“What has eyes but does not see?” crooned the singer. “Does not see, does not see.”
“A potato, stupid!” Lena bellowed from the back seat. When she was five Lena took great pleasure in beating the chorus girls to their punch lines.
“A potato, a potato, a potato,” cooed the backup singers as Lena laughed. It was the schmaltzy “Silly Songs” again, a grubby kiddie-music cassette making its millionth passage through the bowels of our tape deck.
“Play it again!” yelled Lena, and I did; not because I liked the song but because I love my daughter. The song is all wrong. My sympathies are entirely with the potato. Who are we to call the potato blind?
Look how the Spaniards behaved when they discovered Peru. They were so dazzled by the glitter of the gold they stole that they had no eyes for the potato. Pound for pound the potato has proven to be one of the most productive and nutritious vegetable foods ever developed by humankind; a veritable buried treasure Potatoes provide complex carbohydrates, starches, vitamins, minerals, and proteins and can be cultivated under a wide variety of environmental conditions. They can be stored fresh for long periods of time against the threat of famine. Sun-dried, Inca-style, as chuño potatoes can last almost indefinitely in storage. And potatoes aren’t hard to grow.
Potatoes are not typically sown from seed, but they can be. Pre-Columbian Americans developed many distinct potato varieties, or cultivars, by cross pollinating different wild strains, harvesting the fruits, and growing out the seeds to see what kind of tubers they new hybrid plants would yield. Desirable potato varieties are easily cloned and propagated by slicing a potato into parts, each piece with its own two or three eyes, and planting them deep in well-drained soil. There’s enough water and energy stored in a potato tuber to send green shoots to the soil’s surface without irrigation. If a potato plant’s vigorous roots have a chance to tap into sub-soil moisture, it may not need to be watered even once before setting a bountiful harvest. You can’t eat gold.
In the end, the Spaniards squandered the gold they stole from Peru financing religious wars. It fell to Spain’s dread enemy, protestant England, to recognize the real treasure of Peru by cultivating the potato. But even the English didn’t perceive the commercial potential of the potato at first. Some of the blame for this blindness must be laid on cooks who misunderstood the strange new plant and steamed the foliage instead of the tubers. Diners got sick from a toxic alkaloid called solanine that’s naturally concentrated in the potato plant’s leaves. Solanine is chemically related to nicotine. More to blame were the theologians of the day. Protestants were reluctant to plant potatoes because, having not been mentioned in the Bible, potatoes were imagined to be “of Satan.”
Medieval Europeans were ignorant, not stupid, and when they initially saw the potato in a diabolical light their botany was not as bigoted as you might at first suspect. The potato is in the Nightshade family, or Solanaceae, along with Datura, Belladonna, and tobacco, three potent vision inducing plants much favored by wizards, shamans, and witches. (Before tobacco was dumbed down by the Marlborough Man some strains of tobacco were quite psychoactive, and passing the pipe meant something!) The potato’s flowers look similar to the blooms of other more notorious nightshades. A few Catholics tried cultivating potatoes despite its diabolical cousins, but as a hedge against their spiritual gamble they planted their crops amid prayer on Good Friday and irrigated the fields with holy water. I’ve never used holy water on my farm but I can tell you Good Friday is a later planting date for potatoes than I’d choose.
This year Good Friday was March 21st. Next year it will be April 12th. In California, potatoes perform best when they’re grown under the cool conditions of late winter that most closely mimic the high Andean altitudes of their wild ancestors, so I prefer to plant my crop in February. A farmer can plant potatoes several weeks before the last frost to ensure a long growing season and a maximum yield. Soil is a good insulator. It will take the potato’s new shoots a couple of weeks to reach the surface and by then winter will have passed. Even if the first potato shoots get burned back by a late frost, the tuber usually contains enough energy to send up a second set of stems quickly. Potatoes planted into warm weather never yield quite as well and are more prone to disease and insect pressure.
Once the potato was adopted in the British Isles it became one of the most efficient engines driving the industrial revolution. Potato cultivation could be carried out with less persistent labor and on fewer acres than other types of medieval farming. Peasants were freed up from the land just in time to be wage slaves in the factories spinning wool. Rural people were shoved off the land to make room for the sheep that would provide the wool for the factories. A meager diet of potatoes, supplemented with a few hardy vegetables from a cottage garden and a little goat milk from goats pastured in ditches and alleys was all the Irish working class could produce on their reduced lands, but it kept them strong enough to survive and multiply. The nutritious potato enabled the process of enclosure and suburbanization to move forward. The British lords had unwittingly come into possession of one of the world’s miracle crops, but they couldn’t see beyond exploiting their Catholic subjects in Ireland any more than the Spanish Comquistadores could with the Indios in America.
The British didn’t know it at first, but when they were planting potato tubers they were also sowing the seeds of disaster. While the Andean farmers cultivated a rainbow of different varieties Europeans cultivated only a few genotypes. When disease struck the potato crop almost every plant died from the Volga to Donegal Bay. Lack of genetic diversity meant there were no blight-resistant potato clones. Ireland was the hardest hit; over a million people died and another million were motivated by famine to emigrate.
Today Ireland is on the upswing, but the consensus euphemism for Peru’s condition is that it’s a “developing nation.” It is politically charged to call culturally rich but materially impoverished former colonies “recovering nations.” Some tourists compare the squalid poverty they encounter in modern Peru to the splendid ruins of Machu Picchu, the mysterious Atacama mummies or the astronomically significant mathematics of the Nazca Lines and they’re left sad and puzzled. Other people, like Erick Von Däniken author of the worldwide best seller Chariot of the Gods, have answers. The Nazca Lines must have been cut across the desert floor to guide UFOS in for landing, they reason. Obviously, the surprising wisdom of Peru’s past civilizations CAME FROM OUTER SPACE! The little brown people who patiently, intelligently worked for over 4000 years to transform a bitter tuberous herb into a vegetable of world-wide importance are left invisible in the glow of more evolved space beings.
Granted, Von Däniken was a sloppy, sensationalistic researcher, but the huge sales figures for his book demonstrate that his instincts were right in sync with the technophilic values we’ve acquired in the mainstream. How could wisdom come out of the dirt, anyway? And so what if we ruin this planet? –No sweat. We can build a rocket ship and fly to another one.
What has eyes but does not see? Silly songs aside, it’s not the potato that’s blind.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
Gold is beautiful, but the smart money buys aluminum. When you drape yourself with bling, you have to worry about the thugs in the alley that wait to yank the studs from your nose or twist the rings off your fingers. Aluminum has no glamour, and is perceived to be the metal of choice for the meek, shuffling street people that eke a living out of scavenging cans. But aluminum, like gold, holds its value through tough times. When I bought my supply of thirty-foot long, three inch diameter aluminum irrigation pipes ten years ago I spent $18 per joint. Every once in a while someone drives a tractor over a section of pipe by mistake and crushes it, and when that happens I can sell the damaged sprinkler pipe by the pound to recyclers and recoup my initial investment. In fact, the price of aluminum has gone up so much that if I wanted to buy new irrigation pipe I’d have to pay close to fifty dollars per joint. I can’t afford that, so I rent half the pipe I use for around twenty dollars a piece. Buy gold and you own gold. Buy aluminum sprinkler pipes to rent out and you’ve got a gold mine.
I’ve got a friend in the irrigation pipe business. When farms go bankrupt or farmers retire there’s always a farm sale. My friend goes to the auctions with his trailer and buys old sprinkler pipe, which he then retrofits and rents out to people like me. He’s crabby these days, because he finds himself bidding against guys in loafers, guys that can’t tell the male end of a pipe from the female end and aren’t curious to find out. They’re metal traders, not farmers. They know it takes immense amounts of electricity to turn raw bauxite ore into finished aluminum, and they know that energy costs are only going to rise. When it comes to prices, what goes up doesn’t have to come down. Pretty soon there may be so much quick money to be made scrapping aluminum that nobody’s going to bother going through all the work of repairing damaged sprinklers, replacing worn rubber gaskets, and hauling trailer loads of pipe to far-flung farmers like me.
