For as long as the sugar factory in Spreckles roared and whistled with life a weird penetrating stench hung over the little town. The remarkable odor was accepted by the locals as the smell of money being made and a natural consequence of progress. Why not? Nature, science informs us, demands that every action have an equal and opposite reaction. When a factory grinds up sugarbeets, digests the fermenting pulp, refines the whole sloppy mess into crystals, and finishes by spitting packages of clean, hard, perfectly white sugar cubes out a loading dock door, it is inevitable that amorphous dirty black vapors should leak from every other orifice in the building by way of achieving cosmic balance.
Drive past the site of the abandoned sugar mills today and you will inhale nothing more acrid than the moist salty ocean fog which blows in from the Pacific Ocean just a few miles down the Salinas valley. The sugar industry in central California is dead. Little is left of sugar’s hundred year spasm of frantic activity beyond a few skeletal out buildings and some isolated pieces of rusting farm machinery. And weeds; billions of beet weeds pop up each spring to remind us that we are farming in the wake of sugar. This too is natural. As the long straight rows of sugar beets once earned a few people a lot of money, so the undisciplined beet weeds that cover the land will cost a few people a lot of money. Like me.
Sugar beets were never cultivated on this land I farm. Before I came along to plant my vegetables these fields had been fallow for several years. For the previous decade horses had stumbled around the ranch eating the landowner into bankruptcy. Walnut orchards shaded the property for 50 years before being cut down to make room for the doomed horse ranch. Before the walnuts the land had been planted out in hops, and before the hops long-horned Spanish cattle roamed the valley floor. But during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, sugarbeets were grown in the neighborhood and trucked to the railroad to be shipped to Spreckles for refining. Somewhere along the line an overloaded beet truck spilled a few lumpy beet roots as it rumbled past the farm. The big, round roots rolled into the ditch, and being inedible, heavy, ugly, and hidden in the grass they escaped attention. The sugars stored in these beet’s fibrous tissues fueled seed stalks which shot up into the sun, flowered, and soon sprinkled new seeds on the ground. Winter rains raised up a whole crop of seedlings and wild beets began spreading like a rash across the landscape. We are scratching at the beet weeds with hoes to this day.
I feel the hangover of the sugar rush as I inspect my fields today and it is not sweet. Everywhere the soil is dotted with tiny beet weeds. Each beet seed is actually a small, hard, dried-up fruit containing three individual seeds, so where beets germinate they come up in thick stands. My onion seedlings are tiny green threads barely thicker than hairs and they grow slowly at this stage of their life. The wild beets, by contrast, while small today, will grow with a savage frenzy. Left to explore the limits of their own desires the wild beets will soon choke out the onions. “So why not forget the onions and harvest the beets?” you might ask. Because another law of nature, as immutable as the precepts of Newton or Einstein, declares that the easier something is to grow, the harder it is to sell.
Beet weeds are worse than worthless since they cost me money to remove. The original sugarbeets that spilled from the overloaded truck regressed socially at lightspeed once they rolled into the ditch. What is the “culture” in agriculture but the discipline to be productive beaten into food, floral, or fiber crops through years of patient and diligent husbandry? Once free of their human master the sugar beets naturally exercised their selfish desire to be merely reproductive. Their sweet swollen butts hardened into long, woody grasping roots that sucked at the water table. Ever in a hurry to set seed they accelerated their timetable for setting flower. Anxious to capture the wind and spread their degenerate pollen as far as it could blow they burned whatever sugars they had left in shooting up the tallest seed stalk possible. To defeat the hunger of any passing herbivore they concentrated bitter oxalic acids in their tissues. In no time at all they exorcized any vestigial pure bred poodle-like tendencies to obey man. For a wild beet “culture” is weakness. Culture fades as fast as sugar dissolves. Someday my vegetables will follow the horses, walnuts, hops, and long horn cattle into the west. Only the beet will remain. The beet goes on. And on. And on.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
photos above taken by Andy in 2008 at the abandoned sugar beet factory in Spreckles, CA
page with all 5 photos Andy took plus some bonus culinary beet photos
Tomato Abundance in Palo Alto on Oct. 11th San Marzano Tomatoes for $1.40/#; heirlooms for $2/#!
