the natural forces (the non-spiritual politically correct term?).  Taking nature’s lessons to heart, I have reseeded some of my crops with extra confidence knowing that I am more aware of this land and it’s place than I was before.

Speaking of seeding, on the past few occasions I’ve been using a mechanical plate seeder to plant the crops.  It’s a fast and moderately effective device, yet it’s one weakness is that it spits out seeds like a machine gun.  This is bad for two reasons, the first being that when it comes time to thin the crop I’ll be stuck out there for hours, and the second reason being the fact that it’s very much a waste to spend so much money on seed and have to throw away the majority of it whenever it germinates.  We don’t have a precision planter, so I’ve taken to seeding some crops by hand.

It’s a surprisingly spiritual exercise, I’ve found out.  The first thing I realized is that it’s very humbling to have to get on your hands and knees and move at such a slow pace, planting a few seeds at a time.  It takes a fairly long while, yet the time seems to fly after a while as your thoughts drift while conducting the monotonous exercise.  Before too long, I realized that this was actually a very effective form of meditation, a way to anchor myself and let my thoughts drift away in the sea of time.  Finally, before too long, I realized that there was a spiritual component to what I was doing.  I felt as though, subconsciously, I wasn’t merely planting seeds but also engaged in silent prayer as I knelt down to the ground and rhythmically slid my hand over the dirt to cover the seeds before patting down the location where they had been buried, as if giving them some final blessing before moving on.  Despite how tedious this exercise is, I imagine I’ll keep doing it even after a more precise seeder can be purchased.

Little else comes to mind now, other than a discussion about bluebonnet season with Jason and Gary, Jason’s father-in-law.  Brenham’s tourism industry seems to derive from it’s strong association with being the bluebonnet capital of Texas/The World (where the hell are you going to find bluebonnets in China?), and boy howdy does it get a lot of traffic.  Apparently Hwy 105 is loaded with tourists distracted by the sight of these blue flowers, to the point where many of them commit amazingly idiotic actions like make u-turns on the highway, crash into the car in front of them, trespass on another person’s property, and ram right through a barbed wire fence into someone’s pasture.

By the time those bluebonnets bloom, I’m going to make those little flowers old news.  Folks won’t know what to think when they discover that rainbow of vegetables.