Then there’s theft. It’s easy to mug a woman. But we farmers take comfort that most thieves are too lazy to drag thirty-foot lengths of pipe out of muddy fields in the night and haul them off. If the economy gets worse and hard working people turn to crime that could change. Already farmers have to keep an eye out for roaming thieves that steal the smaller, easily transported aluminum irrigation parts like gate valves, elbows, tees, and end plugs. Even worse, growers with fields and orchards near busy roads are discovering that their pumps and electric panels have been stripped of copper wire during the night. The farmer goes out at dawn and flips the switch and waits to hear the whir of a motor and the gurgle of water, but nothing happens: you can hear the birds chirp. Copper theft is an especially maddening crime. A thief may sell the stolen wire to an unscrupulous recycler for a few hundred dollars, but for the lack of water caused by a vandalized pump a farmer may lose a crop worth tens of thousands of dollars, to say nothing of the cost of replacing the pump. Not all fences make good neighbors.
To make my inventory of aluminum sprinkler pipes reach as far as possible I use them as little as possible. Once our fields have been planted out and the plants are established we put as many of our crops on drip tape as possible. Squash, cucumbers, basil, tomatoes, eggplant, sunchokes and peppers are all raised on drip. On my home ranch, where I have to cope with very limited water supplies, I raise perennial herbs, like rosemary, thyme, oregano, savory, nepitella, and sorrel using only drip tape. And we frequently cultivate the rows of herbs with our little tractor. As water evaporates from the earth it forms capillary pathways through the soil. Cultivation acts to conserve water by stirring up the surface of the soil and shattering these little capillaries that that would otherwise help wick subsoil moisture into the atmosphere. This is a very basic “dry-farm” practice.
In the Bolsa region along the upper reaches of the Pajaro River where I grow my row crops, there is no shortage of ground water. Nor is the Bolsa aquifer contaminated with salt water intrusion the way the Pajaro Valley is near the ocean, where farmers and town dwellers have overdrawn the aquifer for years. But if I have no urgency to conserve water right now, learning how to economize on irrigation use is always a good idea. It takes energy to pump water, and energy costs are going up fast. It takes workers to move the pipes around the field, and the cost of labor is going up. And with more people in California every day, and more people competing to use and abuse our state’s limited water resources, the time may be drawing near when urban voters strip agriculture of its traditional priority hold on water.
A gallon of water on a farm is worth a lot more that a gallon of water that goes down a toilet, washes a car, or keeps a lawn green, because a farm’s water creates the food and jobs that keep the towns humming. A lot of urban consumers don’t see things that way because the connections between popular culture and agriculture are a mystery to them. Maybe I should stop listening to talk radio, but every day I hear people say that farmers should pay more to their workers, and, by the way, food is too expensive. Everyday I hear people say that it’s a hardship for cities to conserve water, and the farmers waste it anyhow, and by the way, food is too expensive. Dams are evil, so let the rivers run free, and by the way, food is too expensive, especially wild salmon. Eat locally, except for cheese, because dairies stink, and they should be a long way from town so nobody has to smell them, and by the way, milk is too expensive. Only wine seems exempt from criticism, and the day may come when Two Buck Chuck is cheaper than the water it took to raise the grapes in the first place. For now, as far as the public is concerned, food, like water, just seems to flow, albeit with more turbulence every day. The political wars over water are at hand as different interests wrestle in a public arena over who gets priority for diminishing water resources. The old saw is evergreen; “a crisp Chardonnay is for drinking, and water is for fighting,” As we farmers make the pitch that we should have a priority claim on water we need to demonstrate by our conservative practices that we merit the supply we demand. Gold is golden, and so is aluminum, but water is life. It’ll be a real crime if we farmers have all the precious aluminum pipes we need, but not enough water to fill them.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin || Photo above is of leeks at High Ground Organics, there’s a peek at an aluminum pipe with a joint on the end.
I’m enjoying the company of my new dog, Red. I didn’t expect to. I’ve worked on ranches where dogs were kept since I was a kid, but I never had a dog of my own. I never wanted a dog. I’ve always been more of a cat person.
Julia and I got Red to protect our sheep. Livestock guard dogs are different than herd dogs. Sheep dogs and cow dogs help herdsmen move herds, running back and forth behind laggard animals, barking, nipping, and urging them on. Herd dogs bond with human herd owners and learn to follow explicit directions. Guard dogs, by contrast, bond with the herds they guard. A livestock guard dog may lie on the ground like a sack of cement mix all day long, but when the need arises, it’ll rise up too and frighten off or attack any predators that threaten its friends. It is necessary that a guard dog’s owner be able to approach and handle the dog, but it is not the guard dog’s job to be friendly to humans. For a livestock owner, being overly familiar with a guard dog can even be counterproductive, since the dog will be tempted to switch loyalties to humankind and forget its herd. But I knew all this.
Red spent the first two years of her life in the Texas Hill country, guarding ducks. The duck owner grew old and no longer able to care for his farm. Via the internet, Julia learned that Red needed to find a new ranch home, and so did a Pyrnees pup named Blue. We have friends in Texas, Frank and Pamela Arnosky, who are innovative organic flower farmers. So Julia decided to take a road trip, visit the Arnoskys, and come home with the two dogs. Maybe Red could have developed into a good guard dog for our sheep if she hadn’t spent a thousand miles in a car with Julia, eating at roadside taco joints, listening to music on the cd player and bonding like Thelma and Louise. But by the time Red got to our ranch in Watsonville she had new mission in life. Forget ducks! Pyrenees hound-dog girls are on this earth to vigorously protect deserving farm wives!
Even if Red had been flown to our farm sealed in an oil drum it might not have mattered much. My sheep are a sprawling, brawling bunch of hard headed, hard hitting ewes, more like a girl gang in the Bronx or a dirty roller derby team than the sort of fluffy white creatures that Little Bo Peep might hang out with. When I first introduced Red to my sheep, Wuzzy, the boss ewe, was unequivocal. She opened her mouth and stuck out her big, black tongue. “Get lost, bitch!” she baa-ed. Then she came after Red like a hammer head shark looking for a nail. Red jumped into my arms and I staggered out of the corral under her weight. Back in the yard, Red practiced sneaking over, under, and through the boundary fences to make a mess on our neighbor Shirley’s lawn. I had to tie Red up. When night fell, she commenced to bark.
“Woof, woof!” she barked. “Red alert to Julia! A vicious deer approaches the south-west border of your ranch!” “Woof, woof, woof!”
“Quiet down!” I yelled.
“Woof, woof,” Red barked again. “There’s a bat in the sky at twelve o’clock high!” “Woof, woof, woof!” “ I’m gonna give it a piece of my mind!” “Woof, snarl!”
I couldn’t take it. “SHUT THE &*#! UP!”
But she wouldn’t. So I put Red in my van, which doesn’t have any seats in the back, and hoped she’d quiet down. Red looked wounded so I tried to make the floor a little softer by going to the barn and getting a saddle blanket that smells richly of donkey and spreading it out for her to sleep on. Then I got her a bowl of water and some chow.
In the morning Red was so happy she didn’t want to get out of the van, opting instead for breakfast in bed. I dragged her out and prepared to head off to the field. I have better things to do than ride herd on a guard dog, and I figured Red could stay home and keep an eye on Julia. But when I tried to drive away in “her new van” Red looked heartsick. So I took her to the farm with me where she met the guys, and enjoyed strolling the grounds, guarding the kales, radishes and squash. Now I have to take her with me everywhere I go.
I drive to our vegetable farm everyday down Highway 129. The other morning Red was fussing, so I pulled off the road in between the railroad overpass and the Pajaro River Bridge at Old Chittenden Road. Years ago, I used to farm a remote thirty acre piece along the railroad tracks near here, just up the river. I walked Red up the dirt road that serves as an access route for the Union Pacific maintenance crews along the railroad tracks so she could pee. My old partner, Greg, and I used to drive this road a dozen times a day going back and forth to the field, but since we split up our company and abandoned the field the road has grown over. Red didn’t want to stop, so we kept on walking. I hadn’t been down this road in nine years. Willow branches hung to the ground. Nettles reached up over my head. Red stopped to sniff a dead raccoon, and I was reminded of Ramiro.