If you have more than one child you know how hard-wired the human hunger for justice is. Witness the bitterness that can be packed into the words “it’s not fair” when a child calls attention to an inequity. If you have a boy and a girl, the situation is even worse, because it can be awkward, or even impossible, to treat each child identically. When my son, Graydon, was ten, and my daughter, Lena, was eight, and Julia and I were homeschooling them both, the “fairness” in our hearts was put to the test.
Graydon went with me twice a week when I delivered our farm’s produce to restaurants in San Francisco. This allowed Julia to focus on Lena’s needs without distraction.
“Graydon has to get up at 3:30 in the morning,” I told Lena. But the way she heard it was that her brother “got” to get up early. “The produce boxes are heavy and they drip,” I said. “And I’m weak?” Lena asked.
So I took Lena with me one morning. It wanted her to see where some of our farm’s income comes from. Besides, cartoons tell kids that being a “gourmet chef” means being a fussy, high-strung, dramatic, French or Italian man sporting a ridiculous mustache, and I wanted Lena to see that such caricatures are falsehoods. First of all, we sell to plenty of woman chefs, like Traci Des Jardines. Sure, Traci is at home in the world of white tablecloths and sparkling stemware, but she can also break a whole pig down with quick sure strokes. And as far as drama goes, when Traci went up against “Molto” Mario Batali of the Food Network’s Iron Chef show, she messed him up bad, besting him 24/ 21 on flavor, going 12/9 on plating, and tying the big guy 11/11 on originality. One of “Molto’s” apologists told me that Traci won because, at the time of the competition, Mario had just come off a grueling three week vacation that saw him party his way across Asia. But so what! I wanted Lena to see how hard work and discipline make a winning combination.
Lena and I got to Greens Restaurant at first light. Greens is by the water in Fort Mason Center, and a giant freighter passed under the Golden Gate and slipped by us just a hundred yards off shore. We could smell the brine in the air and hear the seagulls and the wavelets from the big ship’s wake slapping at the pilings on the pier. It was so early that only the bakers were present, and Lena got a hot scone. Baker’s are a different breed than other cooks, partly I suppose, because the biochemistry of yeast is so unforgiving. And bakers also have to be morning people. Sometimes bakers don’t talk a lot, but the women at Greens talked to Lena as she enjoyed her scone, and she told them that she likes to bake too.
When we got to Boulette’s Larder, Chef Amaryll Schwertner gave Lena a beautifully wrapped little package of cookies. Lena is the sort of person who appreciates perfect presentation. I unloaded boxes while Lena un-wrapped her cookies and admired Boulette, Amaryll’s gorgeous, dreadlocked Hungarian Sheepdog. Boulette’s Larder is half restaurant, half boutique pantry, where discerning cooks can find special ingredients like fresh saffron and other exotic spices. While the use of unusual or expensive ingredients may seem profligate to some people, as I get to know more professional chefs, I’m struck, not by how “highfalutin” they are, but by how down to earth and thrifty they are, compared to the average American home cook. Amaryll knows when, where, and why to use saffron in order to achieve a specific effect, but she’s also the last person to waste food. She knows that even (or especially) luxurious restaurants must practice tight-fisted economies if they wish to stay in business.
Take tomatoes, for example. Extra tomatoes, soft tomatoes and tomatoes that are damaged or cosmetically challenged are not thrown away; they’re used for tomato water. First the tomatoes are chopped, then put in a cheesecloth bag over a pot in the refrigerator and left to drain. The clear liquid that’s captured has the clean, flavorful, essence of tomato without any distracting catsup “notes” or pizza “tones.” Tomato water is used to give character to vinaigrettes, sauces, broths, juices and cocktails. It’s been eye-opening for me to learn how the discipline and values that come from measuring food costs or being familiar with scarcity are far more important to good cooking than having an unlimited budget.
By the time we got to Zuni Café, Lena was bored. The service door at Zuni opens into Rose Alley, and I always pull my truck up on the curb next to the restaurant so that cars can pass. From the driver’s seat I could see Chef Judy Rodgers stalking through her kitchen like an egret hunting frogs, peering into simmering pots, inspecting plates, counting croutons. Judy is all about details. She knows it’s not enough to make a perfect, savory meal. Success comes from knowing why a meal came out so well, so that perfection can be achieved over and over again. Judy’s a long way from the silly cartoon image of the inspired chef who flings spices at a soup. That’s why the cookbook she wrote was no vanity broadside, but a focused, scholarly work that I’ve seen open and stained in a number of different chefs’ offices around the city.