When Greg and I first started farming out here the field was wild. Ramiro was our tractor driver and he helped us to break down the brush and rip the ground. For some reason the other guys called him “El Mapache,” which means “The Raccoon.” Ramiro and I were living together at the time, and one day he came home and said that he and Jorge had killed a javelí out at the field”.
I was alarmed. Javelí, or javelinas, are peccaries; small, omnivorous, pig-like animals that range over the Americas from the Gran Chaco in Bolivia, all the way to Arizona and Texas. I knew we didn’t have peccaries here in the Pajaro Valley, but Ramiro could easily have encountered a young wild boar, and that would be bad news. Since the field was isolated, our crops were vulnerable to being destroyed by herds of wild swine. Where there’s one pig, there’s always another.
“¿Mataste un puerco salvaje?” I asked. “You killed a wild pig?”
“No,” he said. “Un javelí.”
“But we don’t have javelinas here,” I said.
“Not any more,” he said. “We ate it.”
“En serio!” I said. “We don’t have javelinas here. They live in the desert. We have wild pigs. I mean, I’m hoping we don’t, but maybe you’re telling me we do.”
“It was no pig,” Ramiro said. “If you don’t believe me, I’ll bring you the feet!”
And so he did; four badger paws! Ramiro was a great guy, and not a bad cook, but he was no zoologist.
“We’re organic, Amigo!” I protested. “We can’t kill badgers. They’re our friends. They eat gophers like popcorn!”
“Ok, maguey!” Ramiro said. “No problem.”
Red was done smelling the dead coon and ready to move on. The last time I saw Ramiro he was taking his family back to Jalisco because he didn’t want to put his daughters in danger in Watsonville’s gang-plagued public schools. I heard he bought a ranch in Jalisco and raises milk goats. Red and I walked on.
We came to the field. Coyote brush stood ten feet tall. Red sat next to me as I surveyed the scene. I remembered a crop of chile peppers we raised out here. They were an aji type, a South American variety of pepper, red-orange, pointed, and hot as hell. Greg and I had the only seed in the US, as far as we knew. The plants grew and grew, but they didn’t flower until the end of the season, and then the plants got killed by frost before the fruit ripened. So we grew them again the following year. We were hard headed. We lost money twice before we understood that in vegetable farming it’s just as important to grow varieties of plants that are adapted to local conditions as to exploit openings in a national market. It wasn’t bad luck that the aji always froze; it was science! The breed of aji we were trying to grow had evolved at a different latitude and only flowers in the north when the hours of sunlight per day approximate springtime conditions back home. Nowadays I focus on conforming to my environment, not challenging it.
Red and I walked towards the middle of the field. The hemlock was so high we’d only gone a hundred yards before I couldn’t see the railroad tracks anymore. Wild rose and blackberry brambles tore at my pants. Red got tangled and we stopped. One morning when my son, Graydon, was little, I’d been out someplace right around here, working alone, picking carrots. He was with me that day, and he got bored.
“I wanna dwink,” he complained.
“Go get some water,” I said. “There’s a cooler next to the pick-up truck.” But the pick-up was at the end of the row, twenty yards off.
“I’m too tieowd!” he said. He sat down with a sigh like a dying bagpipe. Just then a train whistle sounded off in the distance. He straightened.
“You hear that?” I asked. We could hear the big diesel engines throbbing to the north. He stood up. Then another whistle sounded, sharp and clear, and a locomotive came around the bend on the north-eastern side of the field. “That’ll be the Coast Starlight,” I told Graydon. “Seattle to LA. Next stop Salinas, 11AM. And it’s not an hour early, either. More like twenty-three hours late!” But by then Graydon was already gone. The poor, tired child, too exhausted and thirsty to stagger to the cooler for a mouthful of life-saving water, was racing down the row, dodging clods and piles of freshly harvested carrots. When he got to the access road at the center of the field he turned and ran towards the train like his life depended on it.
“You ready to go, girl?” Red had finally peed. I picked up her leash. Graydon’s legs were so short back then that the speed he could move at was something to marvel over. He made it to the train tracks that day before the last passenger car had rolled past the field. These days Graydon’s feet are huge; bigger than mine. He’s thirteen. It’s time that moves fast now. It seems harder and harder to absorb or appreciate all the things that are going on. “When I get home,” I thought, “I’d better hug that kid while I still can.”
Red tugged hard. I’m no scatologist, but the fur-packed excrement she was straining to sniff at looked like bobcat shit to me. Red’s a good dog, even if she’s worthless at guarding sheep. I looked around. The sun was warm on my back. The sky overhead was as blue as a field of lupines and the grass on the hills beyond the railroad tracks was gold. It was time to get moving. I’d enjoyed playing hooky from my farm and taking a stroll down memory lane. It’s funny how it can take a turd-sniffing dog to help a man stop and smell the roses.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
top photo is of the CSY Field, taken July 2008 with Red’s help.
bottom photo is the same CSY Field, taken about 1998, complete with the train!
The Field Part Pt 1 Andy’s first article about the field…
Happy birthday to us! It’s been ten years now since I started the Ladybug Letter. Writing about food, farming, and life on the land has been therapeutic, and the discipline of research and self-editing prompts me to think about why I farm. Writing has also been valuable for the insight it’s given me into how the news business works. A few years ago I got written up in the
Last year the New York Times did a story on “farmers that write,” and they sent out a photographer. His editors wanted a picture of me astride a huge tractor or combine. As a small-scale vegetable grower I don’t have a huge tractor or a combine, but even if I did, it would have been dishonest of me to climb on for a photo. It’s been six years since I’ve been the tractor driver, so the photographer had to settle for a heroic head shot of me looking into the future. Actually, I couldn’t even find the keys to the tractor that day to lip sync being a tractor driver. I’d told the tractor driver to hide the keys so that my landlord’s adventurous eight year old son didn’t come across them accidentally on purpose and try to start the motor. Natanael Espana drives the tractor on Mariquita Farm. He’s worked with me since 1994 and he’s grown to be a far better tractorista than I could ever be. As a modern farmer I’m hardly alone in delegating farm tasks to employees, and it’s not my problem if the way I run my business runs counter to the image of agriculture that the wishes to project.
Or maybe it is my problem! The fact that farm workers are almost invisible to the people looking down from high atop the food chain is a political problem that affects us all. This country is a democracy, but our politicians can hardly be expected to craft intelligent agricultural policies if the public views farming through a warped rear view mirror. It’s a good sign that the New York Times wants to do stories about farmers, but it would be a public service if they didn’t compose and frame the scenes they photograph from inside their cubicles. Sophisticated New Yorker image makers have a lot to learn about what actually happens down on the ground in “flyover” America . One of the reasons I put my stories out for free on the internet is that it’s the best way I can think of to connect with the people in the jet planes overhead and start a conversation about where we’re all heading in the United States with our agriculture.
One of the most “revealing” experiences I’ve had dealing with the media happened because a major national food and lifestyle magazine did an article on Mariquita Farm for their annual summertime “Produce Issue.” Actually, they intended to write about an organic vegetable farmer down in San Diego County who also grew tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Unfortunately, at the last minute the other farmer was arrested because his organic vegetable farm was a front for his hallucinogenic mushroom farm. Whoops! The major national food and lifestyle magazine didn’t want to feature a felon. The editrix was familiar with our farm through my writing. The only problem was that by the time the problem made itself manifest and she called it was already October and summer was drawing to a close.
Production deadlines are necessarily far out ahead of magazine release dates, so photos need to be taken months in advance. I told her that I was happy to be interviewed, but if they wanted photos they’d better come quickly before it rained or frosted and our growing season ended. The court photographer for the major national food and lifestyle magazine was off taking pictures of food and farmers in , (we’ll call her Chloé) so she was unavailable. New York photo editors don’t like to count on unknowns from the sticks for pictures of tomatoes and eggplants, but given the gravity of the situation and the looming deadline, the major national food and lifestyle magazine took the risk and contracted out the photo shoot to a professional from San Francisco . (We’ll call her Alessandra.)
Alessandra showed up at the farm early in the morning under a black sky as the first storm of the season threatened the late hanging tomatoes and the last of the red and gold peppers. She brought her friend, Pia, with her to serve as an assistant. Alessandra was slender and stylish with cool glasses and loose, baggy paratrooper pants. The sun poked through the clouds and the two women went at the work hard, Alessandra snapping pictures of the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants while Pia adjusted the mirrors and screens and umbrellas they used to manage the glare and filter the light. Both women were happy to be outside in the fresh air on the farm because they’d just spent five weeks on top of a grill shooting for a barbeque cookbook and they were tired of wiping a film of smoke and atomized grease off their camera lenses every evening after work.
By noon, when the sun was high in the sky and there wasn’t much contrast, Alessandra and Pia retreated into the shade of the cottonwoods at the edge of the field to take some “cornucopia” shots the vegetables we’d gathered for them. We have a sorting table out there where Alessandra and Pia were working, and next to the table there’s a steep sided levee that rises up by the riverbank, all covered in tall weeds. Alessandra wanted to take some shots from above, looking down on the table at her tableaux of mixed summer veggies, so she scrambled up the bank. I was in the middle of the field with the guys from our harvesting crew when we heard Alessandra scream in terror. “Oh $#!%!,” I thought. “She’s stepped on a rattlesnake!” I ran to help.
“There’s a rat in my pants!” she squealed. She’d pinched off a big wad of her parachute pants in her fist about mid-thigh and I could see the captured critter wiggling through the fabric. Pia wasn’t helping her because she was hopping around down by the cameras and the tomatoes, swatting at herself, trying to make sure she didn’t get a filthy rodent up her own pants.
The only way for Alessandra to get rid of the animal was to take her pants off and shake them out. She sure didn’t want to let go of the tuft in her britches and have the rat run down her leg, so the crew watched with great interest as I got down on my knees, fumbled with Alessandra’s belt buckle, and finally slipped her pants off. Alessandra was too absorbed in the unfolding drama up to focus on being embarrassed in front of fourteen grubby farm hands, but at least her underwear were revealed to be fashionable. I shook the pants hard and out fell a little blue bellied fence lizard. Even Alessandra laughed. Then she shrieked again, but this time in rage, because she realized that in the tumult, Pia had grabbed one of the cameras and shot a sequence of images that captured the entire spectacle, from Alessandra doing a jitterbug in the weeds to the delicate removal of the pants, all the way to the discovery of the unfortunate reptile and the expressions of delight on the faces of the harvesters.
Alessandra was a good sport, and finished up her work. That night the skies opened up and it rained like the last days. Then, on a raw, cold day in February, three and a half months after Alessandra’s encounter with the unhappy lizard, Chloé showed up from New York to do the official photo shoot. She stepped gingerly out of her rented car, carefully avoiding the puddles, pulled her coat tightly around her against the wind, and asked, “Where are the eggplants?” We had a crop of fava beans growing three feet high where the eggplant had once been. Then Chloé needed to pee. She was dubious about the porta-potty, so we had to ask our landlord if the New Yorker could use the bathroom in her house. How Chloé survived rural India is a mystery to me. Maybe she never left the hotel. I’ve seen her photos, though, and she paints a lovely picture of the country life.
Copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
Note: names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Note #2: all photos linked are taken by Andy Griffin except the lizard photo.
We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to ourselves get back to the garden.
From Woodstock, by Joni Mitchell
There’s a reason God didn’t create “The Farm of Eden.” A person can walk in a garden naked with a lover, sharing fruit, caught up in the enchantment of nature. Gardens are about beauty and meditation. But farms? According to Genesis, farms are cursed ground. Farms are work. Farms are production, harvest, sales, shipping, payables, receivables, payroll and taxes.
When I worked on a farm in Santa Barbara, all my wages went to rent a run-down bungalow in town. My girl friend and I took turns mining the crack under the sofa cushions for stray coins. I got skinny because I couldn’t afford beer, and my pants hung baggy on my hips. My co-workers said I looked “muy cholo.” Since cholo is understood in North America to describe a dope-smoking, glue-sniffing, Mexican street rat with criminal proclivities, I might have taken offense had they’d said it in a bad way. Cholo or no, I was poorer than I wanted to be. So I quit.
Gazebo Accents, an interior plant and gardening service in Santa Barbara, was hiring. The company rented plants and charged their customers a monthly fee for watering and maintenance. Jim, the owner, didn’t like my looks, but he was short-handed. He gave me a polyester T shirt emblazoned with the Gazebo Accents logo and told his boyfriend, Merkl, to show me the ropes. For me, the job entailed driving to a series of commercial accounts, like restaurants, banks, and insurance companies, and caring for their interior plants. Jim’s residential customers were a discriminating clientele, and they were the responsibility of his trusted, long-time employees. Merkl loved plants, especially tropical plants like orchids, bromeliads, and palms. Merkl handled Jim’s most difficult and demanding customers, and he found joy and satisfaction in bringing ailing or damaged plants back from their near-death experiences they suffered at the various job sites.
When a particular plant would grow too old or large to be effectively carted from one job to another Merkl retired the honorable veteran to the garden he kept in Jim’s back yard. He kept a Staghorn fern there hanging from an oak tree that was as big as a Volkswagon bug. There were thickets of palms and ginger, and small forests of New Zealand tree ferns. A large pineapple plant grew out of the heap of kitchen compost in the corner of the garden where a discarded crown had taken root. Under Merkl’s care, and with the help of Santa Barbara’s mild climate, this pineapple plant even produced a pineapple. After my girlfriend and I broke up, I moved into the garden, and one day I ate that pineapple— but that was later.
In the beginning, I was primarily concerned to learn how to care for houseplants. I remember a favorite pothos that trailed down the ledge behind a banquet in the tiki-twilight of a Tahitian- themed cocktail lounge. One day the pothos drooped, and its leaves yellowed and fell to the carpet. Overnight, the plant was dead. The client wasn’t excited about paying Gazebo Accents a replacement fee.
“You’ve got a black thumb,” he said.
I love plants, and the strictly horticultural side of my new job was easy to master. The notion of a “green thumb” is misleading— people who can grow plants have a green mind. From intuition or through education, good gardeners know that plants want to grow, and the forms the plants take tell us how and where they want to grow. Successful cultivation is about observation and respect. The broadness of a fern’s leaf, for example, speaks of an adaptation to a low-light environment. The fern’s fronds capture the scant, dappled light of a forest floor. By contrast, the round form and spiny armament of a barrel cactus is an adaptation to a dry habitat with a searing sun. The spines of a cactus serve to both to prevent animals from getting at the plant’s juicy flesh where water is stored, and to catch the dew or fog and guide the droplets of water toward the plant’s root zone. Give ferns or cacti with the conditions they ask for, and they’ll grow.
In nature, the law of the jungle holds sway— only the strongest organisms survive. As nature is dynamic, over the long term supple adaptability in the face of changing circumstances is a more powerful attribute than brute strength. Obviously, what we think of now as “houseplants” didn’t evolve in houses. Interior decorators took the process of natural selection away from Mother Nature when they created trend-conscious ecologies inside buildings, but the best, most conscientious decorators never forget her. A bromeliad from Hawaii with a pink inflorescence, for example, may be a perfect choice of a plant to occupy a niche in a bathroom, not merely because it is lovely to look at and matches the coral color of the throw mat, but because the low light and high humidity typical of a modern master bathroom mimics the plant’s original jungle habitat. A fern’s broad leaves can capture all the stray photons in the dimly lit interior of a bar and thrive, as long as someone passes occasionally to spritz the dust off its leaves in imitation of jungle mists. Mastery of arcane biological details constitutes the craft of an interior gardener; the art comes in handling the customer. Sometimes, bad things happen to plants. But in the world of interior plant service the customer is always right, even when they’re wrong— that’s the difference between the “Law of the Jungle” and “The Law of the Fern Bar.”
I was sad over the dead pothos so I subjected its corpse to rigorous forensic analysis. First I pulled away the sphagnum moss that had been tucked around the base of the plant to hide the rim of the plastic pot. Then I plucked out all the cigarette butts, tiny cock-tail umbrellas, and wads of gum. Then I slipped the root ball out of the pot. The soil was adequately moist, not too wet nor too dry, but it reeked of rum. The plant had a drinking problem. “Death by acute alcohol toxemia,” I told the tiki bar owner. He sniffed. Then he signed an authorization slip for the purchase of a new pothos. Gazebo Interior Plant Service didn’t accept responsibility in the case of abuse on the part of the client or their customers.