The pantry and prep kitchen at Zuni is down some very steep stairs. To help with deliveries there’s a long wooden slide that folds up against the wall when it’s not being used. Someone stands at the bottom of the slide to catch and stack the boxes as they come flying down. Lena got out of the truck, and when she saw the slide, she knew what it was really built for. Quick as spark she hopped on the slide and went hurtling into the Zuni basement, one hand held high like a bull rider.
Judy looked up from a stove where she’d bent over to adjust a flame and saw me. She had a question for me about chard, and came over. As she spoke, she heard a huffing and puffing, and looked down. Her eyes popped. Coming up the steep, splintery, freight slide, hand over hand, right out of the prep kitchen, was a ragamuffin girl child, about eight years old. Judy was speechless. The Zuni kitchen is as organized and disciplined as Judy’s cookbook; it is not a playground for urchins. As I answered Judy’s question about the relative amounts of oxalic acid in different varieties of chard, I collared Lena so she couldn’t go shooting down the freight slide again. A young woman line cook hustled Lena out the door, and as she helped Lena climb back into the cab, the young cook gave her a brownie, and a compliment. “You know, sweetie,” she said. “I always wanted to do that, but I never had enough nerve!”
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
photo above taken by Julia W.: it’s of Lena taking a special pastry class arranged by Aaron Toensing at Bix in 2006. Thanks, Aaron and Zhana!
Lena this summer at the beach.
Our children attend Mount Madonna School now, but for several years Julia and I homeschooled both Graydon and Lena. During that time, when he was ten and eleven, I took Graydon with me when I made my restaurant deliveries. Every Wednesday and Saturday I’d root him out of bed at 3:30 in the morning, and he’d ride up to the City with me. At each stop he’d jump out, help me unload the truck, keep the door open for me when I pushed the hand truck into the restaurant, shuttle some boxes inside behind me, and keep an eye on the street for the meter maids. When he got stronger I gave him a dolly to push too.
It didn’t take Graydon long to figure out that if he made eyes at the dessert chefs, they’d give him something to ward off hunger. His favorite was Michelle Polzin, a tall, striking, punky, tattooed, red-headed, cookie-baking rock & roller with cat’s eye glasses. She always talked to him, asked him questions, and gave him treats. Graydon chatted up the bar tenders too. “You want a cold one for the road?” they’d ask him as we were leaving.
“Yeah,” he’d reply. “I’ll take a limonata.”
People wonder how the kid grew so fast. I wish I could say it was the home-grown organic vegetables, but I suspect it was the lemon tart from Delfina on 18th Street, the cherry fool he knocked back at Range on Valencia, or the hand-rolled bread sticks he inhaled at Incanto on Church.
Graydon learned about food preparation in the restaurants, watching the crew downstairs at Kokkari Estiatorio butcher giant fish, for example, or checking out the guys unloading trucks in the streets of Chinatown at dawn wearing yellow raincoats with dead pigs draped over their shoulders. We were downstairs in a prep kitchen one day when a cook sparked two blowtorches, one in each hand, gunslinger style, and blasted away at a tray of corno di toro peppers until they were black and smoking. Graydon stopped pushing his hand truck to watch. Why didn’t his parents ever bust out the blow torches to make dinner?
“Hey, kid,” said the prep cook. “You can really rock that dolly!”
“Yeah,” Graydon replied. “I’m helping my papa. What are you doing?”
“Flaming off peppers.”
“Why?” Graydon asked.
“A pepper has a thick, waxy skin,” the cook explained, flicking off his torches. “So we burn them real fast with high heat, which lifts the skin and caramelizes the flesh.” He tossed the burned peppers into a large, stainless steel bowl. “After they cool, I’ll peel off the burned stuff.”
Graydon nodded attentively.
“You see all that juice that drips out of them?” asked the cook. “That’s nectar. Save it! A splash of that and your sauce kicks ass!”
Graydon peered into the bowl.
“I’d use mesquite,” the cook continued. “I like the way the smoke balances the sweetness, but pinche flojo over there is tying up the grill, so I ‘borrowed’ the dessert station’s blow torches and I’m getting’ the job done. Wanna try?
Graydon was intimidated by the blue flames, so he stepped back, but he kept watching. Knowing that he had an audience prompted the prep cook to put a little attitude into his roasting, but then attitude is never too far from the surface in a kitchen.
When Chris Cosentino, the chef at Incanto, an Italian restaurant and wine bar in Noe Valley, went up against the Rabelaisian “Molto” Mario Batali, of the famed Babbo Restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village, on the Food Network’s Iron Chef show, there was an invitation-only screening party at a bar down in the Mission. Graydon wanted to go. It wasn’t exactly legal for me to take him, but the kid was being home-schooled and missing out on Social Studies Class, so some catching up was in order. “Stay cool,” I told him, “and try not to get in a fight.”
The Double Dutch was crammed and the monitors mounted high over the bar were already blaring by the time Graydon and I showed up. The theme was “Battle Garlic.” Chris had done the Iron Chef competition with two compadres, Jonnatan Leiva of Jack Falstaff Restaurant down in SOMA and Ravi Kapur from Boulevard on the Embarcadero, so the room was hopping with line cooks, prep cooks, sous chefs, garde mangers, and dishwashers from all three restaurants, plus their girl friends, boy friends, spouses and exes, half of whom also worked in restaurants. “This would be a bad night to eat out in San Francisco,” I told Graydon. “Half the talent in town is down here!” I got him a limonata.
On screen, Chris, Ravi, and Jonnatan hit the stage of Kitchen Stadium, and the crowd in the Double Dutch roared. “Molto” and his posse drew hoots. Actually, the cooks all dug Mario too, but you gotta go with the home-town talent, and besides, these were all working people who spend their days chopping, frying, boiling, grilling, reducing, blanching, and straining. They knew that if “Molto” was head chef at Babbo, Lupa, Esca, Carnevino, Casa Mono, Bar Jamon, etc, etc, etc, he’d already drifted off into rock star heaven. But the next day, when the beer buzz wore off, they’d all be back at their stations, getting it done, and so would Chris, Ravi, and Jonnatan. It wasn’t “Chris versus ‘Molto,’”or “Incanto versus Babbo,” it was “David versus Goliath.”
Chris led off with garlic crostino with rapini and ricotta. “If the contest were on this side of the world,” I told Graydon, “that would be our farm’s rapini.”
Sizzled diver scallop crudo with pickled garlic followed, and then Spaghetti alla chitarra with snails & garlic butter. But when Chris plated the squab with the claws still on, each foot clutching a roasted garlic clove, the crowd at the Double Dutch roared like English hooligans at a soccer game. Chris advised the judges to eat the bird’s brains by sucking them out through the beak. Graydon grinned widely and drained his limonata. But then the judges gave the match to Mario by two points¯ the contest having been decided by “plating,” of all things, and the crowd raged. “That’s bull$#*! Flavor rules!”
A prep cook turned to Graydon and I. “Chris outscored “Molto” on originality by five points,” he said. “That’s gotta hurt.” Clearly, if Chris had been judged by a jury of his peers he would have won, but no one ever said that the Iron Chef Program was run by the Department of Justice. Graydon was bummed, so I ordered him another limonata to wash away his sorrows.
School starts up again for Graydon pretty quick. He’s thirteen, so he’ll be learning about the Civil War and pre-algebra, and all that’s super important, I know. How much of his education he’ll remember past the tests is debatable, but I know he’ll never forget the savory education he got in the streets, the kitchens, and the bars of San Francisco when he was rockin’ the dolly for the family farm.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
Graydon circa 2005 or 2006 delivering to Quince in San Francisco (photo is also above
Graydon Today, next to the fridge in our kitchen (sorry we didn’t get a better photo, he’s difficult to pin down! fyi: on the messy fridge includes 3 letters: LNF: that stands for Life’s Not Fair, and ‘cat box’ is part of our chore system.)
Restaurants we sell Mariquita and High Ground produce to twice a week
note from the editor: this piece is rated PG-13 and it has nothing to do with vegetables. It’s a good story, and all true! -julia
Hi Everybody: Today is my birthday, so please excuse me if I take a break from writing about food and farming to engage in a little sentimental reflection. Don’t we all have those moments when we look back wistfully at childhood when life was simple?