Then there was Stanley and Livingston’s Bar and Grill. A fern in a pot that hung from the ceiling in the dining room began shedding leaflets. “Bugs!” the owner declared, pointing up.
“Let me check the situation out,” I said. “I used to work on organic farms. I’ve learned that often insect problems can be solved without chemicals if we look at the problems in a holistic context.”
“What am I paying you for if you won’t spray the bugs?” he asked.
I brought a ladder into the lounge and climbed up to the fern. The fronds were greasy from the smoke off the grill. The stomata on the surface of its leaves were clogged with atomized animal fats. The plant couldn’t transpire. Asphyxia! Few herbivorous insects could have survived the smoky, greasy environment, and I didn’t see any trying to. But if I told the fellow his cooking killed plants that had survived the dinosaurs he’d call my boss. I teetered on my ladder, wrestling with my conscience.
“You’re right,” I said. I’ll spray those god-damned bugs to death if it kills me.”
The bar owner looked suspicious at my sudden enthusiasm. I decided to blur the issue with details. “Some insecticides are so-called ‘contact insecticides,’” I said. “The toxins in a ‘contact insecticide’ are only effective if they touch or ‘contact’ the bug.”
“What does it cost” he asked.
“For example, a contact insecticide may a soap that acts by melting the waxy coating that some pest insects,” I said. “Mealy bugs, for example, exude a waxy powder, or farina.. When the “meal” that coats the bug is removed, the pest dies of exposure. Other contact pesticides work by clogging a bug’s breathing apparatus so that it chokes to death. With contact insecticides, we can spray a plant all day long, but if we don’t strike the bugs themselves, they won’t die. It’s hard to get all the bugs hidden in cracks or under the leaves.”
He was waiting.
“But,” I said,” there’s another class of insecticide— a much deadlier insecticide for humans and bugs alike, called systemic insecticide.”
“Systemic insecticides are absorbed by the plant they are applied to, so that when the targeted pest bites into the plant, it ingests the toxin, and dies. Systemic insecticides are effective because they even kill the bugs that can’t be seen or touched. Systemic insecticide is effective against the bugs that haven’t even showed up yet. Which kind of insecticide would you like me to use?”
He wanted systemic insecticide. He wanted to kill the unseen bugs.
So I removed the sick fern to the alleyway, and went to my van for a gas mask. “Don’t come back here while I’m doing this,” I told him. “I can’t have you inhaling the fumes. They are colorless, odorless, and deadly.” That wasn’t strictly true. Insecticides stink.
“I’m going to have to use your hose to mix up my chemicals,” I said.
He nodded. “Tell me when you’re done.”
So I gently hosed the fern down, washing away as much of the smoke and grease as I could. Then I reached for the registered spreader/sticker agent I carried in my insecticide kit.
Pesticides are expensive. To aid in effectively distributing the active ingredients of the pesticide in a thin film pesticide applicators often use what’s called a spreader/sticker agent. Put simply, a spreader sticker agent is a detergent which helps spread the chemical out in a film. As the spray dries, the gummy coating helps the active ingredients stick to the target plants. One of the most common brands of spreader/sticker agents is Safer soap, and it is indeed as safe as dish soap. Safer soap’s detergent qualities are strong enough to kill many soft bodied pests, like aphids, on contact. That day in the alley with the ailing fern, I was after bigger prey.
I pulled my gas mask on. I didn’t need the gas mask to mix up a spray tank full of Safer soap and tap water any more than you need one doing the dishes at the kitchen sink, but I wanted to give the bar owner the service he needed. Once the spray tank was full of frothy soapy water I adjusted the spray nozzle to fine mist, and gently sprayed the fern, parting its foliage with my rubber gloved hands, making sure that the soapy water made it to the core of the plant. Once I was done, I retired to the restaurant, leaving the fern in the alley, and took off my gas mask and rubber gloves.
“I’m just going to let the plant absorb the toxins for a moment,” I said, “and when the bugs are dead I’ll wash the chemical residue off the plant so that it’s safe to re-install.”
I rested at the bar and nursed a beer as long as the gravity of the situation demanded, then returned to the alley and rinsed off the fern. I could see the leaves glow greener as the grease flowed down the gutter. The fern lived that day, but the humid environment it lived in didn’t last for long.
During my tenure with Gazebo Accents, the world of interior plants underwent a profound climatic change— that is, the lush fern bar look of the late seventies became passé, and business after business opted for the new “Southwestern” look. Everything had to change with the weather, right down to the bric-a-brac on the walls and shelves. Brightly colored paper maché parrots were taken down from their dusty perches in wicker baskets and replaced with faux Navajo ceramic vases in soft pastels. Hanging baskets of grape ivy were traded out for potted “bunny ears” cacti.
Customers didn’t want to pay Gazebo Accents to water cacti, since they believed that cacti don’t need water. Jim responded to the cash flow drought by evolving his company to take on exterior gardening jobs. Gazebo’s career employees were tender as African violets under the hot Southern California sun, so I was selected to head up the new out door gardening division. I was perfect for the task, since I could already swear in Spanish. The problem was, I didn’t want to do “blow jobs.”
It worked like this. Two of us would go out on a job. Jose’s task was to mow the lawn, and rake the grass. My job was to use the leaf blower and huff and puff dried leaves or dust away from the pool side— that and give Jose orders in Spanish so the customers could feel they were receiving the services of a foreman they were being billed for.
Plants are easy, but people are a bitch. As Jose and I did the “mow and blow” under the hard eyes of the suburban matrons I began to long for the relative freedom of the row crop farms where I’d looked like a cholo. My polyester polo shirt emblazoned with the Gazebo Accents logo was beginning to shrink and I felt tight in the chest. I couldn’t take the heat! It was time to move on. Gardening is no Eden for the gardener.copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
the photo above is of a pink zinnia taken by Andy when visiting High Ground Organics. It’s a classic suburban garden flower and one that our parntner farm grows for our CSA customers. This article didn’t suggest any obvious photos! -julia
I heard an industry analyst on the radio speculate that crude oil prices could top 200 dollars per barrel in a couple of years, or maybe even by the end of this year! With oil currently over one hundred dollars a barrel and diesel around five dollars a gallon, we could soon be looking at eight dollar diesel. I use a lot of diesel. Of course, if I depend on you to buy the vegetables I grow, and you depend on me to grow and ship them to you, it’s fair to say that together “WE” use a lot of diesel. Yes, when you support a local farm rather than pay for produce to be shipped from afar you reduce your carbon footprint. A subscriber with Two Small Farms CSA, the community supported agriculture program we do with High Ground Organics, asked me if I’d thought of reducing my dependence on fossil fuels by switching to horse power. Yes, I have. But when I think of horses, I think of people. I think of my old boss Charlie Jensen. I think of Adolph Hitler. I think of my insurance agent, Tony Scurich, and I think of my friend Mark, who works at the feed store.
Hitler brought us blitzkrieg, or “lightning war.” By coordinating airborne assaults of dive bombers with a ground attack of mechanized heavily armor the Nazi dictator overwhelmed his neighbors. Blitzkrieg was internal combustion warfare. The crime of blitzkrieg so shocked and awed the civilized world that historians have largely overlooked the role horses played in prolonging
To farm with horses I’d need to farm a lot more land because ground would have to be dedicated to pasture and hay. Good grass hay is already north of sixteen dollars a bale. Hay is grown in the
Sooner or later if I farmed with horses I’d have to talk to Tony. Tony Scurich is my insurance agent. Tony understands agriculture, but as understanding as Tony is, he’d raise his eyebrows over horses, because insurance agents get spooked by risks the way horses take fright from explosions, dogs, honking horns, sudden flashes of light, weird smells, or quail taking to flight. Jimmy Bell, an old cowboy I grew up with, put the perplexing issue of panicked horses like this; “A horse bucked,” Jimmy said, “and science couldn’t figure out if it was the fart that made it jump, or the jump that made it fart!” People can get killed working around horses. Insurance agents are such a leery bunch they get worried when orchard workers climb ladders to pick fruit. All over
To work well with draft horses a person needs strength of body, strength of will, plus plenty of patience and wisdom. My old boss Charlie Jensen was born in a sod house on the Dakota prairie during the First World War. After a career of farming with tractors he went back to farming with horses in his retirement. The first time I threw the heavy oiled leather harness over the backs of the horses and held the heavy reins in my outstretched arms I could scarcely believe how exhausting it was. I was seventeen at the time. Charlie was sixty-five, and he worked that hard for fun! There aren’t many men like Charlie any more.