I’m thinking now about that old black and white movie, The Wild One, with a very young Marlon Brando, where he plays “Johnny,” the leader of a motorcycle gang that terrorizes a small California town. Did you ever see that? It’s hysterical. Actually, the costume designers were the real stars, since so many of their notions about how to look cool were taken up by the actual bikers of the times. The movie is (very loosely) based on an “incident” in Hollister, July 4th, 1947, when several thousand motorcycle riders, led by the Boozefighters motorcycle club, went on a rampage for several days and trashed the town. Castroville has an Artichoke Festival, Watsonville has a Strawberry Festival, Gilroy has a Garlic Festival, and Greenfield even has a Broccoli Festival, but Hollister, where I farm, has an annual biker rally that celebrates the attempted rapes, drunken assaults, and broken windows from times past.
During the rally the air around our farm is alive with the sound of Harleys, and the streets in Hollister swarm with insurance brokers, accountants, dentists, and software engineers that like to dress up in leather and play at being Marlon Brando playing “Johnny” who played at being Sonny Barger. I call them “The Mild Ones.” It can get loud as they roar up and down San Felipe Rd. in packs, but for a day or two out of the year I don’t mind. The weekend warriors are kind of cute, and then vrooooom, they’re gone.
The real outlaw bikers aren’t quite so cute. I remember when I was a kid in ‘75, growing up in Carmel Valley, an Oakland Angel named “Wino Joe” bought a trailer on a small lot along the south side of Carmel Valley Road where it runs along Paloma Creek, a few miles before the junction with Arroyo Seco Road. Wino came up to Jimmy Bell’s corral and introduced himself, and he was neighborly. For a “house warming” party of sorts he posted invitations on every phone pole from Tassajara Road to Greenfield inviting “one and all” to join him for his first “April Fools ‘Fool-around,’ BYOBGD.” (That would be short for “Bring your own beer, guns, and drugs.”)
Wino explained the whole concept to us. The attraction was going to a game of Blind Man’s Bluff played nude after sundown, and whoever was “it” got to ride around the property in the dark on an ATV 110, one of those now-outlawed motorized all terrain trikes with balloon tires that tended to roll over if you turned too quick. Here’s the kicker: Whoever was “it,” got to try and “tag” the other nude contestants by discharging a double barreled shotgun loaded with rock-salt. If you’re high enough, this can be a lot of fun. I wanted to go, but my stick-in-the-mud old man said no. Jimmy drove past, and he said the Monterey Sheriff’s squad cars were lined up along Carmel Valley Road late into the night with their flashing red lights throwing a festive sparkle over the broken beer bottles and aluminum Coors cans that were scattered all over the ground.
The cops weren’t able to kill the joy because it was Wino’s private party, it was on private land, and besides, he’d taken care to invite all the neighbors. Back then, in Arroyo Seco, “okie” still meant white-trash from Oklahoma and didn’t refer to a tannic Chardonnay with vanilla notes that’s spent too much time on French oak, and nobody cared all that much about the commotion.
Two of Wino’s guests that night, Buddy and Candy, enjoyed themselves immensely, and decided to buy their own place in the country. Candy had lots of money; and issues! She bought the old Melen Ranch that lay in between the Hastings Reserve, where I lived, and the Tregea Ranch, up Martin Road, so we got to be neighbors! Buddy was a knuckle-head who liked to beat the solutions out any problems he encountered in life. He was too much the loose cannon to ever make the cut for an esteemed outfit like the Hells Angles, but Buddy rode with them when he wasn’t in jail or occupied with his own “1% motorcycle club,” The Losers, who were based out of Seaside and Marina.
Buddy had a half-wit, hare-lipped, half-brother named Darrell who was just smart enough to keep balanced on his chopper when he rode with the Losers. It was when he wasn’t riding that Darrell ran into trouble. He fell off hike bike into bed with Candy one night, by mistake, and then Buddy came into the room and found the two of them trysted in a knot, so he beat Darrell half to death. Candy ran off into the night, made her way through the weeds and brush over the hill to Hastings, and showed up on our doorstep sobbing that Buddy was going to kill her too. She begged my father to save her. (Bear in mind that this is same party-pooper father of mine that hadn’t let me to play naked blind man’s bluff with Wino Joe a year earlier.) Dad suggested that maybe he ought to call the cops, but Candy said, “Oh, no! Boo-hoo-hoo! Because then they might arrest Buddy!”
Buddy was the kind of guy you had to take seriously when he made death threats. He looked like Marlon’s Johnny could only wish to look like– a real Hun, with red eyes, blurry tattoos, long Jesus hair, a forked beard, and greasy jeans held up by a motorcycle chain. The cops arrested Buddy anyway, not because he beat up his brother and threatened his wife’s life, but because an unrelated assault Buddy perpetrated against a well digger who’d “looked” at Candy. During Buddy’s incarceration, Candy got lonely so she started screwing around with some Hells Angels. The Angels brought a 50 caliber machine gun out to the Ranch and had fun shooting it at ancient old oak trees and deer, old pick-up trucks in the dump, and so on. For a while our little canyon sounded like the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.
Then Buddy got out of the slammer and came home to Candy. He had a big party to celebrate his freedom, but he got too twisted and crashed his bike on one of the few straight stretches upper Carmel Valley Road has to offer, and died. Some people are simply allergic to money. If Candy had been poor white trash, instead of a slumming rich girl, Buddy would have had to steal for a living and he’d probably still be alive today, fat and sassy in Soledad, with an active social life in the Aryan Brotherhood. Oh well.
Candy never got cold at night. She took up with the Angels again, and married one right away. This was at exactly the same time as the government was preparing for a maxi-trial against the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, and even Sonny Barger, the club president, was indicted. My father’s friend, Jim Farlinger, a Monterey Presbyterian Church organist and the owner of Farlinger’s Funeral Home in Monterey, had the honor of officiating over the burial ceremony that sent Buddy on his final ride off to Valhalla. Candy wanted an open casket ceremony, so on a foggy afternoon, with the smell of eucalyptus leaves and Harley exhaust mingling in the sea-salt air of the cemetery down behind Dennis The Menace Park in Monterey, Losers and Angels gathered together to give their last respects to a fallen brother. They lined up and filed past the coffin, dropping in mementos and items that Buddy would need in his afterlife; knives, hash pipes, bongs, baggies of weed, speed, coke and tabs of blotter acid. “And,” Mr. Farlinger said,” lots and lots of guns.”
Once you’re dead and buried, it just about takes an act of Congress, plus the permission of your spouse, for officers of the state to exhume your body. The government wanted to prove that the Hells Angels MC was a criminal organization that enforced control over its share of the drug trade by murder, but their Federal maxi trial of over thirty senior club officials ran into trouble in part because they had no murder weapons to introduce as evidence. If the Feds had asked, Candy, who was already married to the mob, certainly wasn’t going to give them permission to dig her Buddy up and claw through his bones for the evidence they needed to put her new squeeze away. Instead, Candy put the Melen Ranch up as collateral for a truly huge bail bond, and in the end, most, if not all, of the Angels flew the coop. The Melen Ranch was sold, and sold again, and now the land is part of the Hastings Reserve.
My peripheral contact with the Wild Ones wasn’t quite over. When I was in college I worked for several years setting up stages and unloading trucks for rock & roll concert promoters around the Sacramento area. We did a Waylon Jennings/ Hank Williams Jr. concert, for Charlie Magoo Presents, which was owned and operated by the Rodeo Chapter of the Hells Angels, from down by Vallejo. I was dispatched early to meet the caterer’s van and un-load it. There was Tule fog down to the ground that morning. As I waited in the parking lot, lost in a total white-out, waiting for the van, I heard the rumble of two Harley’s circling, trying to find the arena. When by accident, we finally almost collided, I got a chance to meet my bosses for the day, “Tiny” a 6’4″ 300 pound gentleman and his sidekick “Dump Truck,” who was so big he made Tiny look like one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs. Dump Truck had ridden all the way up from Rodeo in the fog wearing nothing but his colors, open at the front to give his beer gut room to breath. Nowadays it seems like every soccer mom has a unicorn tattooed on her ankle, but Dump Truck had a death’s head tattooed on his chest the size of a garbage can lid and it was impressive.
The van arrived, and we unloaded all the party supplies– case after case of Jack Daniels. The meeting of the minds that occurred later in the day when Wayon’s Waylors Band and the Hank Williams band got tangled up with the Angels and a Ford Econoline’s worth of whiskey was something to behold and a party to remember, but that’s another story. So much for life in Lake Wobegon. -Andy
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
photo above by Graydon G. Griffin circa 1963 of Andy Griffin, age 4. He was at his grandparents house, it’s where we live now. -julia
“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.