When I met Mark the first time at the feed store he was wearing a Bishop Mule Days tee shirt. The Mule Days Celebration is a week-long event dedicated to the proposition that any thing a horse can do, a mule can do better. There’s a great bumper sticker you can buy at Mule Days that puts the point succinctly. “If it aint half-assed, it’s only a horse!”
“Are you going to Mule Days this year?,” I asked Mark.
“Are you kidding?” Mark said. “I’m all about the mule!”
Mark is younger than me, quieter than me, stronger than me, more patient than me, and has vastly more experience with draft animals than I do. During the winter he works at the feed store, and during the summers he drives mule trains in the high Sierra. I’m going to Mule Days again this year to watch the muleteers work. I love the dust and the braying and the animals showing off what they can do. When the best muleskinners work with the best trained mules it all looks easy. If diesel goes to eight dollars, I may need to start thinking about learning how to work with teams of mules and save my tractors for the heaviest work, but this is easier to think about than to do.
Mules are hybrid creatures. A good mule combines the grace, beauty, endurance, strength, patience and intelligence of the donkey with the athleticism and compliance of the horse. I have two donkeys at home that I keep as pets and hiking companions so you might think that I’m already half-way there. But I’m just experienced enough to know how hard working with draft animals can be. To start with, you have to be smarter than the mule. Living so close to Silicon Babylon, as we do, more people can manipulate a mouse than drive a mule, so Mark, with his mule skinning skills seems like something of a throwback to an earlier, more complicated time. Who knows? Maybe Mark is actually on the cutting edge of the future. Maybe I can get Mark to teach me how to harness my donkeys to do some pulling on my farm when he comes back from the mountains. Living with higher fuel prices puts new stresses into a farmer’s life, but cultivating with a team of mules or donkeys could be fun. I might even get a real kick out of it.
Photo gallery This links to photos that have the following captions:
- A lovely roan mule waiting backstage for show time at the Bishop Mule Days.
- A series of pictures of a lady muleskinner guiding her mule down the competition course. The goal is to thread the slalom course of orange plastic cones with the mule pulling a load of telephone poles without disturbing the cones. The event is timed. The fastest, most accurate mule wins.
- Another muleskinner.
- And another.
- A gentleman guiding a team of mules in the team competition.
- Another team of beautiful mules.
The truck came with a dog, but I didn’t know that at first. It was 1976. I was sixteen. I didn’t have a driver’s license yet, but I’d gotten a job on a cattle ranch outside of Montague, California, on the high desert north of Mt. Shasta, and my employers gave me a pick-up to use. They also provided me with a horse, a saddle, as much beef as I could eat, and four hundred dollars a month. The first time I hopped behind the wheel and started off down the dirt road, Sis came tearing out of the barn where she’d been sleeping in the hay and chased after the truck barking, incredulous and offended that I’d forgotten her. Sis never completely trusted me after that, and she always slept where she could keep an eye on her truck.
I worked like a slave on that ranch, and since meat was free I didn’t eat vegetables for months. I was happy. Being a cowboy had been my ambition since childhood, and working on the Montague ranch was my first job away from home. It was a learning experience. As a boy, being a cowboy had been more about shooting Indians than working with cattle or managing rangeland as a renewable resource. Somewhere there’s a black and white photo of me, age three, in my cowboy hat, astride my tricycle with my six shooters, staring down the photographer. I look like I’ve got Mad Cowboy disease. But pictures can’t tell the whole story. My great grandmother gave me an Indian war bonnet of colored chicken feathers for my fourth birthday, so sometimes I’d killed cowboys too. Homicide wasn’t a daily activity on the ranch, and when we weren’t fixing fences, moving the herd, or giving cattle routine vaccinations, irrigating alfalfa for winter hay was a common chore.
The alfalfa fields were large— one of them was a square fifty acres. The fields had been leveled and were divided into long strips by checks, which are long, low, parallel mounds of soil that look like speed bumps and run the length of a field. When the flow of water is directed into the field, these checks act as dams to “check” the water’s lateral flow and guide it over a specific section of ground.
The water was delivered according to a contract with the irrigation district. Every ranch in the district had their allotment fixed on the calendar months in advance, and on the appointed day, the ditch master would come and open a valve that released the water from the district canal into the ranch’s main irrigation ditch. The water continued to flow, non-stop, for two weeks, until the contract ran out, and during that time the ranch was obligated to direct the water in a responsible manner twenty-four hours a day. Wasted water is wasted money, and water flowing where it doesn’t belong is a flood. One rancher in the valley that summer thought to “borrow just a little water” by cutting a small ditch into the levee at night with a backhoe, but the force of the water soon eroded out an ever-widening gully. When the sheriff’s deputies arrived to investigate the source of the flood they saw the fool haplessly pushing dirt into the torrent with a bulldozer.
To channel the water from our main ditch into the fields we used a system of logs, sticks, and heavy canvas tarps. Before the water arrived we set a series of heavy six-inch pine logs perpendicularly across our main irrigation ditches. Next to each big log, we laid out piles of straight sticks, each about five-feet long and two inches thick, and sharpened with a hatchet on one end. When it was time to irrigate, we’d lay a row of these sticks against the log and shove the sharp ends a few inches into the damp earth at the bottom of the ditch. When we had enough sticks set so that the framework of our dam looked like a rib cage, we’d drape a tarp over the ribs on the uphill side. With the point of a shovel blade, we’d force the tarp into the earthen walls and floor of the ditch, and then we’d heap mounds of mud over the edge of the tarp to make a seal.
The water flowed in and rose behind our dam, until it overflowed through a short, shallow lateral notch cut through the rim of the main ditch that allowed the water to run into the alfalfa field. While one section of the field was being irrigated, I’d go down stream in the dry ditch and build the next dam. When the water reached the end of the field it would spill into a tail ditch. To irrigate the next piece of land all I had to do was pull the upper corner of the first tarp down a little to let the water spill back up behind the next tarp. I let the dams fill slowly, rather than jerk the upstream tarp out and release a flood all at once, because it was easy to wash these temporary dams away.
The fields were all different sizes, but I’d try to arrange my irrigation schedule so that I watered the longest runs at night and could get a little sleep. I’d set a series of tarps down the ditch in the afternoon while I kept one eye on the water flowing across the short runs. The last tarp of the day would be pulled at 10pm and I’d go to bed and let the water flow down a big field. I’d be out of bed at 12:01 am for the first move of the morning. I’d go back to bed. I’d get up for the second movement at 2am, then sleep, then get up at 4am, pull a tarp, sleep, and finally get out of bed at 6am to pull my last tarp just before breakfast and the start of a new work day.
My father came and visited me, and when he saw our system of checks, logs, sticks and tarps, he smiled. “There’s a painting on the wall inside the pyramid at Giza,” he said, “that shows Egyptian slaves irrigating their fields with water from the Nile in exactly this way.” I imagine he was confident my experiences on the ranch would convince me to go into law or academia. If so, he miscalculated my contrarian nature. Being able to participate in something so ancient appealed to me. As I stood at the edge of the ditch during the day watching the water spread across the field I’d gaze at Mt. Shasta looming on the horizon to the south. On the evening of the Bicentennial Fourth of July I was irrigating and I watched the fireworks in explode in the sky to the west over Saddleback Butte. Other nights I’d look up and see drifts of stars. It was easy to stare off into the distance and wonder what it must have been like to tend the fields in Egypt or Babylon. Being timeless gets boring. My attention was eventually drawn from the cosmos and the past down to the details of life around me, like the dog that lay panting in the shade of the pick-up truck.
Sis was a medium sized white dog with patches, maybe mostly Border collie, with ears that could perk and flop. I’d never been crazy about dogs, but Sis not an undisciplined, crotch-busting mutt. When we moved the cattle she’d trot along next to the foreman and await his instructions. If he said, “Go get ‘em,” she’d go get ‘em, and she always knew who to get and where to put them. If stray cattle were down in the willows along the Little Shasta River, she’d drive them out to join the rest, then lay off so as not to panic the herd. When I irrigated the alfalfa fields Sis trotted back and forth in front of the advancing water. I noticed she was hunting the gophers brought to the surface by the flood and methodically killing them with a snap of her jaws. I learned to watch her progress down the fields and make an accurate estimation of how far the water had gotten so I no longer needed to walk the fields myself. When I complimented Sis on her work ethic and gave her a pet, her tail would wag, but she stayed focused. We became friends. The ditch water came from a reservoir upstream and sometimes it carried trout. One day Sis caught a rainbow trout and carried it gently in her jaws back to the pick-up truck and deposited it at my feet, still flipping. Fresh fish was a nice change from beef. I was the pup back then, and Sis was an old ranch dog, showing me new tricks.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
Note: the photo above is of Blue: Andy’s current working dog. He’s a puppy being trained to guard goats and sheep. Shelley Kadota, our fabulous CSA manager, took the photo in one of Blue’s many lazy moments.
“The Indians scalped me at Chukchansi,” the bald guy said.
“Try your luck at Table Mountain,” said the other fellow.
We were in line at Coastal Tractor in Gilroy. The clerk was searching in back for a set of spider gears for my cultivating rig. The two men turned to me.
“I don’t gamble in casinos,” I said. “I plant tomatoes in the second week of April.”
It wasn’t a very good joke, but they got it. Farmers in our area that planted tomatoes in the first week of April this year lost them to a hard freeze. Along the Central Coast we figure April 15th marks the frost-free date, and we expect mild temperatures from then on. Of course, the frost free date is not a natural law, like gravity. I’ve planted tomatoes on April 15th and lost them to an “unseasonable” cold snap on the 17th. Plant tomatoes early and there’s a chance your early harvest will fetch higher prices. But if unsettled weather slaps you down and kills your plants, you’re one of April’s fools.
When I worked at Star Route Farm, in Bolinas, in the early eighties, we used to find arrowheads in the fields left behind by the Miwok. Once I found a round piece of clam shell when I was picking lettuce. A visiting archeologist from U.C. Berkeley showed me how the edges of the shell had been filed smooth, and he speculated that the piece was a gambling token, like a poker chip. I don’t like to gamble, but Indian gaming has been going on in California for a long time.
Farming can be risky, but the fun of casino gambling comes from the perceived potential of “winning big.” When I sold my produce in farmers’ markets I learned how many consumers want things early. The first warm day of spring provokes a mass appetite for Caprese salad, and the public swarms the markets looking for tomatoes and basil. But betting the ranch on early tomatoes to satisfy shoppers seems stupid to me now. I’ve tried.
I used to set my plants out in mid March, and cloak the rows with plastic sheeting stretched over hoops of pipe. It was an expensive procedure, and a lot of work. I fretted that my plants would freeze through the plastic. I lost sleep worrying that wind would knock down my hoop houses. I feared the rain because excessive moisture stimulates fungus. And even though the hoops and plastic allowed me to harvest on the early side, I still had to compete for the early sales with tomato growers that farmed in heated green houses or came from Southern California. The risk I ran of losing my early crop wasn’t worth the payback, and I felt lousy about creating a lot of plastic garbage.
Before that, when I was a partner in Happy Boy Farms, we grew winter tomatoes in a heated greenhouse. Our tomatoes were certified organic, and we pioneered the culture of hothouse tomatoes using only organic fertilizers and beneficial insects, instead of the typical conventional greenhouse regimen of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. We planted the seeds in August, turned on the heaters when the nights cold in the fall, and by April we were picking. I was satisfied, even surprised, by the quality of the fruit we grew, and the greenhouse allowed us to keep our crew working throughout the winter. But even then, over ten years ago, energy was expensive. We didn’t make much money. I was unhappy about it at the time, so I quit, but now I’m glad I got out of hothouse tomatoes when I did. Not only is it be hard to pay for fuel now, it’s also difficult to justify the use of so much heating oil to feed the public’s impatience, when tomatoes can be grown outside in the summer using only the sun if we wait.
The cheapest out of season tomatoes usually come from fields in the south, where it’s warm. Right now, most of the early spring fresh tomatoes in our markets come from Mexico. I’ve grown tomatoes in Mexico, too. Before I farmed at Happy Boy Farms, I helped my friend, Greg, set up a tomato farm near Todos Santos on the Pacific Coast in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. My role in the farm was minimal, but I learned a lot.
It was early winter, 1994, when Greg and I drove south. We didn’t plan on stopping until we saw people picking red ripe fruit. Then we’d looked for a farm he could buy. Going over Pacheco Pass the hills were green and we had the wind shield wipers on. The rain beat down. On I-5, down near Huron, the rain stopped, but the fields were empty and muddy. Outside of San Diego the soil was dry, but the tractors were only just starting to work up beds for tomatoes to be transplanted into. We crossed the line at Tijuana.
In the Valle de San Quintin, south of Ensenada, we saw farm workers staking young tomato plants with crooked sticks cut from the thorny brush in the surrounding desert mountains. South of Molino Viejo Highway One turns away from the coast and we entered the open desert. We didn’t see anything but rocks, brush, and cacti for hundreds of miles. By the time we reached an agricultural zone near Ciudad Constitucion, near Magdalena Bay in the State of Southern Baja, we were so far south there were green tomatoes hanging from bushy vines. But it wasn’t until we got to San Jose Del Cabo at the tip of California, below the Tropic of Cancer, and over a thousand miles south of Watsonville, that we saw red, ripe tomatoes hanging on the vine.
What surprised me most about farming in Mexico was the labor situation. Greg and I thought there would be plenty of locals looking for work. Wrong. There were lots of people working in the tomato fields, but by and large they’d come north from Southern Mexico, from the States of Oaxaca and Puebla, where wages are low. At that time, field workers in Southern Mexico earned the equivalent of five dollars a day. Field hands in the north earned closer to seven dollars for the same day’s work.
I met with Government officials in La Paz to learn the rules of doing business in Mexico. Their employment codes dated from the Revolution and dignified labor by granting to every Mexican worker a fraction of the profits of the business they worked for, above and beyond mere wages. Naturally, the workers’ cut of yearly profits was to be pro-rated, and an employee who’d spent the whole year working for the company was due a larger piece of the profit they’ve helped create than did a newly hired worker. I expressed my amazement about the progressive spirit of this law.
“I’ve just come from a shantytown in a cactus patch where Oaxacan tomato pickers live in shacks made of garbage and share the rusty water that drips from one leaky spigot,” I said. “I don’t see them sharing in the profits of the grower/shippers they work for”
“Of course, some American businessmen may desire the services of a competent lawyer to help them understand our labor code,” said the bureaucrat, and he handed me a business card from a little stack he kept in the top drawer of his desk.
“Off the record,” said the lawyer, “well-intentioned foreign employers that upset the natural equilibrium of life in Mexico by over-paying for labor may find their generosity is misplaced and leads to regrettable consequences.”
I know people make an honorable, honest, and sustainable business out of growing organic tomatoes in Mexico and shipping them north. My friends at Jacobs Farm of Pescadero/ Los Ejidos Del Cabo come to mind. More than anyone, they’re responsible for making organic Sungold cherry tomatoes ubiquitous in upscale U.S. markets throughout the winter months. But growing off-season tomatoes for the U.S. market isn’t for me. Frankly, the way airlines are having problems these days, flying cargoes of tomatoes across the northern hemisphere seems too much of a gamble, anyway. I’m happiest planting tomatoes when the risk of frost is low. I know that if I wait until the soil is warm to plant my tomatoes the sun will probably smile on me, and sometime around the end of June, Mother Nature willing— “ka-ching!”— the tomato patch will come up cherries.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
The Chukchansi Tribal Site
“The old gray donkey, Eeyore, stood by himself in a thistly corner of the forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, “Why?” and sometimes he thought, “Wherefore?” and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?”
On September 19th, 1832, biologist Charles Darwin passed through the remote Argentine settlement of Guardia del Monte, and noted that the village marked the southernmost limit of the cardoon infestation on the pampas. Cardoon, or Cynara cardunculus, is a big thistle.
Cardoon is a sister to the artichoke, but instead of eating the immature flower bud, we eat the petiole, or leaf stalk. Cardoons make flower buds that look like small, spiny artichokes, but you’d have to be hungry to make eating them worth the pain. A number of different cardoon varieties that have been developed by farmers, and most of them have been selected to have few, if any spines. The kind of cardoon I grow is an Italian breed called Gobbo di Nizza. Massed over hundreds of thousands of acres, the way that
Cardoons evolved around the rim of the
The word for thistle in Latin is cardo. The word for “big thistle” became cardone in Italian and chardon in French. In
When the Spanish conquistadores came to
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
*Andy tweaked this piece just a little from the one we ran in our CSA newsletter last week.
photo of Red Swiss Chard, it sort of shows it’s thicker stalks
Photoessay of making cardoon gratin with Martin in our kitchen
Martin’s Cardoon Potato Gratin
8-10 stalks Cardoon
2-3 medium potatoes
8 oz grated parmesan cheese
1 pint half and half or cream
S & P to taste
Blanch the cardoon stalks in water that has a splash of vinegar or lemon juice until medium tender. You can peel them if you like. We don’t. Cut the cardoon stalks in 1/4 inch crescents, across the grain, like you would celery. Peel the potatoes. Cut the potatoes into batons, about like a french fry. Toss the cut, blanched cardoon stalks with the potatoes directly in a gratin dish. Reserve a handful of the cheese for the top and toss the rest of the cheese with the cardoon/potato mixture. Add the pint of half and half (or cream if using.) Season with salt and pepper.
Bake in a 425 oven 40 minutes or so: until golden brown and the potatoes are all the way through.
Andy and I had a great little cardoon dish a few years back at the upstairs Chez Panisse and loved it. Here’s Russ’ recipe:
Russell Moore’s Cardoon Recipe
Russ cooked upstairs at CP for 20 years, now he’s about to open Camino! we can’t wait.
Peel stalks of cardoons to get the bitter outer skin off. Boil in salted water until tender, that could be from 5-20 minutes. (I would cut the stalks in half so they’d fit my pans. -jw)
Slice cooked stalks on the diagonal (like you would celery) then dress with a vinaigrette. For this dish the vinaigrette has a bit of anchovy, garlic, lemon and a small splash of red wine vinegar, and olive oil too of course. (Julia’s hint: one basic formula for vinaigrette I’ve read includes 3 parts oil to 1 part acid: lemon juice or vinegar)
They serve the cardoons this way room temperature with some hardboiled egg: either chopped or in wedges. Russ said this dish benefits from a bit of fat served with it and he likes the hard cooked egg for that contrast.
Cardoon thoughts and a recipe from Chef Andrew Cohen:
Cardoon is a vegetable like artichoke in that it oxidises and discolors. Chefs will usually toss it into acidulated water (water with lemon juice) to keep it from discoloring.
When thinking of cardoon, keep the flavor of artichokes in your mind when planning the dish.
Chef Andrew’s simplest Cardoon-Pasta preparation:
Slice and blanch cardoon. Saute onions and garlic and toss with pasta. Grate some parmesan cheese. This could benefit from some green olives as well.
Here’s an idea I picked up from a book of Mid-east cookery. This is based on a lamb dish with cardoon. Cut cardoon into 2″ long pieces and blanch in salted water. Saute onions and garlic with turmeric, paprika, parsley, and coriander. Add in cardoon and a handful of cracked green olives or oil cured black olives. Give a toss, and add a couple chopped tomatoes and some water( a couple cups). If you have some mid-east style preserved lemons, cut one up into largish pieces(1″ or so) and toss that in as well. Cook for a 1/2 hour to soften vegetables and integrate flavors. This could take peppers(hot or sweet) or eggplant as well. Simmer cardoons cut into batons (3″x1/4″) until tender and layer into a gratin dish that has been rubbed with a garlic clove and lightly oiled. Layer with parmesan or gruyere, then pour in cream over all. Bake until golden and bubbly.
Hi Everybody: Sometimes people ask me how I find time to run a farm and write a bi-weekly essay, and the answer, of course, is that sometimes I don’t. This week’s Ladybug Letter will be the first one written in over a month. Spring can be a lot of work on the farm, and as I get older it gets harder and harder to keep up. It’s not so much that I get tired easier, because I’ve learned how to delegate chores well. Triage is the skill I need to master. And setting priorities. I get distracted and overwhelmed by the numbers of things that I want to do. Raising my children and staying married has to be priority #1. Almost every farmer I know has been through a divorce or two, and I want to avoid that. The second most important thing to accomplish is to meet payroll, because without a happy crew I can’t accomplish anything. Keeping the customers satisfied comes third, because without their steady checks flowing in, I’ll soon have problems fulfilling my obligations to my family and crew. And then there’s writing. I’d love to develop my writing skills to the point where I can be proud of everything I write, and I’d love to leave my children a body of letters that are entertaining, informative, and can serve as a scrapbook of sorts for the years they lived on a farm. Writing has been a lot of fun for me because of the people that I’ve been introduced to, and writing has been a good way for me to force myself to think about how and why I farm. And there’s the problem. The more I think about farming, the more kinds of things I want to try. The older I get, the less time I have to try them. The farm serves as a muse that prompts me to write, and the farm serves as a task-master that keeps me from writing. Julia says I need a “sous-farmer” the way chefs have sous chefs, but really, with Jose and Gildardo, I already do. What I really need is focus, or the opportunity to live to be a hundred. Here’s a list of the things that have been keeping me from writing.
Cows. In my middle age I’m reverting to my adolescent dream of having a cattle ranch. I leased thirty acres next door to my home ranch, fixed a mile of fence this winter, and bought two Dexter cows. There was more grass than they could eat, so I traded the extra forage to my friend Linda, who brought 15 of her Angus heifers and a Longhorn bull over to feed, because she had ran out of grass on her ranch. I got to play cowboys this winter, and when Linda took her cattle home she left me a couple of lambs and another goat for my flock.
Seeds. We get a lot of our seeds from Italy, and the Euro is doing damage to my budget, so I’m trying to teach myself to produce my own seed. This is a fun project, but it is a new project, but I find myself on a steep learning curve, kind of like the hot dog stand vendor who begins to learn the business of making the hotdogs starting from “scratch”, as in starting with a critter in a corral.
Goats and Sheep. I want to increase my flock, and this winter we had over 30 baby kids plus 8 lambs. Plus we had mountain lion and bobcat predation that kept me preoccupied.
Herbs. My home farm has very little water, so I’ve been trying to propagate herbs that go well with lamb and kid and that use very little water, like savory, nepitella, marjoram, oregano and laurel. To save on water we’re mulching a whole acre of land with straw.
Weeds. The chefs at Evvia and Kokkari, two local Greek restaurants, have been teaching me about a number of “weeds” that are appreciated in Greek cuisine, and they brought me seeds from Greece, so I’m learning to grow a whole new set of crops I’ve never intentionally grown before, like amaranth, sidewalk dandelion, and ditch chicory. I’m also trying to teach myself about Greek cuisine because it seems so earthy and fundamental.
Grass. I’m having fun trying to learn how to manage pasture organically and sustainably with cattle, sheep, and goats. Taurus, Aries, and Capricorn get along well enough in the heavens, so why not on land as well?
Food. The more I hang around cooks, the more I envy their skills. I bought a clay pot at Spanish Table to cooks beans in over an open fire, but now I want to raise a rainbow of beans so I can road-test every variety. I’ve got oak trees on my place, so cutting wood is a priority, but I’m also thinking it would be fun to learn how to make my own charcoal.
I can see a year’s worth of writing just digging into these topics. I’m currently working on an essay about cardoon; we’ll post it in about a week. I hope you like it. -Andy